Sydney Architecture Images- Circular Quay and area

Sydney Opera House


1957-63 Joern Utzon (Stage 1) 
1963-73 (NSWGA), Hall Todd & Littlemore 
(Stage 2) - interiors and glass walls) 
Engineers: Ove Arup & Partners 


Bennelong Point (on the site previously)




Late 20th-Century Structuralist


reinforced concrete, white tiles 65 m 213 ft 


  Above- visit of HRH The Queen in 2006.
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- Along with the Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House is the city's most recognized structure. 
- On January 29, 1957 Jorn Utzon was declared the winning architect of the design competition out 233 worldwide entries. 
- Construction began in March 1959. 
- The tip of the tallest shell reaches 67.4m (222ft) above Sydney Harbour, which equates to half the height of the nearby Harbour Bridge (134m). 
- The Sydney Opera House boasts 20,000 light fittings. Its gleaming white sails comprise 1,057,000 Swedish tiles. 
- The magnificent site of the Opera House was originally Bennelong Point tram depot which opened in 1902. During the 1950s Sydney's trams were gradually phased out in favour of buses and the tram shed became redundant. It was demolished in 1958 to make way for the building of the Sydney Opera House. 
- Uses 6225 square metres of glass and 645 kilometres of electric cable. 
- Opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. 
- Over two million people attend performances here annually. 
- Joern Utzon's design was chosen from 233 entries in the 1956 international competition. 
- The Sydney Opera House was put on the State Heritage Register on December 3, 2003. 
- The building occupies an area of 1.8 hectares whilst the roof is comprised of 2,914 pre-cast segments weighing in total some 26,700 tonnes. 
- In 2001 the architect Jørn Utzon was called upon in the capacity of consultant to oversee the refurbishment of his building. 

The Sydney Opera House is located at 33°51′25″S, 151°12′55″E in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. It is one of the most distinctive and famous 20th century buildings, and one of the most famous performing arts venues in the world. Situated on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, with parkland to its south and close to the enormous Sydney Harbour Bridge, the building and its surroundings form an iconic Australian image. To some the spherical-sectioned shells remind them of the flotilla of sailboats commonly cruising there. Tourists - mostly with little or no interest in opera - throng to the building in their thousands every week purely to see it.

As well as many touring theatre, ballet, and musical productions the Opera House is the home of Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It is administered by the Opera House Trust, under the New South Wales (NSW) Ministry of the Arts.


The Sydney Opera House has about 1000 rooms, including five theatres, five rehearsal studios, two main halls, four restaurants, six bars and numerous souvenir shops.

The roofs of the House are constructed of 1,056,000 glazed white granite tiles, imported from Sweden. Despite their self-cleaning nature, they are still subject to periodic maintenance and replacement. The House interior is composed of pink granite mined from Tarana, NSW and wood and brush box plywood supplied from northern NSW.

The five constituent theatres of the Sydney Opera House are the Concert Hall (with a seating capacity of 2,679), the Opera Theatre (1,547 seats), the Drama Theatre (544 seats), the Playhouse (398 seats) and the Studio Theatre (364 seats). The smallest building is home to the Bennelong Restraunt.

The Concert Hall contains the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ, the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world with over 10,000 pipes.

The theatres are housed in a series of large shells, conceived by dissecting a hemisphere. The Concert Hall and Opera Theatre are contained in the largest shells, and the other theatres are located on the sides of the shells. Large free public performances have also often been staged in front of the Monumental Steps that lead up to the base of the main sets of shells. A much smaller set of shells set to one side of the Monumental steps houses one of the formal dining restaurants.


The Sydney Opera House can be said to have had its beginning during the late 1940s in the endeavours of Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music at the time, who lobbied to have a suitable venue for large theatrical productions built. At the time, the normal venue for such productions was the Sydney Town Hall, but this venue was simply not large enough. By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house.

It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site for the Opera House. Cahill had wanted it to be on or near the Wynyard Railway Station, located in the north-western Sydney CBD.

The competition that Cahill organised received 233 entries. The basic design that was finally accepted in 1955 was submitted by Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. Utzon arrived in Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project.

The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot, occupying the site at the time of these plans, was demolished in 1958, and formal construction of the Opera House began in March, 1959. The project was built in three stages. Stage I (1959–1963) consisted of building the upper podium. Stage II (1963–1967) saw the construction of the outer shells. Stage III consisted of the interior design and construction (1967–73).

Stage I was started on December 5, 1958, and work commenced on the podium on May 5, 1959 by the firm of Civil & Civic. The government had pushed for work to begin so early because they were afraid funding, or public opinion, might turn against them. However major structural issues still plagued the design (most notably the sails, which were still parabolic at the time).

By January 23, 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind, mainly due to unexpected difficulties (wet weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper engineering drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents). Work on the podium was finally completed on August 31, 1962.

Stage II, the shells were originally designed as a series of parabolas, however engineers Ove Arup and partners had not been able to find an acceptable solution to constructing them. In mid 1961 Utzon handed the engineers his solution to the problem, the shells all being created as ribs from a sphere of the same radius. This not only satisfied the engineers, and cut down the project time drastically from what it could have been (it also allowed the roof tiles to be prefabricated in sheets on the ground, instead of being stuck on individually in mid-air), but also created the wonderful shapes so instantly recognisable today. Ove Arup and partners supervised the construction of the shells, estimating on April 6, 1962 that it would be completed between August 1964 and March 1965. By the end of 1965, the estimated finish for stage II was July 1967.

