Ove Arup

By Sydney Opera House

The masterbuilder, philosopher, humanist and founder of the innovative engineering company that bears his name to this day was a major influence on Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the Sydney Opera House.

Ove Arup: formal portrait of the masterbuilder by RIBASydney Opera House

Sir Ove Nyquist Arup is ranked among the foremost architectural structural engineers of his time.

Born in 1895, he witnessed firsthand the extraordinary transformations modernity wrought during the 20th century – transformations to which he demonstrably contributed through his great influence on architecture and engineering.

Arup had a complex and pivotal role in the story of the Sydney Opera House. He was mentor and friend to Utzon, lead engineer, deft businessman and project manager, as well as a champion for the synthesis of engineering and architecture and the quest to create a perfect building – all of these roles were wrapped up in an eccentric, energetic man.

That central role is reflected in the UNESCO listing, which describes the Sydney Opera House as “a great architectural work of the 20th century that brings together multiple strands of creativity and innovation in both architectural form and structural design. A great urban sculpture set in a remarkable waterscape, at the tip of a peninsula projecting into Sydney Harbour, the building has had an enduring influence on architecture.”

Architects Leslie Martin, Jørn Utzon and Eero Saarinen discuss next steps (1957) by RIBASydney Opera House

After reading in the Times of London of the winning design for a national opera house in Sydney, Ove Arup wrote to Utzon to congratulate him and offer the services of his firm, Ove Arup and Partners.

Two days after Arup penned his letter, Utzon flew to London and met with two of the competition judges, the head of architecture at Cambridge University, Sir Leslie Martin, and eminent American architect Eero Saarinen (pictured), to discuss the way forward.

During these discussions, Martin suggested Ove Arup and Partners for the engineering, and introduced Jørn and Ove for the first time. Weeks later Utzon agreed to work with Arup.

Friend and mentor: Ove Arup with Jørn Utzon in Hellebæk, Denmark, Yuzo Mikami, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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A great friendship grew between the two men through the early years of the design and engineering project that was the Sydney Opera House.

Arup believed that in Utzon he had found the perfect architect with whom to collaborate in his personal quest for “Total Architecture”, an approach that dissolved the disconnect between engineers and architects that he had been seeking his whole career.

Ove Arup's engineering report excerpted from the Red Book by State Records, New South WalesSydney Opera House

Arup's top engineers spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort over approximately three years to find a solution to Utzon’s design for the roof of the Sydney Opera House.

In this detail from the Red Book in 1958, we see evidence of Arup’s concerns for the structural integrity of the roof design. From the beginning of their collaboration, Arup gently encouraged Utzon to pursue a geometry that would allow for repetition and therefore prefabrication.

However, Utzon remained convinced and encouraged in his conviction by Arup’s partner, Ronald Jenkins, that a shell structure with the smooth finish of an egg, as in his competition drawings, would be possible, despite the unique form required for each shell.

As early as 1958, Arup had suggested that the soffits of the shells (their interior surface), be ribbed to strengthen and articulate them. By June 1961, three years into the design of the roof, Jenkins, a senior partner at Arup, was dismissed from the project by Arup himself. Both men were frustrated that an appropriate engineering solution to Utzon's forms had still not been found.

Jenkins, a renowned mathematician and recognised expert on shell structure, never worked again.

Ove Arup cutting cake at a birthday tea-party in Hellebaek, Denmark (1959) by Yuzo MikamiSydney Opera House

Architect Yuzo Mikami, who worked for both Utzon and Arup during the project of the Sydney Opera House, recounts a summer afternoon in Utzon’s home town of Hellebæk, Denmark, when Utzon challenged Arup to cut a birthday cake into 17 even pieces.

According to Mikami: “[Ove] cut the whole cake into four parts, one slightly larger than the rest. Next, the smaller ones were cut into four equal pieces, and the larger one into five, all exactly the same angle, thus completely identical …

“A couple of years later, in the development of the roof geometry, a sphere was cut into 98 identical rib pieces, thus making the roof finally buildable through an industrialised building method which was advocated by Ove Arup.”

Ove Arup and Povl Ahm focus on the 1:60 scale model, Yuzo Mikami, 1959, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Arup and Partners record of hours on project up to 1962, Sydney Opera House, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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This graphic demonstrates the many hours dedicated to the project of the Sydney Opera House by Arup employees, even up to the start of Stage Two of the building’s construction – early days in the overall scheme that would run all the way up to the opening of the finished building in 1973.

Utzon Room, detail of the Concourse beams (2012) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

Arup’s signature design contribution to the Sydney Opera House, aside from his work on the roof, was the flowing form of the Concourse beams that support the Monumental Steps and reach up into the building, ending in the foyers of the concert and opera halls.

Pictured here in the Utzon Room, one of only two internal spaces of the Sydney Opera House finished to Utzon's design and specifications, the form dominates – a reflection of how valued a contribution to the finished building it was considered by the architect.

Excerpt from Jørn Utzon's competition entry by Jørn UtzonSydney Opera House

In Utzon's submission sketches, it was 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.

Concourse beams supporting the Monumental Steps by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

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 continues up through the levels of entrance finishing just under the beginning of the vaulted arches.

