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Sydney Opera House: Splendid Geometry

Jeffrey Syken

Perhaps no building in the world is more symbolic and recognizable than the Sydney Opera House. Its creation spanned fourteen turbulent years yet its very existence has been transformative, leaving one era in the life of the land “Down Under” behind and ushering in a new one whereby Australia has taken its rightful place among the great nations of the world since its opening in October 1973. For Sydneysiders, it’s the focal point of the entire city and a fitting compliment to the world-famous Harbor Bridge nearby. Its sail-like shells mimic the sailboats that seem to play in front of it and it welcomes steamship passengers to the great natural harbor – one of the world’s finest. Eminently suited to its unique location on Bennelong Point, it’s easy to look at and admire from any vantage point. Truth be told, as a venue for the performing arts it leaves a lot to be desired.

Synchronicity seems to have played a part in creating the Opera House. Bennelong Point was a gathering place for the local Aboriginal clans who held Corroborees – festivals of singing and dancing referred to by the colonists as “Bush Operas.” How appropriate then that an Opera House be located there, close too to where the nation began in adjoining Sydney Cove. However, it would be the inspiration of the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – Sir Eugene Goossens, who had a vision of an Opera House on the point while walking along the harbor’s shore one fine day in the early 1950s. An international competition led to 220 entries and it would be number 218 – discarded at first as too fanciful and impractical to build that would, in the end, win because one enlightened, visionary “Assessor” (competition judge) recognized immediately what the other three judges had not: A Masterpiece.

A young, handsome relatively unknown Danish architect – Jorn Utzon, steeped in the traditions of the Scandinavian “craft approach” to architecture won the competition with his design inspired by Mayan temples and “Alpenglow.” He had an ally in fellow Dane Ove Arup, philosopher and structural engineer extraordinaire but, in the end, philosophy and high ideals would lose-out to politics, budgets and pragmatism. The resolution of how to create the shells using spherical geometry was Utzon’s own inspiration, but events would force his departure mid-way through the project and his elegant, beautiful designs for the interiors would not be realized. At least we can see his “Vision Splendid” realized in the exteriors which are true to his ethos of “Structural Honesty.” The design and construction of Sydney Opera House would prove to be the very way in which its creator; Jorn Utzon, approached his architecture: At the Edge of the Possible.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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