Stage III, the interiors, started with Utzon moving his entire office to Sydney in February 1963. However, there was a change of government in 1965, and the new Askin government declared that the project was now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works. In October 1965, Utzon gave the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, a schedule setting out the completion dates of parts of his work for stage III. Significantly, Hughes withheld permission for the construction of plywood prototypes for the interiors (Utzon was at this time working closely with Ralph Symonds, an inventive and progressive manufacturer of plywood, based in Sydney). This eventually forced Utzon to leave the project on February 28, 1966. He said that Hughes' refusal to pay Utzon any fees and the lack of collaboration caused his resignation, and later famously described the situation as "Malice in Blunderland". In March 1966, Hughes offered him a reduced role as 'design architect', under a panel of executive architects, without any supervisory powers over the House's construction but Utzon rejected this.

The cost of the project, even in October of that year, was still only $22.9 million, less than a quarter of the final cost.

Construction after Utzon
The second stage of construction was still in process when Utzon was forced to resign. His position was principally taken over by Peter Hall, who became largely responsible for the interior design. Other persons appointed that same year to replace Utzon were E.H. Farmer as government architect, D.S. Littlemore and Lionel Todd.

The four significant changes to the design after Utzon left were:

The cladding to the podium and the paving (the podium was originally not to be clad down to the water, but left open. Also the paving chosen was different from what Utzon would have chosen) 
The construction of the glass walls (Utzon was planning to use a system of prefabricated plywood mullions, and although eventually a quite inventive system was created to deal with the glass, it is different from Utzon's design) 
Use of the halls (The major hall which was originally to be a multipurpose opera/concert hall, became solely a concert hall. The minor hall, originally for stage productions only, had the added function of opera to deal with. Two more theatres were also added. This completely changed the layout of the interiors, where the stage machinery, already designed and fitted inside the major hall, was pulled out and largely thrown away) 
The interior designs: Utzon's plywood corridor designs, and his acoustic and seating designs for the interior of both halls, were scrapped completely. More importantly Utzon considered acoustics from the start of design. These designs were subsequently modelled and found to be acoustically perfect. As such the current internal organization is sub-optimal. 
The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, at a cost of $102 million. The original cost estimate in 1957 was £3,500,000 ($7 million). The original completion date set by the government was January 26, 1963.

The Opera House was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. The opening was televised and included fireworks and a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Prior to the opening, two performances had already taken place there. On September 28, 1973, a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace was played at the Opera Theatre. On September 29, the first public concert in the Concert Hall took place. It was performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras and with accompanying singer Birgit Nilsson.

After the opening

Sails of the Opera House with Harbour Bridge in background and the Monumental Steps in the foreground
By 1975, the substantial construction bill for the Opera House had been finally paid off, largely through a public lottery system.

The House has been subject to some additions and improvements since its opening in 1973. The pipe organ in the Concert Hall was not completed until 1979. In 1988, a two-level walkway along the western side of Bennelong Point was added as part of Australia's bicentenary celebrations. In 1999, a fifth theatre, the Playhouse, was added to the Opera House.

In 1997, French urban climber, Alain "Spiderman" Robert, using only his bare hands and feet and with no safety devices, scaled the building's exterior wall all the way to the top.

It received attention during Sydney 2000 Olympics. It was included in the Olympic Torch route to the Olympic stadium, and involved Australian swimmer Samantha Riley standing on top of the Opera House waving the Olympic torch. It was the backdrop of some Olympic events, including the triathlon—which began at the Opera House—and the yachting events on Sydney Harbour.

Security at the Opera House has increased as the result of the likelihood of it attracting attention of terrorists because the Australian Government's support of the invasion of Iraq. This security did not prevent two climbers painting a "No War" slogan at the top of one sail in March 2003. The repair bill for this was later revealed to be over $100,000.

Following an arrangement made in 1999, plans were made to change Hall's internal design of the Opera House to that of Utzon's. The redesign involves the house's reception hall and opera theatre, and will be supervised by Utzon. As Utzon is too old to travel by plane, he undertakes the supervision from his home in Majorca. Allowances will be made for modern day technology and requirements. In September 2004, the redesign of the Reception Hall of the opera house was completed, but is now only rarely available for public inspection.

Further reading
Hubble, Ava, The Strange Case of Eugene Goossens and Other Tales from The Opera House, Collins Publishers, Australia, 1988. 
(Ava Hubble was Press Officer for the SOH for fifteen years).

John, Alan and Watkins, Dennis, The Story of the Opera House is told in an opera called The Eighth Wonder 
Duek-Cohen, Elias, Utzon and the Sydney Opera House, Morgan Publications, Sydney, 1967-1998. 
(a small publication originally intended to gather public opinion to bring Utzon back to the project).

An extraordinary site on Sydney Harbour at Bennelong Point, an ambitious state Premier (Joseph J Cahill), a visiting American architect (Eero Saarinen) and a young Dane’s billowy sketches (Joern Utzon) were the key factors which generated one of the world’s most important modern buildings. 

Designed at the vast scale of the harbour itself, its low edges contain enough visual appeal for human interest. More remarkable is that the scheme makes no reference to history or to classical architectural forms. The roof is more important than the walls, consequently the language of walls - columns, divisions, windows and pediments - has been effectively dispensed with. As a public building, it conceals its usage in its lack of historical associations, and restores the concept of the ‘monument’ as being acceptable in social terms. 

The Sydney Opera House also embodies timeless popular metaphors. The building’s organic shape and lack of surface decoration have made it both timeless and ageless. Moreover, it demonstrates how buildings can add to environmental experience rather than detract from it - something of spiritual value independent of function. 

