Sydney Opera House

Year:1973

Duration:14 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: Sydney, Australia

What did this project achieve?

Turn a distinctive architectural design using sails/shells into an actual building

The Sydney Opera House is a performing arts centre on the bank of Sydney Harbour in Australia. Opened in 1973, it's acknowledged as one of the 20th century's most famous and distinctive buildings.

The building takes up the whole of Bennelong Point - a partly man-made promontory. The structure is close to Sydney's central business district and the city's Royal Botanic Gardens.

Despite its name, the building isn't a single venue. As well as a 2,679-seat concert hall, it also has 3 main theatres: the Joan Sutherland theatre (1,507 seats), the Drama theatre (544 seats) and the Playhouse (398 seats). There's also a studio theatre with 280 fixed seats.

The venue also has a space for smaller productions – the Utzon room, named after the building's architect Jørn Utzon. Other facilities include an open air forecourt for outdoor productions as well as restaurants, cafes and bars.

The opera house sees over 1,500 performances every year, attended by more than 1.2 million people. More than 8 million people visit the building annually with 350,000 taking a guided tour of the building.

The venue has 3 resident companies: Opera Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007 which formally recognises it as one of the most outstanding places in the world.

Difference the opera house has made

The Sydney Opera House has become a symbol of the city of Sydney as well as Australia.

The building is a leading centre for the arts and a major part of Sydney and Australia's cultural landscape.

With 1.2 million people a year attending performances and around 8 million visitors every year, the venue is a major income generator for Sydney and the local economy.

How the building was built

Sydney Opera House's distinctive shell structure was a major challenge for engineers working on the scheme.

The shells were originally sketched as sails soaring over the venue's auditorium by architect Jørn Utzon but the design proved impracticable to build.

The project team spent 4 years trying out different solutions. They included parabolas, circular rib-shapes and ellipses – looking like a slightly flattened sphere.

The work saw some of the earliest use of computers for building design, as engineers worked out the complex forces the shells would have to cope with.

Eventually, it was decided to build the shells as a set of arches formed from pre-cast concrete ribs and designed as if they were segments of the same sphere. This meant that all the concrete segments could be cast in the same moulds – saving money.

The shells were manufactured onsite in a purpose-built factory. The factory turned out 2,400 precast concrete ribs and 4,000 roof panels for the structure.

The roof design was tested on scale models in wind tunnels to establish how high winds would affect the shells.

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A building that changed the image of an entire country.

Frank Gehry

US architect on the Sydney Opera House.

Fascinating facts

The Sydney Opera House has the world's deepest car park. It was built between 1990 and 1992.

Most underground car parks are 4 or 5 storeys deep – the opera house structure stretches 12 storeys beneath the ground to a depth of 37m.

Constructing the car park saw project workers remove 130,000m³ of sandstone to create a doughnut-shaped cavern underground. The structure has space for 1,100 cars.

People who made it happen

  • Client: Government of New South Wales
  • Architect: Jørn Utzon
  • Engineering contractors: Ove Arup and Partners

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