Sydney Opera House – Did You Know…

play with light morning

… That the architect of Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon never saw his finished masterpiece in real life?

He was a relatively unknown 38 year old Dane until January 29, 1957 when his entry, scheme number 218, was announced winner of the ‘International competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney’. With his vision the City of Sydney was to become an international city.

Sydney Opera House

Jørn Utzon was born on April 9,1918 in Copenhagen. He grew up in the town of Aalborg, where his father was a naval architect and engineer and director of the local shipyard. A keen sailor, Utzon originally intended to follow his father as a naval engineer, but opted to study Architecture at the Copenhagen Royal Academy of Arts. He received his Diploma in Architecture from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen. On graduating in 1942, he worked in Sweden until the end of World War II. He was influenced by Gunnar Asplund and Later Alvar Aalto, with whom he worked in Finland for a short period after the war. In 1949 he received a grant that enabled him and his wife Lis to travel extensively in USA and Mexico, coming into contact with some of the most influential architects of his day, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s school at Taliesin, Mies van der Rohe, Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Neutra and others. He was also in Paris meeting with Le Corbusier and the sculptor Henri Laurens, whose influence taught him much about form.

A major project took him to Morocco; unfortunately the project was not realized, but he used the opportunity to walk along the Atlas mountain range, where he was very inspired by the indigenous adobe architecture. He returned to Copenhagen in 1950 to open his own architectural practice.

In 1956 the New South Wales Premier, The Hon Joe Cahill, announced an international competition for the design of an opera house for Sydney which attracted more than 200 entries from around the world. After having won number of smaller architectural competitions, Utzon submitted his vision for the Sydney Opera House to the New South Wales Government.


Story goes that during the judging of the competition one of the judges, renowned American architect, Eero Saarinen, arrived in Sydney after the other three judges had started assessing the entries. He looked through their rejected entries and stopped at the Utzon design declaring it to be outstanding.

Utzon’s competition entry was a schematic design, clearly explaining the concept for the building. The sketches and “geometrically undefined” curves of course needed to be developed for the building to be built. This is quite normal for competition projects. Utzon himself was sure it could be built and in the pioneering spirit present in Sydney at the time, construction went ahead.

It was Utzon’s life and travels that had shaped his ideas for the Sydney Opera House. Though he had never visited the site, he used his maritime background to study naval charts of Sydney harbour. His early exposure to shipbuilding provided the inspiration for the Sydney Opera House ‘sails’ and would also help him solve the challenges of their construction. From his travels to Mexico, he had the idea of placing his building on a wide horizontal platform.


Construction of the podium began on 2 March 1959 with a ground breaking ceremony presided over by NSW Premier The Hon Joe Cahill. Over several years Utzon gradually made changes from his original concept designs in order to develop a way to construct the large shells that cover the two halls. After extensive testing, Utzon and engineer Ove Arup developed a design based on the complex sections of a sphere.

From 1964 the pre-cast rib vaults of the shells began to be erected on the completed podium. The construction of the roof brought together some of the world’s best construction engineers and craftsmen for this complex stage of the project, devising new and innovative techniques to find the goal of architectural perfection and in doing so, create a major visual impact which delivered Utzon’s vision.

Although Utzon had spectacular plans for the interior of the completed shells he was unable to realise this part of his design. In mid 1965 a new Liberal government was elected in the State of NSW. The Minster of Works Davis Hughes began questioning Utzon’s designs, schedules and cost estimates and eventually stopped payments to Utzon who was forced to withdraw as chief architect in February 1966.

Following Utzon’s letter of resignation there were protests and marches through the streets of Sydney led by Australian architect Harry Seidler, author Patrick White and others, demanding Utzon be reinstated as architect. The NSW government did not offer him this role, Jørn Utzon left the country at the end of April 1966 with his family, never to return to see his masterpiece again.


When Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973, Utzon was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Architects Australia but was not present at the opening ceremony.

After his work on Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon completed other architectural projects such as the Can Lis in Majorca (1972), the Paustian Furniture Store in Copenhagen (1987) and Can Feliz in Majorca (1995). The principles behind his renowned Bagsværd Church (1976) in the suburbs of Copenhagen and his parliament building in Kuwait (1983) can be traced directly back to his original vision for Sydney Opera House.

In 1999 the NSW Government and Sydney Opera House Trust were delighted to be able to reunite the man and his masterpiece. After a number of approaches, conversations and finally meetings, Utzon agreed to be re-engaged to develop a set of Design Principles to act as a permanent reference to guide all future changes to the building.


Utzon said of the Design Principles, published in 2002, “My job is to articulate the overall vision and detailed design principles for the site, and for the form of the building and its interior”.