The building and the setting look orchestrated, and the synergy between the setting and the building make it appear that the scheme actually involved flooding the harbour valley to set the building off to best advantage. 

Despite so much richness, the building has had virtually no influence on the shape and form of Australian buildings which followed. It remains something of an enigma which crowns the silent collapse of Western Classical architecture from being the one language for great public buildings. 

Joern Utzon’s historic resignation causes a furore and divided the Sydney architecture profession. There were rallies and marches to Sydney Town Hall led by architects such as Peter Killar and Harry Seidler; other architects resigned their profession and became teachers, chefs, film makers and artists in protest, and the Victorian Chapter of the RAIA (but not NSW) black banned the replacement of Uzton by an Australian architect. 

However, as with Governor Macquarie, Greenway, Light, Barnet and Griffin before him, Utzon’s vision had exceeded the norm. The immense difficulties of achievement were seen as a waste and the importance of controlling the state’s expenditure won the day. On 19 April 1966, the new architectural team (Lionel Todd, David Littlemore, and Peter Hall) was appointed in a whirlpool of debate. 

Information appearing in this section is reproduced from Sydney Architecture, with the kind permission of the author, Graham Jahn, a well-known Sydney architect and former City of Sydney Councillor. Sydney Architecture, rrp $35.00, is available from all good book stores or from the publisher, Watermark Press, Telephone: 02 9818 5677. 

Located on the prominent peninsula of Bennelong Point in the heart of Sydney's central business district, the Sydney Opera House faces north into Sydney Harbour. Visually juxtaposed against the strong curves of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House adjoins the city's historic Royal Botanic Gardens and overlooks Circular Quay, the transport hub of Sydney's ferries, trains and buses. 

Jrn Utzon's design for the Sydney Opera House consists of a monumental platform surfaced with ochre granite, a massive horizontal base that contrasts with the white-tiled sail-like roofs. Its public spaces and promenades have a majestic quality endowed by powerful structural forms. A huge external stairway up the platform to the performance venues is an important element designed for a grand approach on foot. The publicly-accessible Broadwalk around the building allows pedestrians to promenade and appreciate the ever-changing outlook. Huge expanses of glazing provide dramatic views into and out of the foyers. As an icon of modern architecture it combines an expressive freedom of form with the precise technology of the machine age. 

The NSW Government's international design competition brief of 1957 that resulted in the Sydney Opera House was visionary but vague. As the project materialized, the full extent of the functions of the complex had to be worked out, just as the problems inherent in the sculptural conception of Utzon's winning design had to be overcome. Inspired decisions by Utzon and the engineer Ove Arup to use vaulted concrete ribs based on the geometry of the sphere, and cast on site, achieved a brilliantly practical solution to the problem of roof construction. Australian architectural historian Max Freeland stated: "This Sydney Opera House was a voyage of architectural and engineering discovery in which new oceans were charted, new frontiers of knowledge and technology were conquered and the resources of science and technology were employed to solve design, erection and quality of finish problems beyond the capacity of conventional methods" (Freeland 1983). 

Utzon's plan set the two largest performance venues side by side upon the platform. This made possible his dramatic sculptural elevations but came at a functional cost: the loss of conventional side and backstage space. Instead, access was contrived from below, using a broad passage under the platform at ground level. Utzon explained: "The idea has been to let the platform cut through like a knife, and separate primary and secondary functions completely. On top of the platform the spectators receive the completed work of art and beneath the platform every preparation for it takes place" (DEST, 1996, 62) 

The Sydney Opera House encompasses a complexity of structures including the Concert Hall, the Opera Theatre, the Drama Theatre and Playhouse, the Studio, administration areas and restaurants. The Concert Hall, the home of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, is the largest venue. It seats 2,690 patrons and has a fine mechanical-action pipe organ. Birch plywood, formed into radiating ribs on the suspended hollow raft ceiling, extends down the walls to meet laminated brush box linings which match the floor. In the harbour foyer is John Olsen's acclaimed mural "Five Bells", itself inspired by a poem about the harbour by Kenneth Slessor. The Opera Theatre seats 1,547 people and is the performance base for Opera Australia. It is also used by the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company. It features black-stained ceilings and walls and red leather upholstery, although its acclaimed proscenium curtain designed by John Coburn, the "Curtain of the Sun", has been removed at least temporarily for repair. The Drama Theatre' s"Curtain of the Moon", also designed by John Coburn, is also removed at least temporarily. This theatre and the Playhouse are both theatrical venues and are primarily used by the Sydney Theatre Company. The Studio is the Sydney Opera House's newest performing space, having opened in March 1999, and is used for innovative and contemporary productions. There are also facilities for cinema, exhibitions, meetings, lectures, rehearsals, administration, restaurants and ancillary functions.


The Sydney Opera House is sited on the peninsular of Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, part of the site of Australia's first European settlement at Sydney Cove near the contemporary Sydney CBD. Bennelong Point has extensive associations with many important themes in Australian history, including: the arrival of the First Fleet of British convicts in Sydney Cove in 1788, Aboriginal and European contact, scientific investigation, defence, picturesque planning, marine and urban transport and most recently, cultural showcasing. 

