Some say the inspiration for the distinctive design of the Opera House 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.

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