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Competition drawing by Jørn Utzon, 1956. Image: State Archives NSW

The Competition

A competition to design a National Opera House for Sydney

The idea for a dedicated performing arts centre in Sydney had been discussed for decades, yet it was not until the mid-1950s that it gained enough political traction to become a reality. It was a transformative period for Australia whose economy was rapidly expanding, fuelled by unprecedented levels of post-WWII immigration from Europe. After the rupture of war, a newly optimistic nation was looking to define itself.

A key advocate for a new opera house was English composer Sir Eugene Goossens, who moved to Sydney in 1947 to take up the position of conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Sir Eugene had spent the previous 20 years as the conductor of orchestras in the United States that performed in large, purpose-built halls. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in contrast, performed in the 1889 Sydney Town Hall. Upon his arrival in Sydney, Goossens immediately drew attention to the inadequate facilities.

“Mr Goossens ... felt that ... in Australia there was a challenging situation from which something fine could be created for music, and for the people,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time. “His ambitions include a fine concert hall for the orchestra, with perfect acoustics and seating accommodation for 3500 people, a home for an opera company and a smaller hall for chamber music. He said he saw no reason why a city the size of Sydney, with such keen music interest, should not have these.”

"There was a challenging situation from which something fine could be created for music."

Sir Eugene Goossens in The Sydney Morning Herald

“An Opera House should not be a ‘shadygaff’ place but an edifice that will be a credit to the State for hundreds of years.”

NSW Premier Joseph Cahill

Another key advocate was Joseph Cahill, a railway worker who entered politics and became NSW Premier in 1952. A former Minister for Public Works, Cahill shared Sir Eugene’s belief that all people, regardless of their class or background, had the right to enjoy fine music. Soon after he became Premier, Cahill promised an opera house for Sydney and in 1954 convened a conference to build support for the idea. “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,” Cahill told the conference. “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.”

The following year, in 1955, Bennelong Point was declared the site for the proposed new opera house and on 15 February, 1956 Premier Cahill released an international competition for “a National Opera House at Bennelong Point.” The competition guidelines were contained in a 25-page booklet known as the Brown Book and contained black and white photos of Bennelong Point. Competitors were required to register for the competition by paying a fee of 10 Australian pounds.

On 9 April 1956, Danish architect Jørn Utzon celebrated his 38th birthday and set to work in his modest office in Hellenbaek, north of Copenhagen, on his designs for the competition. He sent his 12 drawings to Sydney just before the competition closed in December.

Jørn Utzon's Competition Entry

Google Cultural Institute

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.  

“Because of its very originality, it is clearly a controversial design.”

The judges of the Opera House Competition

On 29 January 1957, Premier Cahill announced that the winner of the competition was Design 218 by Jørn Utzon, the unknown 38-year-old Dane from Hellebæk.

 “We have returned again and again to the study of these drawings and are convinced that they present a concept of an Opera House which is capable of becoming one of the great buildings of the world,” the four assessors wrote in their report. “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. It was estimated that the project would 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. 

“Utzon’s sail-like sketches flew in the face of convention”

The Architecture

By the mid-1950s, modernism and the International Style of architecture had been in the ascendancy for 30 years. Rejecting the decorative motifs and ornamentalism of pre-WWI architecture, modernist architects preferred to reveal a building’s structure, emphasising function over form. Such modernist buildings typically resembled glass boxes, as did many of the entrants to the Sydney Opera House competition. 

In contrast, Utzon’s design was more sculptural and embraced expressionism. Among the competition entries, it was singular in making full use of Bennelong Point’s harbour-side setting, which would allow the building to be viewed from every angle. In the same year that Utzon’s designs were selected in Sydney, Mies van Rohe’s Seagram building was under construction in New York. The Seagram building, completed in 1958, stands as both a highpoint of modernist architecture, and a testament to how far Utzon’s Opera House was ahead of its time.   

Read ‘Who was Jørn Utzon?’

And what were his influences?

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Jørn Utzon uses his hands to explain his design for the glass walls in time lapse. Image: Jozef Vissel