During the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the present Sydney Harbour was a complex river valley extending about 25 kilometres further east before meeting the ocean. Material in rock shelters reveals that Aboriginal people inhabited the surrounding region at least from that time. Some 6-7,000 years ago, melting ice had raised the sea-level to flood the valley system, to create a place approximating the present harbour, islands and foreshores and to cover any evidence of earlier human occupation along the valley floor (DEST & DUAP, 1996, 42) About 3,000 years ago there appears to have been a major population increase of Aboriginal people in the area (and elsewhere throughout Australia), suggested by the evidence of many camp sites that seem to have come into use from that time. Several different languages and dialects were spoken in the Sydney Harbour area before the arrival of the First Fleet. While 'Kuringgai' was the language spoken on the north shores, on the southern shores, including the peninsular now known as Bennelong Point, the language was 'Eora'. The Cardigal, who formed part of the Darug nation, were the Aboriginal traditional owners of this part of Sydney Harbour (Haglun, 1996, 135, 138). Bennelong Point was known to Aboriginal people as "Tyubow-gule" (Kerr, 1993, 1) or 'Jubgalee' (City of Sydney webpage). 

The foundation of Sydney Town allied with the effects of a smallpox epidemic in 1789-1791 caused a massive disintegration of Aboriginal social structure around Sydney within the first decade of colonisation. The indigenous concepts of the religious meaning of the landscape and its features were not recorded by the British. It is thought that water, fire and creatures of the sea would have played important roles here as for other areas nearby (Haglund, 1996, 137). Other information about Aboriginal culture in Sydney Harbour before British colonisation is embedded in physical traces of their activities. Fire was used to modify the environment to suit human needs, a form of land husbandry noted in the journals of British officers when they commented on the park-like appearance of the landscape (DEST & DUAP, 1996, 42). Other evidence ranges from debris left behind during the daily round of getting, preparing and eating food, to expressions of beliefs and social organisation. Both aspects are still represented within view of the Sydney Opera House in shell middens middens and rock engravings (Haglund, 1996, 134). The Royal Botanical Gardens near Bennelong Point commemorates the culture and lifestyle of the Cardigal people in its 'Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters' garden display (Royal Botanical Gardens website). 

The First Fleet arrived on the shores of NSW in January 1788 to form a British penal colony. Following Governor Arthur Phillip's decision that Botany Bay would not support the settlement, the ships began moving up the coast the few kilometres to Sydney Harbour. The HMAS Supply anchored at nightfall on Friday 25 January 1788 just inside Sydney Cove, about a cable's length from the eastern point of the cove that is now known as Bennelong Point. The rest of the fleet arrived the next day, 'Australia Day', 26 January 1788. Sloping and rocky, the eastern side of the cove was not attractive to habitation, although government cattle and horses were landed there temporarily. They remained until they had cropped what little pasture was available before being removed to a government farm nearby (Kerr, 1993, 1). 

Bennelong Point was originally a small tidal island that largely consisted of rocks with a small beach on the western side (Wikipedia online, 2005). First known unofficially as 'Cattle Point', early correspondents were soon referring to Bennelong Point as "the east point of the cove" and in common usage it briefly became 'East Point'. Its permanent name, however, arose indirectly from Phillip's attempts to become acquainted with the local Aboriginal people. In November 1879, because of his limited success, he took the drastic step of seizing two indigenous men: Coleby and Bennelong. Coleby soon escaped but Phillip endeavoured by 'kind treatment' to 'reconcile' Bennelong to the Europeans. Although Bennelong soon escaped he appears to have retained some regard for Phillip. He paid several visits to Government House with companions, and apparently requested the government to build him a house on the eastern point of the cove. Phillip agreed and in mid-November 1790 Bennelong took possession of a brick and tile hut at the extremity of the point, about four metres square (Kerr, 1993, 1). 

Contemporary sketches show the hut in exposed isolation on the point and from this time the headland has been known as Bennelong's Point. There is no evidence to suggest that Bennelong spent much time in the dwelling. He seems to have regarded the house more as a symbol of his importance than a place of residence. William Bradley gives an account of an evening's entertainment in March1791 provided by Bennelong at his house for the governor and his party, when 24 men, women and children danced to the accompaniment of beating sticks and hands. In December 1792 Bennelong and a young compatriot, Yem-mer-ran-wan-nie, departed for England with Phillip. Of the two Aboriginal men, only Bennelong survived the trip and it was not until 1795 that, homesick and unwell, he was able to return with the new governor, John Hunter. The trip helped to unsettle a volatile character and he died in1813, alienated from both Aboriginal and European cultures. During his English trip his house on Bennelong Point was hardly used and fell into disrepair. In March 1793 it was lent to a visiting Spanish expedition, which made astronomical observations from the point and stored their equipment in the dwelling. Bennelong's house was demolished in 1795 (Kerr, 1993, 2). 

Bennelong Point was also the site of the first defensive structures in the colony. A couple of months after the First Fleet's landing, Phillip had appointed marine officer William Dawes to construct a small redoubt on the east point at its northern tip. The work was completed by the end of the year and on New Year's day 1789 two guns were placed in position. However the battery had fallen into decay by 1791. Another battery was built in December 1798 but by 1800 it too was reported to be in a 'total state of decay'. No attempt was made to repair the work and instead the point was to become a de facto hospitality area for visiting survey and expedition vessels (Kerr, 1993, 2-3). Kerr comments helpfully on these early uses of the point: 

'If . . . Bennelong chose the site of his house, why was it in such an exposed location on the tip of the point, overlooked by headlands and ridges and visible from the waters of the harbour in three directions? In the absence of records of the local people's attitude to the point, it seems likely that Bennelong chose to give maximum visibility to the very solid evidence of the esteem in which he was held by the European visitors. The value of such a highly visible symbol of white benevolent intentions would not have escaped Phillip. . . Whatever the reason, the topological characteristics which made it attractive to Bennelong also made the vicinity useful for temporary defensive works and, when they were derelict, as a shore camp for visiting foreign expeditions. On the point, the foreigners could be held at a not inconvenient arm's length and at the same time be kept under easy surveillance' (Kerr, 1993, 3-4). 

