Happy 50th Birthday, Sydney Opera House

By Nicky Catley 20 October 2023
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Half a century ago one of the world’s most recognisable buildings was opened.

Since its official unveiling on 20 October 2023 on 2ha of land at Bennelong Point, the Sydney Opera House has become a symbol of modern Australia.

Regarded as an engineering triumph, its flamboyant cluster of white-tile sails soar cathedral-like on Sydney Harbour, surrounded by water on three sides in a landscape of yachts with flapping sails, and behind it, a city with salt water at its heart.

It’s now hard to imagine a better place to lure great international and local performers, where Australians can gather to celebrate culture, creative arts and conversation.

But this landmark building almost never saw the light of day.

Jørn Utzon was a young Danish architect in 1957 when he won the international competition to design a national opera house for Australia. His concept for a sculptural curved form was a radical departure from the modernist tradition popular at the time that featured straight-lined rectangular shapes.

The brilliance of what he proposed brought the building international fame even before construction began. And yet his entry wasn’t selected among the original six finalists. It was resurrected from the reject pile by international judge Eero Saarinen, the renowned Finnish-American modernist architect who’d missed the first days of judging.

Jørn Utzon (left) shows two others the winning Sydney Opera House design. Image credit: State Library of NSW

Utzon’s daring design, featuring giant concrete shells supported by rib structures, presented major engineering challenges and its complicated build was beset by delays and controversy. Construction fell 10 years behind schedule and costs jumped from an initial budget of $7 million to $102 million, which was paid for by a state lottery.

Construction began in 1959, with Utzon travelling frequently to Sydney before moving his family here. But the young architect’s relationship with the New South Wales government soured and he left Australia in 1966 amid a huge media scrum. The bones and shells of the exterior were largely finished but the interior fit out hadn’t yet begun.

Related: Gallery: The Sydney Opera House

Young Australian architect Peter Hall was eventually – and reluctantly – brought in by the state government to complete the project after three other architects refused to take it on.

The shoes of the genius Utzon were hard to fill and Hall was faced with completing the interior with no clear plans.

Despite being a modern masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House brought tragedy for its key players. Hall was vilified as an incompetent fool by the press and architectural fraternity. The pressure destroyed him and he died a destitute alcoholic, aged 64.

Utzon never returned to see his building complete, and spent his last decades as a recluse.

The Opera House celebrates its five decades of culture and creativity with a month-long festival.

Related: The ‘world-famous’ cats that once lived in the Sydney Harbour Bridge