“They present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.” – Assessor's’ Report on the winning design, 1957.
On 9 April 1956, architect Jørn Utzon celebrated his 38th birthday in Denmark, and set to work on his Opera House designs for the competition.
Utzon had been in partnership with Erik Andersson since 1952 and they initially collaborated on the project. Later, Utzon emerged as primary author of the design, and it was submitted in his name only.
Utzon pored over nautical maps of Sydney Harbour to get a sense of the landscape for the competition entry. He would also be influenced by Kronborg Castle which, poised on a promontory into the Øresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden, would provide a natural point of reference in imagining Bennelong Point on the other side of the world.
Unique among the competition entries, it placed the concert halls side by side, their roofs cantilevering out over the end of Bennelong Point, evoking Sydney’s cliffs and sails.
It was a sculptural response to both the competition guidelines and the location, unequalled by the other entries.
Utzon was deeply influenced by ancient architecture, particularly the use of platforms, from the ziggurat pyramids of the Mayans and Aztecs to those throughout Asia. Utzon saw how these temples lifted people above their daily lives to a transcendent plateau where, beneath the clouds and sky, they could commune with their gods. In the modern terms of his design, he would lift people up to celebrate the great performance arts.
Here can be seen clearly the influences of ancient architecture, from the ziggurat-like Monumental Steps to the amphitheatre-like forms of the seating areas for the halls.
Utzon’s sketches had no walls to protect against the elements, and the internal surfaces of the concrete shells were leafed in gold. Distinctive stick figures gave scale and presence to the drawings, but there was no denying that the submission remained diagrammatic.
Neither had Utzon consulted an engineer to confirm whether the structure would actually stand up.
It is a testament to the strength of his concept, and the imagination of the judging panel, that Utzon’s design was in the end unanimously supported as the winner.
The judge's report read: “We have returned again and again to the study of these drawings and are convinced that they present a concept of an opera house ... capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world.”
On 29 January 1957, New South Wales Premier Joe Cahill announced that the winner of the competition was Design 218 by Jørn Utzon, the 38-year-old Dane from Hellebæk.
Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team
State Records NSW