Bennelong Point is close to the earliest known wreck in NSW waters. The Three Bees arrived in Sydney on 6 May 1814 with a cargo of 200 surviving male convicts. Two weeks later she caught fire at anchor in Sydney Cove, but all aboard managed to escape before her guns or magazine began to explode. With the rigging ablaze she was cut free but drifted back to shore, burning to the waterline during the night, and finally sinking in shallow water off Bennelong Point. Maritime archaeological survey work, conducted in preparation for the construction of the Sydney Harbour Tunnel in 1988, searched the area near the north west tip of Bennelong Point where it was supposed that the Three Bees had sunk, but no relics were found (Atkinson, 1988). 

The area encompassing Bennelong Point, the Botanical Gardens and Mrs Macquarie's Point had been reserved for the crown by Phillip, who meant it to continue free of encroachments. Under governors Hunter and King, however, a variety of leases and buildings were permitted. Thus in 1795 Governor Hunter agreed to a proposal by Mr John Boston to make salt at Bennelong Point. Boston was allocated seven convicts and constructed a small works on the west side of the point in a building that was known as the salt works, however the venture failed within months (Kerr, 1993, 2). When Governor Bligh took over in 1806 he cancelled these leases and had the buildings removed. Fortunately the next governor, Lachlan Macquarie, reinforced and completed the clearance. 'Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth did a lot more than return the government domain to its former shape: they also set out to embellish it' using their 'taste for the Picturesque' (Kerr, 1993, 4). 

In 1812 the Macquaries built a castellated cottage on the west side of Bennelong Point as a dwelling for an eccentric Jamaican emancipist, Billy Blue, who acted as a watchman and 'waterman'. More importantly, in 1818, the Macquaries commissioned the recently emancipated English architect Francis Greenway to design 'a Neat Handsome Fort' in sandstone on Bennelong Point. It was meant to prevent clandestine departures from Sydney as well as to repel surprise attacks from an enemy. Between 1818 to 1821, the tidal area between Bennelong Island and the mainland was filled with rocks excavated from the peninsula. The entire area was leveled to create a low platform and to provide suitable stone for the construction of Fort Macquarie. While the fort was being built, a large portion of the rocky escarpment at Bennelong Point was also cut away to allow a road to be built around the point from Sydney Cove to Farm Cove, known as Tarpeian Way (Wikipedia online, 2005). Completed in 1821, Fort Macquarie was 40 metres square with circular bastions on the four corners, and was entered by a bridge over a dry moat and an octagonal guard tower. Fort Macquarie provided a picturesque focal point on the harbour throughout the nineteenth century but was generally considered inadequate for military purposes - 'an ornamental and archaic toy' (Kerr, 1993, 9). A notable further use of the Fort commenced in 1858 with the firing of a gun each day precisely at 1pm to enable the rating of ships' chronometers (Kerr, 1993, 10). Presumably this also alerted Sydneysiders to their lunch. 

The Macquaries intended to build a grand governor's residence on Bennelong Point but only got as far as constructing the stables uphill, which were later converted to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. During the late 1820s, Governor Ralph Darling and his wife Eliza built a castellated bathing house with octagonal towers on Bennelong Point facing east, not far from Fort Macquarie (Kerr, 1993, 5-7). An 1839 guide to Sydney stated that 'the chief pride of this town is the excellent walks round the domain, passing Fort Macquarie'. Kerr points out that 'The "genius" of the Point was still considered to be most peculiarly Gothic and a generation of artists, amateur and professional, never tired of depicting its elements' (Kerr, 1993, 7). In1843 the present Government House was completed in Late Gothic style, positioned further uphill toward the stables than the site chosen by Macquarie. 

In 1860 a wharf was built on Bennelong Point for a ferry service crossing to the north side of the harbour at Milson's Point. This service became redundant with the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. Major longshore wool, mail and passenger wharves were also built during the 1880s, extending towards Circular Quay. In the late 1890s the western rampart of the fort was demolished, presumably to provide carriage access for burgeoning P&O passenger trade. From 1879 Sydney was increasingly serviced by a tramway network. By 1902 Fort Macquarie had been demolished, replaced by a tram shed designed to hold 72 of the city's largest trams. In deference to the picturesque associations of the site, the tram shed was designed by the NSW Department of Public Works in Gothic style. As Kerr describes it, 'the industrial saw-tooth roof was concealed behind crenelated parapet walls and the office and staff facilities were located in a north end with five apses in echelon - in the manner of the thirteenth century High Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Rheims and Beauvais. This surprising arrangement was surmounted by an asymmetrically placed tower in the government architect's best Neo-Gothic mode' (Kerr, 1993, 11). The tram shed remained in use until the 1950s when buses began to progressively replace trams throughout Sydney. 