“I like to think the Sydney Opera House is like a musical instrument, and like any fine instrument, it needs a little maintenance and fine tuning, from time to time, if it is to keep on performing at the highest level.”

The reconciliation with the Sydney Opera House in 1999 brought Utzon great pleasure. In 2003, the same year the Opera House celebrated its 30th birthday, Jørn Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, the highest award in its field. A year later on 16 September 2004, NSW Premier The Hon Bob Carr officially opened the newly refurbished Reception Hall, renamed the Utzon Room. When asked if he would agree to the room being named after him Utzon said it was the greatest honour he could ever receive. “It (the naming) gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don’t think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get and have got.” With its wide, bare spaces, its colourful tapestry (designed by Utzon himself), pale timbered floor and a ceiling of folded concrete beams, it was exactly as he had dreamed it.

Since the opening of the Utzon Room in 2004, which is the first authentic Utzon interior in the building, Jørn Utzon was the architect for several other projects at Sydney Opera House, collaborating with his architect son Jan Utzon and Australian architect Richard Johnson on The Colonnade, the Accessibility and Western Foyers Project and the concept designs for the Opera Theatre Renewal Project.

The Colonnade was the first exterior change to the building since it opened. Nine openings were created along the Harbour Bridge side of Sydney Opera House into the shared foyers for the Playhouse, The Studio and Drama Theatre – six new large deep set windows and three glass doors. The foyers are now flooded with natural light and for the first time patrons in these venues can enjoy harbour and city views.

The Colonnade was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in March 2006. Importantly, this opportunity was used by the Queen to formally recognise the building’s visionary architect, Jørn Utzon. Jan Utzon represented his father in the Colonnade opening ceremony, saying his father “is too old by now to take the long flight to Australia. But he lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it.”

Utzon’s work included collaborating on the Accessibility and Western Foyers Project, completed in 2009, which has greatly improved accessibility for visitors to Sydney Opera House. He also created concept designs for a more extreme interior renewal project, which principally aims to alleviate some of the current constraints in staging and performance in the Opera Theatre.


When this project was announced in August 2006, Utzon said, “From my point of view, and our point of view as architects, we want to give spectators and visitors to the Opera House a beautiful extra experience and we are so happy to have this opportunity to create such a lively, marvellous atmosphere.”

Jørn Utzon died peacefully in his sleep in Copenhagen on 29 November 2008 aged 90. His legacy lives on through the World Heritage listed Sydney Opera House and his Design Principles as a permanent record of his vision for the place, as well as the many other magnificent structures he designed around the world.

The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.” American architect, Louis Kahn

Pictures: A Momma’s View



8 thoughts on “Sydney Opera House – Did You Know…

  1. I’ve always wondered about the history of that iconic building. Now I know. Thanks for the history lesson! It’s a shame he was dismissed from the project for awhile. At least it was known he was the man for the project by everyone else was invited back later.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing how government leaders can be so short-sighted. This beautiful and iconic structure is known the world over and is immediately identified with Sydney, its harbor, and other structures that surround and highlight the city, at least as far as I’ve seen them on TV. It seems so new and modern that I didn’t realize how old it actually is. It inspired me to dig up some info on a similarly iconic structure in my “hometown” of Los Angeles, one that was not completed until after I had moved away. I’m not a big music fan anyway, and generally avoid downtown L.A. if at all possible when I’m back visiting, but the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a modern icon there. Here’s a description that shows how strikingly similar but really very different these two concert halls are.

    Squint your eyes, and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles looks like a gleaming clipper ship, its sails filled with wind. The stainless steel exterior forms, which were in fact inspired by Gehry’s love of sailing, have now become iconic. While many people first became familiar with Gehry through his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, his design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall actually predates the Bilbao commission. However, Gehry continued to redesign the Disney Concert Hall for more than a decade, while unexpected delays postponed construction.

    Gehry’s innovative forms were a new and unfamiliar challenge for contractors. Gehry ultimately found a solution equal to his design: he employed software used in the design and construction of French fighter jets. Called CATIA (computer-sided three-dimensional interactive application), this software translates Gehry’s organic forms, panel by panel, into buildable construction plans. Such a bold exterior could give the impression that what’s inside is equally out of the box. But surprisingly, the concert hall itself, by Gehry’s own description, is just that: a highly functional box, wrapped in his now-trademark sail-like forms.

    That’s not to say that the interior is not an accomplishment in its own right. Gehry designed the auditorium to provide both impeccable acoustics and a sense of intimacy, wrapping the audience around the orchestra.

    Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall stands out as a truly unique architectural vision, demonstrating that something new and completely different is possible. I think the Sydney Opera House could be similarly described!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 52 Weeks Photo Challenge: Week 27 – Architecture | A Momma's View

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