Jorn Utzon – Sydney Opera House

Life and career:

Utzon was born in Copenhagen, the son of a naval engineer, and grew up in Denmark. From 1937 he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where he studied under Kay Fisker and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. After graduating in 1942, he went to Sweden to work for Gunnar Asplund. After the end of World War II and the German Occupation of Denmark, he returned to Copenhagen. In 1946 he visited Alvar Aalto in Helsinki. From 1947–48 he travelled in Europe in 1949 in the United States and Mexico. In America he attended Frank Lloyd Wright’s school in Arizona. In 1950 he established his own studio in Copenhagen.

Pritzker prize for Sydney Opera House:

—  In 1957 he unexpectedly won the competition to design the Sydney Opera House. Although he had won six other architectural competitions previously, the Opera House was his first non-domestic project. The designs he submitted were also little more than preliminary drawings. One of the judges,Eero Saarinen, described it as “genius” and declared he could not endorse any other choice.

—  Utzon refined his original conceptual designs for the shells over several years. One particular difficulty was that the Cahill government was so eager to commence the project that they arranged for the engineers, Ove Arup and Partners, to put out tenders for the podium without adequate working drawings; this work actually began in 1959 while Utzon was still in Denmark working on the final plans.

Concept:

The extraordinary structure of the shells themselves represented a puzzle for the engineers. This was not resolved until 1961, when Utzon himself finally came up with the solution. He replaced the original elliptical shells with a design based on complex sections of a sphere. Utzon says his design was inspired by the simple act of peeling an orange: the 14 shells of the building, if combined, would form a perfect sphere. Although Utzon had spectacular, innovative plans for the interior of these halls

Description:

—  he Sydney Opera House is a modern expressionist design, with a series of large precast concrete “shells”, each composed of sections of a sphere of 75.2 metre (246 ft 8½ in) radius , forming the roofs of the structure, set on a monumental podium. The building covers 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) of land and is 183 metres (605 ft) long and 120 metres (388 ft) wide at its widest point. It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk as much as 25 metres below sea level.

—  Although the roof structures of the Sydney Opera House are commonly referred to as “shells” (as they are in this article), they are in fact not shells in a strictly structural sense, but are instead precast concrete panels supported by precast concrete ribs.The shells are covered in a subtle chevron pattern with 1,056,006 glossy white- and matte-cream-coloured Swedish-made tiles from Höganäs AB,though, from a distance, the shells appear a uniform white.

—  Apart from the tile of the shells and the glass curtain walls of the foyer spaces, the building’s exterior is largely clad with aggregate panels composed of pink granite quarried in Tarana. Significant interior surface treatments also include off-form concrete, Australian white birch plywood supplied from Wauchope in northern New South Wales, and brush box glulam

—  Of the two larger spaces, the Concert Hall is located within the western group of shells, and the Opera Theatre within the eastern group. The scale of the shells was chosen to reflect the internal height requirements, with low entrance spaces, rising over the seating areas and up to the high stage towers. The smaller venues (the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse, and The Studio) are located within the podium, beneath the Concert Hall. A smaller group of shells set to the western side of the Monumental Steps houses the Bennelong Restaurant. The podium is surrounded by substantial open public spaces, of which the large stone-paved forecourt area with the adjacent monumental steps is also regularly used as a performance space.

—  The Sydney Opera House was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 28 June 2007. It is one of the 20th century’s most distinctive buildings and one of the most famous performing arts centres in the world.

—  The Sydney Opera House is situated on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, close to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It sits at the northeastern tip of the Sydney central business district (the CBD), surrounded on three sides by the harbour (Sydney Cove and Farm Cove) and neighboured by the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Performance venues and facilities inside the opera house:

—  The Opera House houses the following performance venues:

—  The Concert Hall, with 2,678 seats, is the home of the Sydney Symphony and used by a large number of other concert presenters. It contains the Sydney Opera House Grand Organ, the largest mechanical tracker action organ in the world, with over 10,000 pipes.

—  The Opera Theatre, a proscenium theatre with 1,507 seats, is the Sydney home of Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet.