Meanwhile the town planners Rosette Edmunds and Sydney Luker had convinced Eugene Goossens, the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, that Bennelong Point was a fine potential location for a performing arts centre (SMH 19/10/73, p.6; Freestone, 1995). In October 1948 Goossens published a plan for an opera house with an auditorium to accommodate up to 4,000 people on the site. This was an ambitious plan to emphasise 'high culture' in a most prominent part of the city. The idea did not gain political support until 1952 when the Labor premier of NSW, J.J. Cahill, announced the government's intention to build an opera house. The decision to invest in such a building at this time may be seen as a timely attempt to shift perceptions of Sydney from being a ex-penal colony in a far-flung corner of the British Empire to Sydney as a world city with its own cultural maturity. Town planning professor Denis Winston wrote at the time that: 

'The building of the new Opera House on one of the grandest urban sites in the world - the headland where Governor Macquarie's old Fort used to be - will be a visible symbol of the coming of age of the capital of the Mother State' (Winston, 1957, 19). 

In November 1954, Cahill appointed an 'Opera House Committee' to advise the government on ways to implement its intention to build an opera house. The committee - consisting of Goossens, Henry Ashworth (Sydney University's Professor of Architecture) and representatives of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Sydney City Council and the Department of Local Government - recommended Bennelong Point as the preferred site and an international competition to select the design. In January 1956 the NSW government announced the terms of a major international competition to design a 'national opera house' on Bennelong Point with two halls, each designed for a specific set of uses. No limits were set on the estimated cost of the project. This open-ended design brief attracted 933 registrations of interest from all over the world and more than 220 final submissions by architects from 32 countries. The judging panel consisted of Ashworth, John Leslie Martin (professor of Architecture at Cambridge UK), Cobden Parkes (the NSW Government Architect) and Eero Saarinen (the renowned Finnish architect). On January 29, 1957, the judges announced that Joern Utzon was the winner of the competition. There are conflicting views of what went on during the jury's deliberations but all agree that Saarinen was a strong advocate of the winning design (Kerr, 1993, 15). The jury stated, 'The drawings are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless we have returned again and again to the study of these drawings, we are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of being one of the great buildings of the world' (Sydney Opera House website, 2003). 

Both the architectural fraternity and the public were amazed by the design. Although there were a few dissenting voices, initially including Cahill's, most people found Utzon's design a spectacular and appropriate development for the site. Utzon, like other designers who had worked on Bennelong Point, was inspired by the site. It was clear that the building would be viewed from all angles - from water, land and air, that the Sydney Opera House was to be the focal point in a grand waterscape. Utzon drew on the form of Mayan temples for his solid, grand ceremonial platform with staircases, from which spring the shells or roof structure. Two of his guiding design principles were the use of organic forms from nature, and the creation of sensory experiences that would bring pleasure to the users of the place (Kerr, 2003, 44). As Utzon explained: 

'. . . Instead of making a square form, I have made a sculpture - a sculpture covering the necessary functions . . . If you think of a Gothic church, you are closer to what I have been aiming at. Looking at a Gothic church, you never get tired, you will never be finished with it - when you pass around it or see it against the sky . . . Something new goes on all the time . . . Together with the sun, the light and the clouds, it makes a living thing' (Kerr, 1993, 16). 

During public debate on a name for the building, concerns were expressed that the cost of admission would be too high for the average working family. Cahill had feared this perception and publicly promised that 'the building when erected will be available for the use of every citizen.' Furthermore, he declared, 'the Opera House will, in fact, be a monument to democratic nationhood in the fullest sense' (Kerr, 1993, 15). Rather than pay for the construction of the building from the usual tax revenues, Cahill announced the establishment of the 'Opera House Lottery' in September 1957. Over the next 16 years, the gambling public of NSW voluntarily contributed just over $100 million to the erection of the Sydney Opera House (Sydney Opera House website, 2003). 

The austere line sketches Utzon had prepared for the 1957 competition showed a relatively squat, free-form roof of concrete shells. These were concept diagrams and did not prove to be structurally practical. Over the next five years Utzon, in conjunction with the famous engineering firm of Ove Arup of London, developed a ribbed shell system based on the geometry of a sphere. This system permitted each rib to be built up of a number of standard segments cast at the site. The segments were then lifted into place between the previous rib and a supporting telescopic steel arch devised by the contractor, M.R. Hornibrook. The complete rib was then stressed and the process repeated. The development of this roof shell design was a difficult and lengthy process. As with so much of the Sydney Opera House work, it extended skills and pushed technology to the limit (Kerr, 1993, 16). 

In the early 1960s the architectural character of the proposed Sydney Opera House had already made it famous in professional circles. By the mid 1960s the controversy surrounding the time and cost overruns had spread that fame to almost all levels in society. In February 1966, with the podium in place and the roof structure nearly complete, Utzon 'resigned'. By April he had left Sydney and did not return. 

The reasons for these troubles were complex and have been much discussed in a range of publications. A major factor was Premier Cahill's insistence on the building being commenced before the March 1959 election - long before the design for the shells and their supports had been resolved. With construction running ahead of the design solutions, a chain reaction was set up which plagued all those concerned with the work for the fifteen year construction period. A further problem lay in the honorary committees appointed by Cahill. The technical advisory committee did not meet sufficiently frequently to give timely advice. Ashworth made an unfortunate recommendation that it would be unnecessary for Utzon to work with an Australian architectural firm with local knowledge, as had been foreshadowed in the competition brief (Kerr, 1993, 15, 18-19). Ashworth's suggestion that Arup be directly responsible to the client rather than to Utzon also contributed to discord. 

Utzon approached the design problems by working up solutions in consultation with technical experts and artisans, by a process of trial and error. In his search for perfection, Utzon was working to a very different agenda to that of the new Liberal government that took office in May 1965. In financial - and therefore also political - terms Utzon's approach was not one the new government considered appropriate to jobs of the scale and complexity of the Sydney Opera House. When the authorisation of fees was transferred from the executive committee to the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, in October 1965, Utzon was in trouble. Utzon finally resigned in February 1966 in an oddly constructed letter in which he told Hughes that he had been 'forced . . . To leave the job'. The alacrity with which Hughes dispatched a formal acceptance of Utzon's 'resignation' belied the deep regret he expressed at receiving it (Kerr, 1993, 19). 

