Sydney Opera House

Architectural Review, September 1973, p.142

The Sydney Opera House is practically a synonym for its architect, Jørn Utzon, who died last week. Designed in 1956 when parabolic concrete shells were all the rage, its politics became as complex as its engineering. Ove Arup, its engineer, wrote in March 1965's Architectural Design, “Utzon's drawings for the competition were really only sketches blown up photographically to the required size.” The Q.S. (one poor Mr. Major of Rider Hunt & Partners) estimated it would cost A£3,500,000 and the assessors' report thus commented “The scheme which we now recommend for the first premium is, in fact, the most economical on the bases of our estimates.” On its opening, 17 years later, the final cost was more than FIFTEEN times that initial estimate. Yet it remains the standard by which today's so-called “icons” are compared. As Gehry himself admitted in an interview with John Tusa in 2005, his brief at Bilbao was for a building “that does for Bilbao what the Sydney Opera House does for Australia.”

17 years is a whole generation of architectural fashion and the Architectural Review of  September 1973 noted that “many of the ideas which it embodies … are extinct”. The previous month, Australian Robin Boyd wrote about “the myth of architectural competitions” in his unfinished critique of the Opera House in Architecture Plus: “all architects know that the main reasons for holding competitions have nothing directly to do with design; the reasons are political.” Australia was dragging herself into the world. Every architect also knows that it's the design and not the buildability or the cost that wins such competitions. After all, an architectural education is all about designing for competitions. Then, once the judges have chosen an image, the political and financing struggles can commence. Had the Australian government known at the outset what the dream would entail, the icon of architectural icons would surely not exist today. Yet while the cost is interred in history, the image endures.


Originally published in the Architects' Journal, 11th December 2008.
Architectural Review, September 1973, p.143

Architectural Review, September 1973, p.146

Architectural Design, March 1965, p.133

Architectural Design, March 1965, p.137

Architectural Design, March 1965, p.141
Architects' Journal, August 1957, p.276

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