Stage One of construction of the Sydney Opera House rendered at the time the largest concrete structure in the Southern Hemisphere.

1958 – Stage One begins
Implicit in the structure of the Podium is an understanding of the beauty, strength and permanence of ideas architect Jørn Utzon brought to bear in designing the Sydney Opera House. In 1949 on a visit to Mexico, Utzon would climb out of the dark and confining Yucatan jungle on to the top of a Mayan temple to discover an infinitely open plane above the jungle canopy. He 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. He would go on to use this ancient form as a foundation from which to elevate both the Sydney Opera House and its millions of visitors above everyday life. This idea is elementally expressed in the podium of the Sydney Opera House. Its long procession of shallow steps leads up to a plateau upon which people commune with art under a sculptural canopy, elevated and transported away from their everyday lives. Utzon successfully reached back thousands of years to express this same majestic idea in the modern world – an imperishable idea that provides a strong physical and intellectual grounding for the Sydney Opera House. It is also an idea that fundamentally endured unchanged from Utzon’s first winning sketches through to the finished building.

Two major problems confronted the engineers in their approach to Stage One. First, the geology of Bennelong Point had not been surveyed accurately at the time of the competition guidelines, which assumed that the promontory comprised Hawkesbury sandstone mass, like the surrounding land; whereas in fact, it was made of loose alluvial deposits permeated with seawater and completely unsuitable for bearing the weight of the intended structure.

Some 700 steel-cased concrete shafts, nearly 1 metre each in diameter, were bored down into the perimeter and northern half of the site. Mass concrete foundations filled in the unstable rock in the central area of the site. Given all this preparatory work, it is not hard to understand why building contractor Civil and Civic's quote for the work was so inaccurate.

The second major problem related to the as yet unknown weight of the roof, which would change dramatically in the coming years. The anchor points of the roof were at this stage only vaguely discernible; the load they would have to bear was unknown.

A range of ensembles among Civil and Civic workers.

One of the most remarkable features of the Podium, and one Utzon was most happy with, was the concourse beams, designed by engineer Ove Arup. Utzon referred to them as “Ove’s invention”.

Utzon's submission sketches suggested that the Concourse area under the Monumental Steps would require some form of colonnade to support the weight of the structure above. When Arup saw this detail, he dismissed the need for the columns, describing instead the undulating shape of the now famous Concourse beams.

The beams, in their final design, so successfully dispersed moments of stress that no additional vertical support was necessary. They provide a beautiful and dramatic sweeping form to the underside of the Monumental Steps, which continue up through the levels of entrance finishing just under the beginning of the vaulted arches.

The Tram Shed at Bennelong Point prior to construction of Stage One.

Bennelong Point transformed during construction of Stage One.

From March 1958 on, the awe-inspiring form of the Podium rose out of the enormous building site on Bennelong Point, slowly transforming the promontory. It was at the time the largest concrete structure in the southern hemisphere.

Australian author Patrick White described the construction site as evoking the ruins of Mycenae, in Ancient Greece.

Stage One would take five years to complete, closing on the original estimate of time for the Opera House project as a whole. Even then it would require substantial modification to withstand the final designs for the roof.

Yet Sydneysiders began to comprehend the incredible feat of design and engineering underway in the name of culture.

Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team


State Library of New South Wales

Credits: All media
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