In April 1966 Hughes announced the appointment of a panel of architects to complete the project. It consisted of Peter Hall, Lionel Todd and David Littlemore. Hall was responsible for design. The fourth member was the government architect, Ted Farmer, who by virtue of his office, acted as client. Utzon gave them some drawings but Hall described these as incomplete. While this made work difficult for Hall Todd & Littlemore, it also emphasised the very different approaches of Utzon and his Australian successors. Utzon liked to work with consultants and contractors developing and adjusting three-dimensional prototypes. By contrast the Australian tradition continued the primacy of two-dimensional drawing. It was apparent that, in the absence of communication between Utzon and the new team, the Sydney Opera House was not going to be finished as Utzon might have intended (Kerr, 1993, 20-21). His departure meant that his plans for the major and minor halls, the glass infill walls and the public spaces were never realised. Instead, the topaz-coloured glazing in bronze frames which enclose the ends of the roofs was a major innovation achieved by the Australian architects. 

In June 1966, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) - as the intended major commercial user of the space - belatedly produced a set of specific requirements for the main hall, including a reverberation time of at least two seconds. In December 1966, Hall Todd and Littlemore presented a number of recommendations to the Minister that outlined radical changes to the interiors to accommodate these needs. These changes included turning the main hall into a dedicated Symphony or Concert Hall and turning the smaller hall into a dedicated Opera Theatre. The State Government approved the recommendations in April 1967 and the design of the interior of the structure was developed by Hall, Todd and Littlemore to comply with them (Sydney Opera House website). Thus the interiors are largely attributed to Peter Hall, within the spectacular exterior shell designed by Utzon. 

In 1960, the black American actor and singer Paul Robeson climbed on the scaffolding at the Sydney Opera House while it was under construction to sing to the workers. The first public performance was however given in the Opera Theatre on 28 September 1973 by the Australian Opera Company, while the following night in the Concert Hall Charles Mackerras conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. A little after these first official performances, on 20 October 1973, the Sydney Opera House was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II. During the inaugural period 300 journalists arrived from all over the world 'to see if the Sydney Opera House was to be a white elephant or a sacred cow'. The Los Angeles correspondent spoke for many when he wrote: 'This, without question, must be the most innovative, the most daring, the most dramatic and in many ways, the most beautifully constructed home for the lyric and related muses in modern times' (Kerr, 1993, 25). 

Sydney author Ruth Park wrote about the Sydney Opera House in 1973 in an account that is suggestive of some of the perceptions of it at that time: 

'To walk into the Opera House is to walk inside a sculpture, or perhaps a seashell, maybe an intricate, half-translucent nautilus. Morphology and the computers have composed a world of strange breathless shapes, vast, individual, quite unlike any other architecture I have ever seen. Palm ribs of steel, sea fans of concrete! And all of extraordinary height, all in harmonious dialogue one with another. The glassy declivities of the walls are an almost imperceptible amber; they bring the sun into the vast structure as they bring the sky and the harbour. It's such a nonesuch of a building, a white swan in a land of black swans. . . One of its dazzling features are the world's biggest theatre curtains (and woollen ones at that). Woven in the Aubusson style in the medieval French village of Felletin, from a design by Australian artist John Coburn, each curtain measures more than 1,000 square feet [93 sq.m] and requires six men to lift it. Expectedly, the bold blazing designs have been severely criticized as 'bathroom wallpaper', but I think them breathtaking. The curtain for the Opera Theatre, especially, is a perfect symbol of the city; a summer coloured curtain with vigorous leaping shapes that recall Sydney's resident demon, the bushfire. The central sun motif is of such energy and brilliance that one can almost hear the hissing roar of its prominences. You may well find yourself an ant inside the Opera House, but when you come out you're more than human. To know that this masterpiece comes from the materialistic sixties! And the worse seventies! One goes away full of justified faith' (Park, 1973, 29-30). 

Many famous artistic performers from Australia and overseas have been associated with the Sydney Opera House since its completion, indeed, its success as a performing arts centre has been described as 'spectacular' partly because of the building's 'ability to attract great artists from all over the world' (Kerr, 1993, 26). These performers include: opera singers Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, June Bronhill, Joan Carden and Luciano Pavarotti; orchestras such as the Sydney Symphony, the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, The Festival Orchestra with Yehudi Menuhin, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic; comedians Bob Hope, Paul Hogan, Billy Connolly and Judith Lucy; and dance shows by the Sydney Dance Company, the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre and the Bangarra Dance Theatre; ballet performers such as Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Barishnikov, Jiri Kylian, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp; popular singers and musicians such as Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Secombe, Sammy Davis Jr, John Williams, Tiny Tim, Elvis Costello, kd lang, Michael Jackson and Crowded House (Sydney Opera House website). 

As this range of names may indicate, the Sydney Opera House doesn't operate principally as a venue for opera, but hosts a wide range of performing arts. These include classical and contemporary music, ballet, opera, drama and dance, events for children and outdoor activities. It is used as a venue by a wide range of organisations including performing arts companies, entrepreneurs, schools, community groups, corporations, individuals and government agencies. Its harbour-side Broadwalk and some of its foyers are freely open to the public. Since it opened in 1973, over 45 million people have attended more than 100,000 performances at the Sydney Opera House and it is estimated that well over 100 million people have visited the site. Market research from 2003 indicated that the people who visited the Sydney Opera House numbered around 4.4 million per year, averaging nearly 85,000 visitors each week. Only about a quarter of those visiting came for performance-related reasons, while the remainder came to experience the building and its environment (Sydney Opera House webpage). 

