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Image: Jack Atley

Utzon’s Design Principles

And the Sydney Opera House’s Decade of Renewal

In 1999, after extensive negotiations, Jørn Utzon agreed to develop a set of guidelines for future changes to the Sydney Opera House. It marked a moment of re-engagement between the architect and the building that had defined his career,but which he had never seen. The Utzon Design Principles enshrine Utzon’s original vision, and help ensure the building’s architectural integrity is maintained as it evolves, as he always said it should, to meet evolving needs. 

Utzon’s attitude to modifications to the Opera House was set out in a letter dated 19 August 2000 he sent to Joe Skryznski, chair of the Sydney Opera House Trust. “As the architect of the Sydney Opera House, as the creative force behind its character, I sincerely believe that a large multipurpose structure such as this building, in time will undergo many natural changes,” Utzon wrote.

“The ideas as they were developed in the sixties, evolved as the result of the needs and technique at the time.

“As time passes and needs change, it is natural to modify the building to suit the needs and techniques of the day. The changes, however, should be such that the original character of the building is maintained.”

In September 2004, the Reception Hall was re-opened after being redesigned by Utzon. It was re-named the Utzon Room in his honour and is the only authentic Utzon interior within the Sydney Opera House. 

The room, which has easterly views of Sydney Harbour, features a 14 metre long, floor-to-ceiling, woollen tapestry that was also designed by Utzon. His first decorative artwork, the design was inspired by CPE Bach's Hamburg Symphonies and Raphael's painting, ''Procession to Calvary''. It was woven over eight months by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, supervised by Utzon's daughter, the well-known artist Lin Utzon.

Of the naming of the room in his honour, Utzon said: “It gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don't think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get and have got.”

The Utzon Room was followed by the first alteration to the exterior of the building; the addition of a Colonnade along the western side, which shades nine large glass openings into the previously solid exterior wall. This Utzon-led project, which was completed in 2006, gave the theatre foyers their first view of Sydney Harbour, the windows modelled on those of Can Lis, the house he had built in Majorca. The foyers' interiors were also renovated to Utzon's specifications to become a coherent attractive space for patrons.

On all projects, he worked with his architect son Jan, and Sydney-based architect Richard Johnson of Johnson Pilton Walker.


Explore working designs for our Stage 1 Renewal projects.

In 2013 the Opera House celebrated the 40th Anniversary of its opening. Embodying the enduring links between Australia and Denmark first forged by the Opera House, the Danish Crown Prince Couple, HRH Crown Prince Frederik and HRH Crown Princess Mary, were the official patrons of the 40th Anniversary celebrations, which spanned 17 events attended by more than 30,000 people.

As part of the 40th Anniversary, Deloitte delivered a report that estimated the iconic or national-identity value of the Opera House at $4.6 billion, underlining the scale of the windfall Australia has reaped from the vision and daring of previous generations.

The 40th Anniversary also marked the beginning of the Opera House’s Decade of Renewal, a series of projects to ensure that Australia’s most famous building and busiest performing arts centre continues to inspire future generations of artists, audiences and visitors. The results will touch all corners of the building and open it to the public as never before. 

In 2016 the Opera House unveiled a series of projects that are the largest program of capital works since it opened in 1973. These Renewal works, enabled by a $202 million commitment from the NSW Government, will replace technology and machinery that has reached the end of its working life, open new areas to the public and ensure the Opera House is properly equipped to welcome as many people in as many ways as possible.

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