Sydney Opera House

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One of the first things I had to do when I arrived in Sydney, after I’d settled into my apartment, was to head out to the Harbour to take in the view of the iconic building that is the Sydney Opera House. Standing on Bennelong Point, a peninsula jutting out into Sydney Harbour, it’s hard to miss with it’s giant “sails” seemingly floating in the water.

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The building was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon who, at that time, was a relatively unknown young architect.  But his dramatic concept, caught the eye of the judges of the international competition held to decide on a design.

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The Opera House’s website tells us

Utzon’s competition entry was a schematic design, clearly explaining the concept for the building. The sketches and “geometrically undefined” curves of course needed to be developed for the building to be built. This is quite normal for competition projects. Utzon himself was sure it could be built and in the pioneering spirit present in Sydney at the time, construction went ahead.

So they didn’t really know how they were going to build it when they started!

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Working with the project’s structural engineers, Ove Arup and partners, Utzon had to find a solution. The original concept was that the shells would be sections of a parabola, but this presented major construction difficulties. They eventually came up with a simpler solution based a sphere, which meant that different sized sections could be cast from the same mould on site.

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The “shells” are precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs.

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On a sunny day the shells look brilliant white. The American architect Louis Kahn is often quoted as remarking:

The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.

However, although the shells appear uniformly white from a distance, their surface is covered with 1,056,006 tiles in two colours: glossy white as well as matte cream. The tiles were manufactured by the Swedish company Höganäs AB.

the top surface of the shells is covered with a weatherproof membrane, a series of precast panels matching the rib segments and covered with white glazed tiles. All the materials are non-corrosive, weather resistant, durable, and will age and acquire a patina without changing their character. (Jørn Utzon, ‘Descriptive Narrative, Sydney Opera House’, January 1965 in Sydney Opera House Utzon Design Principles, May 2002)

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Utzon never got to see the finished building. Following a change of government in New South Wales, there was a “fall out” about the cost of the scheme and the design of the interior which led to Utzon leaving the project (did he resign or was he sacked?). An Australian architect, Peter Hall, was appointed to complete the building and was responsible for the design of the interior.

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I decided to join one of the hour long guided tours of the building which allow visitors access to the inside of the building. We were able to look inside some of the performance spaces and saw the ballet dancers rehearsing for the Nutcracker. Unfortunately no photographs were allowed inside the concert halls and theatres. So the following picture of the interior of the Concert Hall is from Wikipedia.

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We were able to see the concrete ribs and other structural elements

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and were treated to a fantastic view of the Harbour and the Harbour Bridge through the huge glass curtain walls that face onto the water.

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I would have liked to have experienced a production in one of the two large halls – the Concert Hall or the Joan Sutherland Theatre. Unfortunately this wasn’t possible as nothing was scheduled for the former and although the Nutcracker ballet was taking place in the latter it was sold out. However I was able to get a ticket for a play being shown in the Drama Theatre, one of the other 4 smaller venues. Switzerland was a two hander produced by the Sydney Theatre Company about the American author, Patricia Highsmith, the creator of The Talented Mr Ripley. It was a good production and very entertaining – with elements of mystery, psychological drama and comedy. Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith was excellent.

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