Sydney Opera House: How the rejected entry finally won

It was Australia Day – the official national day of Australia. On this hot summer day in Sydney, families moved out of their homes, either sight-seeing or picnicking in the parks. Many were the activities planned in the City Centre. An Old Crocks rally attracted a large number of vintage cars. The Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Art Gallery was another big attraction. We too joined the crowds and passing through the vintage car rally, did a round in the beautiful Sydney Botanic Gardens. We then walked through to the Opera House, the showpiece of not only Sydney but the whole of Australia.

We joined the English speaking tour group where a young woman was our guide. There was another German speaking group starting off along with ours. After distributing head phones, she took us around what has become the country’s most recognisable building. Explaining the site, she wanted us to get a good view of the surrounding harbour-side location and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and take photographs if we wished to. Most of us did.

Enjoying a national holiday: Picnicking in the park with the famed Opera House in the background

Situated on Bennelong Point which reaches out into the harbour, the Opera House with a roof suggestive of a ship in full sail is a unique structure designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon (1918–2008). When UNESO decided to add the Opera House to its Heritage List, a panel of experts prepared an evaluation report. The report to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee stated, “it stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind.”

The guide told us how the New South Wales (NSW) government established an appeal fund to finance the construction of the Opera House. In 1956 the NSW Premier, Joe Cahill, announced an international competition for the design of an opera house in Sydney. It attracted 218 entries from around the world.

The story goes that during the judging of the competition one of the judges, renowned American architect, Eero Saarinen, arrived in Sydney after the other three judges had started assessing the entries. He looked through their rejected entries and stopped at the Utzon design declaring it to be outstanding. It was chosen though it was soon realised that it was beyond the capabilities of engineering at the time. Utzon reworked the design and it was 1961 before he had solved the problem of how to build the distinguishing feature - the 'sails' of the roof.

While the guide took us round the numerous theatre halls describing the acoustics, seating arrangements, facilities for theatre groups and other details, her story on the controversial building operations was equally interesting.

The escalation of the costs coupled with a change in government (from Labour to Liberal) led to a big debate on whether the project should be continued or abandoned. A crisis point was reached in 1966 with disputes about the cost as well as interior design. The government went to the extent of withholding payments. Jorn Utzon resigned, obviously in disgust, possibly forced to do so.

There had been protest marches through the streets of Sydney following his resignation demanding that he be reinstated as chief architect of the project - the protests led by an Australian architect and other artistes.

From rejection to fame: Uzton room in honour of the Danish architect

The building was eventually completed by others in 1973, costing Au$ 102 million. The Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. At the opening Utzon was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Architects Australia but he was not present at the opening ceremony. He was later invited to develop a set of Design Principles to act as a guide for all future changes to the building, which he gladly accepted.

The guide reminded us that after more than 30 years, the Sydney Opera House has its first interior designed by Utzon. A reception hall has now been transformed into the ‘Utzon Room’ in his honour. A colourful mural adorns one of the walls of the room while a beautiful view overlooking the sea brings to life Jorn Utzon's original vision for his masterpiece. The Room was officially opened in September 2004.

The virtually unknown Danish architect (he was 38 at the time his design was selected) on hearing that the first venue designed by him was being named in his honour, he said “It (the naming) gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don’t think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get and have got.” It has been described as the only authentic Utzon interior in the building.

We were taken round the Colonnade which is the first exterior change to the building since it opened. Nine openings were created along the Harbour Bridge side into the Playhouse and The Studio foyers – six new large deep set windows and three glass doors. The foyers are now flooded with natural light and for the first time patrons can enjoy harbour and city views. Being too feeble to travel, Utzon was represented y his son when the Colonnade was opened. When Utzon died in November 2008, he was 90.

We also learnt of some impressive facts relating to the Opera House. It conducts 3000 events a year, provides guided tours to 200,000 visitors each year, and has an annual audience of 2 million for its performances. As for its size, it has 1000 rooms, is 185 metres long and 120 metres wide, has 2194 pre-cast concrete sections as its roof which has over a million tiles, and uses 6225 square metres of glass and 645 kilometres of electric cable.

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