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Sydney Opera House History 1954 - 1958

1954 - 1958 History

1954 - 1958 History

1954 (11 November)

Opera House Committee forms

The Hon JJ (Joe) Cahill, Premier of New South Wales, convenes a conference to discuss ‘the establishment of an opera house in Sydney (NSW). “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community ... surely it is proper in establishing an opera house that it should not be a ‘shadygaff’ place but an edifice that will be a credit to the State not only today but also for hundreds of years.”

Report of the proceedings of a conference ... concerning the question of the establishment of an opera house in Sydney, Public Library, Sydney, 30 November, 1954

1955 (17 May)

NSW Government announces Bennelong Point as site for new opera house

The NSW Government announces that Bennelong Point, a peninsula of 2.23 hectares, will be the site for a new opera house. The local Architectural community welcomes the choice.  

“We believe this to be an outstandingly suitable site, which, if properly developed, would provide a setting for the Opera House which would be unrivalled throughout the world ... it would also provide a wonderful improvement to the Sydney foreshore by the removal of the tram depot ... The occupation of this conspicuous headland, so near the heart of the city, by a tram shed is an absurdity.”

RAIA report, Nov/Dec 1954

1956 (1 February)

International Competition for ‘national opera house’ launches

A program and guidelines for an international competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney are released - including a 25-page booklet with black-and-white photos of Bennelong Point. The competition was arranged by a committee selected by the Premier, Hon JJ (Joe) Cahill, and the Government of New South Wales.

“We want for Sydney the best opera house that can be built. This must mean an international competition. Apart from getting the best brains to ponder our problems, the worldwide interest centred on the opera house of Sydney will be a good advertisement for Australia.”1

In his modest office in Hellenbaek, Denmark, 38-year-old architect Jørn Utzon conceived his design. Late in 1956 he sent 12 drawings to Sydney.

1 George Molnar, 'Plans for Sydney’s Opera House: what comes next?', The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June, 1955, p2

1956 (3 December)

Sydney Opera House competition closes

The Opera House competition closes. A total number of 233 entries were received from 28 countries, including Australia, England, Germany, French Morocco, Iran and Kenya.

1957 (19 January)

Jørn Utzon wins Opera House Competition

Scheme number 218 by Danish architect Jørn Utzon is announced the winning entry by the Hon JJ (Joe) Cahill at the Art Gallery of NSW. Judging was conducted over 10 days by four judges - Ingham Ashworth, Cobden Parkes, Sir Leslie Martin and Eero Saarinen. Saarinen arrived late for judging and, according to popular anecdote, retrieved Utzon’s scheme from the entries already discarded. Interviewed at the conclusion of the judging, but before the announcement of the winning entry, Martin hinted that, “We looked for a monumental work ... the opera house design had to be an imaginative thing.”

The judges recognised the inherent brilliance of Utzon’s architectural scheme: “We have returned again and again to the study of these drawings and we are convinced they present a concept of an opera house which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world ... Because of its very originality, it is clearly a controversial design. We are however, absolutely convinced of its merits.”

Utzon’s sail-like sketches flew in the face of convention. The project was estimated to cost 3.5 million pounds. Second prize was awarded to an American team of architects headed by J. Marzella, and third prize to Boissevain and Osmond from Britain.

Jørn Utzon hears the judges’ decision from his children, who ran through the forest to the railway station to meet him as he was coming home from work, and yelled to him that he’d won.

View the original competition drawings submitted by Jorn Utzon to the Opera House Committee

1957 (29 July)

Jørn Utzon makes first trip to Sydney

Utzon makes his first trip to Sydney from 29 July to 22 August – he had designed Sydney Opera House without actually seeing the site in person.  He had relied on photographs, shipping maps and first hand accounts.

Building a masterpiece: the Sydney Opera House, edited by Anne Watson, published by Powerhouse Press, 2006

1957 (29 July)

Utzon’s model goes on display at Town Hall – fund appeal launched

Utzon’s original model was made in Denmark and flown to Sydney in mid-1957 for display at the Town Hall as the centrepiece for the establishment of the Opera House Lottery fund raising appeal. The model showed the original, but structurally unrealisable, freeform roof design.

1958 (1 March)

Utzon presents ‘Red Book’

Utzon and engineer Ove Arup visit Sydney from March to April. Utzon presents his ‘Sydney National Opera House’ report, known as the ‘Red Book’. In this presentation document, the curvature of the shells had already changed from the original scheme.  It underwent several more variations before the final spherical solution of 1961-62.

1958 (1 August)

Demolition of Fort Macquarie tram sheds on Bennelong Point commences

The demolition of Fort Macquarie tram sheds on Bennelong Point commences. In use for more than 50 years, the tram sheds had become redundant as trams were progressively phased out in favour of buses.


Arup formally engaged as structural engineer

Ove Arup and Partners formally engaged as structural engineers for the project in November. The appointment of Ove Arup was Utzon’s decision, and the relationship between Sydney Opera House and Arup continues today.

Image credit: Fairfax

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