The Fifth Facade: Sydney Opera House

20 April 2017

Later still, all detail will be lost in a blaze of white. Each new angle reveals a different shape; from seashell to spiky succulent, armour plating to exotic fruit, reclining reptile to felucca flotilla.

The 10 curved shells of the Sydney Opera House cling to Bennelong Point, half closed, as though protecting their delicate insides until the gentle tide of the cove washes over them once more. In the morning light, a mother of pearl iridescence plays across their surfaces. Later, they will reflect the colours of sky and water. Later still, all detail will be lost in a blaze of white. Each new angle reveals a different shape; from seashell to spiky succulent, armour plating to exotic fruit, reclining reptile to felucca flotilla. Jutting into the bay between the botanical garden and the foaming trails of ferries from Circular Quay, the point is a memory of itself buried under red granite. Gone is the tidal island littered with discarded oyster shells. Gone is the man they named the peninsula for and his brick hut, a man kidnapped from the Wangal Clan to be a go-between for the Crown, shipped to England and back, and then buried in a garden at Kissing Point. A half moon gun station was built here and then submerged by the blocks and crenellations of Fort Macquarie. The fort was then flattened to make way for a tram depot, which in turn was paved over for tourists on stifling days and opera goers on shimmering nights; salt smells and glitz.

‘The drawings submitted for this scheme are simple to the point of being diagrammatic. Nevertheless, as 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 becoming one of the great buildings of the world.’ Competition Assessors’ Report, 1957.

Jørn Utzon, Danish architect and son of a naval engineer, sent in sketches that were clean and simple: a broad plaza with gesticulating figures under sensuous canopies; an annotated cutaway reminiscent of a circuit board; a side view of the stepped podium and the billowing, empty spaces above it; a bird’s eye view, hand shaded, alongside a carefully typed paragraph of text: Light, suspended concrete shells accentuate the plateau-effect and the character of the staircase constructions … The whole exterieur radiates lightness and festivity and is standing as a clear contrast to the square harbour-buildings of Sydney. He also drew the shells in a free, flowing hand, from every conceivable angle. There are few buildings that can be captured in so few strokes of the pen – the Taj Mahal, perhaps, or Eiffel’s tower – each line a note in the opening bars of a melody we all think we know. Of the 233 designs submitted, Utzon’s was the dream that proved irresistible. His broad shouldered, handsome form, and Nordic tones became familiar to the people of Sydney before he ever set foot in Australia. In steady gestures over a card model, he described his vision: An opera house you can see is an opera house, like you can see a church is a church.

Utzon wanted to transform the peninsula into one seamless piece of architecture right down to the water. He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, but he did not yet know how to build it. He needed patience, time, a team of dedicated engineers, and money. He needed solutions to questions that hadn’t been posed before. Politics, meanwhile, demanded results. When ground was broken on 2 March 1959, estimates still stood in for measurements, and assumption did service for certainty. Trenches were dug only to be deepened and widened. Budgets were written, torn up, and written again. Weeks stretched into months, and months stretched into years. Even as the stepped and platformed slab of concrete rose from the red earth, Utzon and his team wrestled with lines and calculations. Question: How does one make a concrete shell that holds its own weight and withstands the weather, yet still looks elegant and light? A new decade arrived, but the question remained unanswered.

‘We are aware that it is open to many points of detailed criticism and a number of corrections would have to be made, but we feel, at this stage, the general breadth of the imaginative concept is an over-riding consideration.’ Competition Assessors’ Report

The expressive charcoal lines of Utzon’s original sketches suggested a unique geometry – and therefore a different engineering solution – for each shell. As the architect peeled an orange on his lunch break, however, a neater solution suggested itself. If each of the shells matched the outer curve of a giant sphere 75 m across, they could all be built from near identical components. His hunch proved workable, and over six years from 1963, 2,194 precast concrete ribs were hauled into place by custom built cranes. But even as the outline of the opera house took form, political goodwill dried up. On 13 May 1965, a new Liberal administration signalled its impatience and began questioning every decision and every dollar spent. Utzon tendered his resignation, and by spring the following year, he left Australia. His elaborate plans for the interiors, one red and gold chamber, one blue and silver, were scrapped. Intricate stage machinery was demolished. “My interiors were created before the exteriors,” Utzon explained. “They are one thing. You can’t separate them. You will destroy the harmony of the building.” Yet despite offers of negotiation, the administration remained unmoved and he never returned.

A version of Utzon’s opera house opened on 20 October 1973; 187 m long, 115 wide, 67 high, 350 km of tension cable, 6,223 m2 of glass in a unique shade of topaz, 1,056,006 ceramic roof tiles custom fired in Sweden, 10,154 pipes on the Grand Organ, 2,679 seats in the Concert Hall alone. 14 years of construction and an original budget of 7 million AUD, swollen by 1,457 %. 

‘It’s never going to be what it should have been … the compromises that have been made don’t work … But when you go to Athens and see the temple, or the Mayan Pyramids, and you don’t see their real glory, with all the colours and gold, it doesn’t take away from how amazing the structures are as they stand. This does the same. It’s awe inspiring.’ Mika Utzon Popov, artist and grandson of the architect, 2016.

Both before and after the opera house, Utzon worked on international projects, such as the open chamber of the Bank-e Melli in Tehran (1962) and the great white ramp of the Kuwait National Assembly (1972). Most of his work, however, is found in his native Denmark: the cresting wave of the Bagsværd Church (1976) frozen in a rectilinear casing; the forest of splayed columns of Copenhagen’s Paustian House (1987); the clustering courtyards of Fredensborghusene (1963) in northern Sjælland, like “flowers on the branch of a cherry tree, each turning towards the sun.” More than any of these buildings, however, the Sydney Opera House resembles Kronborg Castle in the city of Helsingør, where Utzon died in winter 2008, aged 90. Occupying a headland jutting into the Øresund where the channel is at its narrowest, each new approach to this Renaissance masterpiece reveals a new face. In both buildings it’s this fifth façade that dominates. That which at first appears simple, grows in complexity as it rotates in the mind’s eye.    

sydneyoperahouse.com