Judging began a few weeks later in January 1957. Jørn Utzon’s design was numbered 218 – one of the last of more than 223 entries received from 28 countries.
Four men were selected to judge the entries – the British-born chair of architecture at Sydney University H. Ingram Ashworth, fellow Englishman Dr J Leslie Martin who had helped design the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, the NSW Government Architect Cobden Parkes and Eero Saarinen, an American architect and designer of Finnish descent.
There is no precise record of how the winning design was chosen. A widely-told story is that Saarinen, who had missed the beginning of the ten days set aside for judging, was underwhelmed by the already shortlisted entrants and pulled Utzon’s entry out of a pile of rejected schemes, exclaiming that it was easily the winning design.
This version of events has been rejected by Ashworth who would later say that Dr Martin had been particularly impressed by Utzon’s entry well before Saarinen arrived. Regardless of the story’s accuracy Saarinen was a key influence in judging the panel’s decision.
The most eminent of the four, Saarinen had been steeped in modernism and had studied and worked with Charles and Ray Eames. By the time of the competition for the Sydney Opera House his architectural practice was moving away from the rectangular shapes of modernist architecture towards more expressive forms built from concrete. At the same time as the Opera House competition Saarinen was designing what would become his most famous building, the TWA Passenger Terminal at John F Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York. Its wing-shaped concrete roof bore similarities to Utzon’s design.