Concourse beam design from the Red Book, detail by State Records, New South WalesSydney Opera House

U - T - V - T - U

The shape of the beams, when seen in cross section, is best described as a progression of capital letters, from U to T to V and back again. The powerful, elegant form that emerges utterly thrilled Utzon, who henceforth called them “Ove's invention” in recognition of his contribution to the finished design of the Sydney Opera House.

Concourse beam design from the Red Book, detail, State Records, New South Wales, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Concourse beams supporting the Monumental Steps, Sam Doust, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Sydney Opera House, construction, Stage One (2), State Library of New South Wales, 1958, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Despite their later estrangement, the Concourse beams represent a lasting reminder of the close relationship between Jørn Utzon and Ove Arup.

Ove Arup's sketch ideas for the vaulted roof of the Sydney Opera House by RIBASydney Opera House

This sketch from 1962 shows Arup's thinking and careful contribution to the problem of the roof shells, which by this time had become extremely pressing.

Utzon was asked by his client, the New South Wales Government, if he was of a mind to work with another engineering firm, Arup and Partners having taken three years without having arrived at a solution with which Utzon was satisfied. The architect steadfastly refused to consider another firm and supported Arup.

When, some years later in the mid-1960s, Arup and his lead engineers failed to reciprocate this faith, the relationship between the master engineer, Arup, and the master architect, Utzon, never recovered.

Pictograph drawn by Utzon on a restaurant napkin to depict the close relationship between architects and engineers, Jørn Utzon, 1962, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Mikami recounts the story of a pictograph drawn by Utzon at a crucial engineering meeting held on a bitterly cold Boxing Day in 1962 at the Aerial Hotel just outside Heathrow Airport in London.

"Utzon took his 6B pencil and drew the pictograph on the back of a piece of paper on the table, saying it read Utzon, Yuzo, Zunz as a sign of perfect collaboration [Jack Zunz was a senior Arup engineer]. Ove Arup was not happy as he was left out, and asked Utzon to add a horizontal bar at its lower quarter, so that it could be read OA as well!"

From left: Ove Arup, Jack Zunz and Michael Lewis by Max DupainSydney Opera House

Arup, Zunz and Michael Lewis of Arup’s Sydney office became crucial figures in the project’s engineering team from 1962 onward.

Unlike Arup and Zunz, Lewis was underwhelmed by Utzon and in hindsight can be seen to have contributed to Utzon’s withdrawal from the project.

Lewis did not share Arup and Zunz's admiration for Utzon nor the relationship they had developed with him over time. Later in the year, Lewis would write to Zunz, "Unlike you and Ove I have not learnt to love Jørn yet and I doubt very much I ever will."

Lewis felt that everyone had been seduced by Utzon. He would later reflect, "that romantic view is, however, a very real view, and that's what I walked in on. I said – please, in what way are they gods? Why is everyone seduced around here? And I suppose that also affected my approach."

An example of the many drawings documenting the engineering feat of the Sydney Opera House by ArupSydney Opera House

One of the many hundreds of working drawings by Arup engineers in documenting the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Here we see the chevron tile lids that hold almost 1 million tiles to the surface of the vaulted and side shells.

Engineer Jack Zunz on the relationship between engineer and architect, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1963, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Jørn Utzon and Jack Zunz describe the approach to the roof design of the Sydney Opera House, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1962, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Documentary film Job 1112 (abridged) (1968) by ArupSydney Opera House

Job 1112 is a documentary on Stage Two of construction of the Sydney Opera House, finished in 1968. This abridged version runs for 10 minutes.

Ove Arup, Jack Zunz and Jørn Utzon on site by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

Ove Arup interviewed in 1966 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1968) by Australian Broadcasting CorporationSydney Opera House

The name board during Stage Three (1970) by Leo Davis CollectionSydney Opera House

In the wake of Utzon's withdrawal from the project in 1966, Ove Arup and Partners continued to work on the project, creating a permanent schism between the two men and ending their friendship.

Ove Arup and Povl Ahm focus on the 1:60 scale model (1959) by Yuzo MikamiSydney Opera House

Ove Arup in 1968 discussing the conflict of not resigning in support of Utzon.

Arup in 1968 discussing the conflict of not resigning in support of Utzon.

When Utzon withdrew from the Sydney Opera House project - forced to resign, as he saw it, by the Minister for Public Works - Arup found himself in the very difficult position of having to decide whether to support Utzon and in so doing also resign from the project.

The government sought assurances this would not happen, but the issue affected Arup deeply – it became a philosophical crisis and a complex intersection between personal and professional behaviour and ideals.

Although a division had been growing for some time, the outcome permanently estranged the two friends and eminent colleagues.

Years later, a mutual friend of both men, structural engineer Povl Ahm, took Arup to Hellebæk. Leaving Arup in a hotel room, he went alone to see Utzon at his home in the hope of reuniting old friends, but Utzon refused to see Arup.

The two men met one last time in 1978, at a reception in London for Utzon, who had won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, at which point they shook hands and spoke a few brief words, to each other.

Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team


Sydney Opera House Wolanski Archive Collection
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Library Sales
State Records NSW

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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