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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Sydney Opera House

Sydney, Australia's Opera House complex. The performing arts come alive after dark so it is that Jorn Utzon's masterpiece is never more vibrant than at night.
Jorn Utzon unveils his 1957 concept model.
There was a time when, if you mentioned Australia to anyone, the first images to come to mind were Koala bears, Kangaroos maybe, and...and...mmm...well, that was about it. Now, however, starting after October, 1973, the Koalas have had to take a backseat to architecture, specifically Danish architect Jorn Utzon's iconic opera house crowning the harbor of Sydney, Australia. Add to that the gracefully arched backdrop of Sydney's Harbor Bridge (below) along with the spectacular light shows, sunsets, and fireworks reflecting from the opera house's curvilinear white surfaces, and it's little wonder tourist come from around the world to explore and go "oooo and ahhhhhhhh" along with the ever-present "WOW!"
No matter the angle or time of day, there's simply no way to take a bad
picture of this modern-day symbol of Australia.

What happens with an architect's visionary ideals far outstrips the architectural engineering capabilities of his time? Usually that means the building stays on paper. But, in the case of Jorn Utzon, sixteen years happened. That was the gestation period from his winning design to that day in 1973 when the queen of England cut the ribbon opening Sydney's new performing arts center. There were those who said it couldn't be done--and they were right--at the time. Utzon and his firm simply had to find a way to do it--which obviously they did. Just as obviously, the iconic curves of the massive shell-like roof was their biggest obstacle.

Two major problems, the roof design (above left) and construction delays and overruns.
The original idea was precast concrete ribs, supporting various concrete parabolic curves, but the fact that no two curves were alike made their casting prohibitively expensive. So instead, after twelve different permutations, the design team turned to computers to model both the concept and the curves. That was the first of may "firsts." Construction had begun on what was termed the "podium" in 1958. By 1961 the project was already over budget and running 47 weeks behind schedule. That's what happens when you start construction before the final design is finished. Actually, Utzon was flying "by the seat of his pants" for most of the project, solving construction and engineering problems as they arose, including a great deal of structural reinforcement to support the great weight of concrete ribs and the innovative ceramic panels making up the final design for the roofs.

The Sydney Opera House main concert auditorium. Utzon's replacement,
architect, Peter Hall, was largely responsible for designing the interiors.
Moreover, the other major difficulty in seeing Utzon's masterpiece to fruition was political, not architectural. The whole project was government financed, originally budgeted for $7-million. Changes in government, changes in specifications, errors, restructuring, and Utzon's 1966 resignation over the supervisory board's non-payment of fees, (some contend he was fired), all resulted in cost overruns and delays. The original completion date was to be January 26, 1963 (Australia Day). The final completion was ten years late at a cost of $102-million ($859-million in 2012 dollars), more than 14 times the original estimates.

The Sydney performing arts complex is nothing if not complex.
What did the Aussies get for their sixteen-year-long effort and millions upon millions of pounds? First of all, though we commonly refer to it in the singular, the Sydney Opera house is really several different performance venues (above). There's a BIG concert hall (seating 2,600), a medium-size, multi-purpose theater seating 1,500 for (opera, and ballet), three other theaters for drama in various configurations, seating from 200 to 500, an open-air forecourt suitable for pop concerts and community events, a recording studio, retail shops, cafes, a bar, and a fancy (very expensive) restaurant. But most of all, the people of Sydney, and in a broader sense, all of Australia, got a proud symbol, a bit less cuddly perhaps than a Koala, but certainly a more impressive national landmark, one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

Sydney harbor, bridge, and opera house (far left).



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