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opera house in the frame | by gervo1865_2 - LJ Gervasoni
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opera house in the frame

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NHL citation

Sydney Opera House

Source: Go to the National Heritage List for more information.

Identifier: 105738

Location: 2 Circular Quay East, Sydney


Government: Not Available

State: NSW

Country: Australia

Statement of

Significance: The Sydney Opera House, constructed between 1957 and 1973, is a masterpiece of modern architectural design, engineering and construction technology in Australia. It exhibits the creative genius of its designer, the Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the contributions to its successful completion by the engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners, the building contractors M.R. Hornibrook, and the architects Hall, Todd and Littlemore. It is an exceptional creative and technical achievement in the national history of building design and construction in Australia. Since its completion the Sydney Opera House has attracted world wide acclaim for its distinctive design, enhanced by its prominent location on Bennelong Point within a superb harbour setting. With its soaring white roof shells set above a massive podium, the Sydney Opera House is a monumental urban sculpture, internationally acclaimed as an architectural icon of the twentieth century. Its many national and international awards reflect its pivotal place in the national story of creative and technical achievement in Australia. The challenges involved in executing Utzon’s design inspired innovative technical and creative solutions that were groundbreaking in the history of architectural design and building construction in Australia, particularly the roof shells that were based on the geometry of the sphere and demonstrated the extraordinary creative potential of the assembly of prefabricated, repeated components. The interior spaces also reflect the creative genius of Utzon and his successors, Todd, Hall and Littlemore, who completed the building after Utzon’s departure from the project in 1966. The Sydney Opera House is the most widely recognised building in Australia, and is cherished as a national icon and world-class performing arts centre. It represents an enduring symbol of modern Sydney and Australia, both nationally and internationally, reflecting changing social attitudes towards Australian cultural life in the decades after World War II. The Sydney Opera House has played a seminal role in the development of Australia’s performing arts, enhancing the cultural vitality of the nation. It continually attracts nationally and internationally acclaimed performers, and is a mecca for visitors from around Australia and overseas. The peninsula on which the Sydney Opera House now stands has a special association with Bennelong, an Aboriginal man who became a prominent and influential figure in the early colony and played a significant role in mediating interactions between Aboriginal people and early settlers.


Description: The Sydney Opera House is strategically located on Bennelong Point, giving the building added prominence in the Sydney Harbour vista. It is closely adjacent to Circular Quay, the harbour’s main transport hub. It also forms an important visual relationship with the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the west – the strong curves of both are complementary.


The opera house complex is made up of two main buildings plus a smaller one, principally of reinforced concrete, which sit on a massive concrete platform on a foundation of piles. The three upper buildings are formed of clusters of reinforced concrete vaulted structures which contain a large hall for 2690 people (the Concert Hall) and a small hall for 1547 people (the Opera Theatre) plus theatrical spaces (Drama Theatre and Playhouse), the Studio, administration areas, a major restaurant (Bennelong) plus other areas. Utzon’s plan set the two largest halls side by side on the platform. This made possible the building’s dramatic sculptural elevations – the roofs resemble billowing sails and the whole ensemble has a singular freedom of form. The two halls have their stage set to the south which maximizes views of the harbour from the northern foyers and from the glass-walled passages as the public passes around to the northern end. The concrete platform is clad with precast panels faced in reconstituted red granite, and this material is also used for the paving of the waterfront promenade which surrounds the platform. The platform, both in its form and colour, contrasts with the roofs of the building. The building is entered from the southern forecourt and a wide sweeping set of stairs, which makes for a grand approach on foot.


Inside, the two main halls are constructed using a hidden steel framework which has been faced with timber. Plywood panels were designed as part of the internal lining to conceal the services. The Concert Hall includes a mechanical-action pipe organ. Linings in this hall are birch plywood, in radiating ribs on a suspended hollow raft ceiling, running down the walls to laminated brush box linings which match the floor. The Opera Theatre by contrast has black-stained ceilings and walls. Both of these main halls have proscenium curtains designed by John Coburn. The design of the interiors was completed by Todd, Hall and Littlemore after the departure of Utzon in 1966. The general experience of the interiors of the Sydney Opera House is one of majestic spaces defined by strong structural forms.


The glass walls, filling the external openings under the vaulted concrete shells of the roof, are constructed of a light steel framework supported off the concrete ribs, supporting laminated, topaz-tinted plate glass sheets with bronze fittings. The walls were designed after Utzon’s departure from the project. These glass walls provide spectacular views from the main foyers out across Sydney Harbour. John Olsen’s painting, inspired by the Kenneth Slessor poem ‘Five bells’, relates to the harbour and hangs in the main foyer and is a well known feature of the building’s interior.


The most revolutionary feature of the building is the concrete roof. Utzon produced a design utilizing ribbed shell vaults made of precast concrete. Utzon based the shape of the vaults on the curve of a sphere, so that all segments had the same curve and could be mass-produced. These segments were precast and lifted into place and held together with epoxy resin and prestressing tendons, an innovative method at the time of construction. The engineering firm on the project, Ove Arup and Partners, and the building contractors, M.R. Hornibrook, both made important contributions to the realization of Utzon’s project. Conventional design, construction and finish methods were superceded by a range of innovative approaches to meet the challenges of the building’s design. The roof segments, for example, were coated with small ceramic tiles. Utzon spent more than a year working with manufacturers in Sweden to develop tiles specifically suited to the building. The glazed tiles have a slightly irregular surface with a glasslike finish. The central tiles are glazed white and the border tiles matt cream. The standardized prefabricated method used on the roofs was both much less costly than other methods, and also allowed for very precise quality control.

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Taken on October 1, 2005