The Sydney Opera House and its designers have been awarded many honours. In Australia in 1972 the Association of Consulting Engineers gave Ove Arup & Partners the Annual Award for Excellence (for the design and construction of the glass walls). The Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia gave a Meretricious Lighting Award for the Opera Theatre in 1974 and a Certificate of Commendation of the shell floodlighting in 1988. n 1973 the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) awarded Joern Utzon its prestigious Gold Medal, and in 1992 they gave him a Commemorative Sulman Award. From the RAIA also came a Merit Award for work of outstanding environmental design in 1974, a Civic Design Award in 1980, the Lloyd Rees Award in 1988 and a National Civic Design Award in 1988, both awarded for the design of the forecourt, which was remodelled as part of the Circular Quay and Macquarie Street revitalisation project. Also, in 2003, the NSW RAIA gave the inaugural "NSW 25 Year Award". In 1998 the Sydney City Council awarded Joern Utzon the Keys of the City of Sydney. The Sydney Opera House has been listed on the registers of the Australian Heritage Commission, the National Trust as well as on the Sydney City Council heritage LEP. 

Internationally, in the Uk in 1969, Ove Arup & partners were given the Queen's Award to Industry (for technological innovation in prestressed concrete roofing). In 1973 the UK Institution of Structural Engineers made a Special Award to Ove Arup & Partners to acknowledge a physical achievement in its widest sense (for the contribution to the creation of the Opera House). Utzon has since been awarded the Aalto Prize, the Royal Institute of British Architects' Gold Medal and Denmark's highest cultural honour, the Sonning Prize. In 2003 the prestigious Pritzker Prize ('the architectural equivalent of a Nobel Prize') was awarded to Joern Utzon, recognising the Sydney Opera House as his masterpiece. As a jury member for Pritzker Prize in 2003, the American architect Frank Gehry commented: 

'Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious criticism to a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that such an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence' (Frank Gehry quoted in the Architecture Bulletin, Jul/Aug 2003, 19). 

In 1998 the Sydney Opera House Trust began negotiations for the return of Joern Utzon as an advisor. In 1999, Utzon agreed to supply a statement of his 'design principles' for the building. These were delivered in 2002 and have been published as 'Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles' (2002). These are, in Utzon's words, 'to be used as a permanent reference for the long term conservation and management of the House and for any redevelopment of interiors as and when that becomes necessary'. He emphasised however that, 'it is right that we should be looking forward to the future of the Sydney Opera House and not back to the past. For this reason I believe . . . Future architects should have the freedom to use up-to-date technology to find solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow' (Kerr, 2003, 31). 

The long-serving Labor premier of NSW, Bob Carr, has written about the Sydney Opera House as the primary symbol of 'our vigorous cultural life' that will enable Sydney 'to thrive in the new century'. In noting that 'Sydney and the architect of our city's icon, Joern Utzon, are reconciled', Carr proudly states that 'all future work on the Opera House will be guided by [Utzon's] original vision' (Carr, 2002, 225).

Special thanks to


No journey through Sydney architecture would be complete without a visit to the world famous Sydney Opera House at Bennelong Point. More than 40 years on, it is still as distinctive and remarkable as it was the day was built. It stands proudly on the harbour foreshore as a monument to the great Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who won the 1956 design competition for a 'National Opera House' on the site.

atmitchell's Sydney Opera House collection, 1956–1967, is world-renowned. It includes Jørn Utzon's own preliminary sketches working drawings, photographs, negatives, illustrated reports, wooden models, and consultants' drawings of this unique building.

Architectural drawings

This remarkable collection of over 2,500 drawings– mostly original works by Jørn Utzon himself – includes early conceptual sketches, diagrams and working drawings. There are also designs for Utzon's own proposed Bayview residence, 1958-1966.

Atmitchell also holds architectural reports on the construction of the Sydney Opera House, including the famous 'Red Book' (1958) and 'Yellow Book' (1962). Manuscript records include Utzon's office files containing illustrations, diagrams, newscuttings, correspondence, estimates, agendas, minutes, specifications and tenders from 1956–1967.

Image showing preliminary sketch by Jørn Utzon, 1960

Preliminary sketch by Jørn Utzon, 1960


The construction of the Sydney Opera House was eagerly recorded by artists and photographers. atmitchell holds approximately 3,000 photographs and negatives of the Sydney Opera House, many of which were commissioned by Utzon, and are probably by the well-known Australian photographer Max Dupain.

They include construction shots of the Opera House, the major and minor halls, roof construction, designs for acoustic devices, scaffolding and formwork.

Image showing detail from Shell Construction, photonegative, 1965.

Detail from Shell Construction, photonegative, 1965.


Jørn Utzon used models extensively in his design process. They were critical in his efforts to find solutions for the complex design issues raised by his vision for the Sydney Opera House.

atmitchell's model collection contains Utzon’s wooden working models of the Sydney Opera House's halls constructed from 1962 to 1966.

Image showing detail from Jørn Utzon - Sydney Opera House, wooden working models, ca. 1962-1966.

Detail from Jørn Utzon - Sydney Opera House, wooden working models, ca. 1962-1966.