The Sydney Opera House, such an icon of Australiana that it almost seems kitsch, is just a short stroll from Circular Quay, by the water’s edge on Bennelong Point. It’s best seen in profile, when its high white roofs, at the same time evocative of full sails and white shells, give the building an almost ethereal quality. Some say the inspiration for the distinctive design came from the simple peeling of an orange into segments, though perhaps Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s childhood as the son of a yacht designer had something to do with their sail-like shape – he certainly envisaged a building that would appear to “float” on water. Despite its familiarity, or perhaps precisely because you already feel you know it so well, it’s quite breathtaking at first sight. Close up, you can see that the shimmering effect is created by thousands of white tiles.
The feat of structural engineering required to bring to life Utzon’s “sculpture”, which he compared to a Gothic church and a Mayan temple, made the final price tag $102 million, ten times the original estimate. Now almost universally loved and admired, it’s hard to believe quite how controversial a project this was during its long haul from plan – as a result of an international competition in the late 1950s – to completion in 1973. For sixteen years construction was plagued by quarrels and scandal, so much so that Utzon, who won the competition in 1957, was forced to resign in 1966. Seven years and three Australian architects later the interior, which at completion never matched Utzon’s vision, was finished: the focal Concert Hall, for instance, was designed by Peter Hall and his team.
Utzon did have a final say, however: in 1999, he was appointed as a design consultant to prepare a Statement of Design Principles for the building, which has become a permanent reference for its conservation and development. The Reception Hall has been refurbished to Utzon’s specifications and was renamed the Utzon Room in 2004. He also remodelled the western side of the structure, with a colonnade and nine new glass openings, giving previously cement-walled theatre foyers a view of the harbour. Utzon died in November 2008.
“Opera House” is actually a misnomer: it’s really a performing-arts centre, one of the busiest in the world, with five performance venues inside its shells, plus restaurants, cafés and bars, and a stash of upmarket souvenir shops on the lower concourse. The best way to appreciate the Opera House, of course, is to attend an evening performance: the building is particularly stunning when floodlit and, once you’re inside, the huge windows come into their own as the dark harbour waters reflect a shimmering night-time city – interval drinks certainly aren’t like this anywhere else in the world.