Icon for City and Country
The Sydney Opera House is made up of three groups of interlocking “vaulted shells” housing two primary concert auditorium spaces. The shell-like structures sit upon a large platform, encompassed on the outside by stepped terraces as staging or assembly areas for visitors.
On 20 October 1973, Queen Elizabeth II formally opened The Opera House. Forty years on, the building is an icon for both Sydney and Australia. The building endures as a “landmark” and “ambassador” for both city and country. Immediately telling are the roof’s white shells, looking like wind-blown sails at a distance in the harbour.
Danish architect Jørn Utzon won the design competition in 1957 for the building. His brilliance was the ability to combine various elements of nature with the immediate surroundings of the physical site in the interplay among land, air, and water to “conspire and construct” a structure which would attract people into the facility and yet, simultaneously drawing people’s eyes from the building’s interior outwards to the sky, the sea, and the surrounding city.
How the present-day roof came to be has its own history, as Geraldine Brooks wrote in The New Yorker:
… The premature start (to the construction) meant, for instance, that piers needed to support the roof were sunk in place before the roof design was resolved. Utzon had drawn free-form sculptural shapes that the project engineers, Ove Arup & Partners, struggled in vain to convert into buildable solutions. Utzon, still living in Denmark, prowled his father’s shipyard. He thought about a saying of his father’s: “Here in the dockyard you construct and produce what you can’t buy, what is not to be had, what is necessary.” The large curves of the hulls gave him an idea: all of the Opera House’s roof shells could be generated from a single sphere. The solution was not only buildable; it allowed complex elements to be prefabricated using a small number of simple forms, as in his beloved Sung-dynasty manual. Excited, he returned to his studio and explained the idea to an assistant by cutting all the necessary shell-shaped segments from the skin of a single orange. However, the impact of the new design on the Sydney site was rather less elegant: the piers weren’t in the right places to bear the loads imposed by the new geometry. For several days, downtown Sydney shook from the explosions as the piers were blasted out and redone.
A “Fruit Sphere” Solution
What does an orange have to do with the roof of the Opera House? A simple at-home experiment provides an answer.
Take a smooth round orange (or grapefruit), and slice the fruit in half.
Place one of the halves with the flat-side down onto a flat counter or table top.
Carefully cut from the peel four triangular-wedges of different sizes.
The four pieces have two things in common: (1) they’re all obviously made of the same material, and (2) despite their different sizes, all four pieces have the same radius of curvature, as each piece has been cut from the same peel or surface of the fruit (from the same sphere).
From RIBA’s (Royal Institute of British Architects) “Demonstration model of the opera house”:
The roof structure of Utzon’s competition-winning design could not be built as planned as the shell forms of the roof were irregular and structurally unsound. Utzon’s solution was to take all the forms from a single sphere, as shown in this demonstration model. This allowed all the shell components to be calculated and then prefabricated.
and from DeDeCe blog and The Opera House Project:
The simplicity of the idea appealed very much to Utzon. It would mean that not only the building’s form could be prefabricated from a repetitive geometry, but that a uniform pattern could also be achieved for the tiling of the exterior surface. It was the binding discovery that allowed for the distinctive characteristics of Sydney Opera House to be finally realised. The vaulted arches, the exceptionally beautiful finish of the tiles and the timeless sail-like silhouette of the house all derive from his decision to move the form to a spherical geometry.”
“Key to the Shells”, Jørn Utzon, 1961 – photo by JoanJoc
On the plaque outside the Opera House (shown above) appears a quote from Jørn Utzon:
“… after three years of intensive search for a basic geometry for the shell complex I arrived in October 1961 at the spherical solutions shown here. I call this my ‘key to the shells’ because it solves all the problems of construction by opening up to mass production, precision in manufacture and simple erection and with this geometrical system I attain full harmony between all the shapes in this fantastic complex.”
Pritzker Prize & UNESCO Designation
Political issues forced Utzon to leave both project and Australia, but reconciliation eventually came between architect and country. Utzon was in 2003 awarded architecture’s greatest honour, the Pritzker Prize, for which the prize jury stated:
… There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world—a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.
In 2007, UNESCO recognized the site’s importance and heritage value to modern architectural history by listing the Opera House as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Opera House was the youngest cultural site at 33 years of age to be included on the World Heritage List, and one of only two cultural sites listed while the building’s architect was still alive. Utzon died one year later in 2008, never having returned to Australia to visit the completed building. Even from afar, The Opera House never strayed far from his thoughts.
My photos, my memories
I first set foot in Sydney and Australia in 2007. Whenever I’m in the city for any length of time, I’m compelled to return to Sydney Cove. The sight of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House tells me all is right in this part of the world. If Sydney becomes home one day, home won’t be complete without those two landmarks.
Open jaw at Bennelong Point
“PLAY” by Spinifex Group, VIVID Sydney
City skyline from Sydney Cove
Afternoon glow with the Harbour Bridge’s shadow
Louis Kahn once wrote that:
“The sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off this building.”
and in 2003, Jørn Utzon was pleased that:
“To me it is a great joy to know how much the building is loved, by Australians in general and by Sydneysiders in particular.”
• The full article by Geraldine Brooks for The New Yorker about Utzon’s story, conflict, exile from the project, and subsequent reconciliation with the Sydney Opera House appears here.
• For additional highlights from the 2013 VIVID Sydney festival, click here.
Except the second photo by Joanjoc, I made the remaining photos on visits between 2007 and 2013 inclusive. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.