—  The Drama Theatre, a proscenium theatre with 544 seats, is used by the Sydney Theatre Company and other dance and theatrical presenters.

—  The Playhouse, an end-stage theatre with 398 seats.

—  The Studio, a flexible space with a maximum capacity of 400 people, depending on configuration.

—  The Utzon Room, a small multi-purpose venue, seating up to 210.

—  The Forecourt, a flexible open-air venue with a wide range of configuration options, including the possibility of utilising the Monumental Steps as audience seating, used for a range of community events and major outdoor performances.

—  Other areas (for example the northern and western foyers) are also used for performances on an occasional basis. Venues at the Sydney Opera House are also used for conferences, ceremonies, and social functions.

Origin:

—  Planning for the Sydney Opera House began in the late 1940s, when Eugene Goossens, the Director of the NSW State Conservatorium of Music, lobbied for a suitable venue for large theatrical productions. The normal venue for such productions, theSydney Town Hall, was not considered large enough. By 1954, Goossens succeeded in gaining the support of NSW Premier Joseph Cahill, who called for designs for a dedicated opera house. It was also Goossens who insisted that Bennelong Point be the site for the Opera House. Cahill had wanted it to be on or near Wynyard Railway Station in the northwest of the CBD.

—  A design competition was launched by Cahill on 13 September 1955 and received 233 entries, representing architects from 32 countries. The criteria specified a large hall seating 3000 and a small hall for 1200 people, each to be designed for different uses, including full-scale operas, orchestral and choral concerts, mass meetings, lectures, ballet performances and other presentations.The winner, announced in 1957, was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. According to legend the Utzon design was rescued from a final cut of 30 “rejects” by the noted Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. The prize was £5,000. Utzon visited Sydney in 1957 to help supervise the project. His office moved to Sydney in February 1963.

Design and construction:

—  Stage I: Podium

Stage I commenced on 2 March 1959 by the construction firm Civil & Civic, monitored by the engineers Ove Arup and Partners. The government had pushed for work to begin early, fearing that funding, or public opinion, might turn against them. However, Utzon had still not completed the final designs. Major structural issues still remained unresolved. By 23 January 1961, work was running 47 weeks behind, mainly because of unexpected difficulties (inclement weather, unexpected difficulty diverting stormwater, construction beginning before proper construction drawings had been prepared, changes of original contract documents). Work on the podium was finally completed in February 1963. The forced early start led to significant later problems, not least of which was the fact that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the roof structure, and had to be re-built.

—  Stage II: Roof

The shells of the competition entry were originally of undefined geometry, but, early in the design process, the “shells” were perceived as a series of parabolas supported by precast concrete ribs. However, engineers Ove Arup and Partners were unable to find an acceptable solution to constructing them. The formwork for using in-situ concrete would have been prohibitively expensive, but, because there was no repetition in any of the roof forms, the construction of precast concrete for each individual section would possibly have been even more expensive.

Interiors:

—  The major hall, which was originally to be a multipurpose opera/concert hall, became solely a concert hall, called the Concert Hall. The minor hall, originally for stage productions only, had the added function of opera and ballet to deal with and is called the Opera Theatre. As a result, the Opera Theatre is inadequate to stage large-scale opera and ballet. A theatre, a cinema and a library were also added. These were later changed to two live drama theatres and a smaller theatre “in the round”. These now comprise the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse, and the Studio, respectively. These changes were primarily because of inadequacies in the original competition brief, which did not make it adequately clear how the Opera House was to be used. The layout of the interiors was changed, and the stage machinery, already designed and fitted inside the major hall, was pulled out and largely thrown away.

—  Externally, the cladding to the podium and the paving (the podium was originally not to be clad down to the water, but to be left open).

—  The construction of the glass walls (Utzon was planning to use a system of prefabricated plywood mullions, but a different system was designed to deal with the glass).

—  Utzon’s plywood corridor designs, and his acoustic and seating designs for the interior of both major halls, were scrapped completely. His design for the Concert Hall was rejected as it only seated 2000, which was considered insufficient. Utzon employed the acoustic consultant Lothar Cremer, and his designs for the major halls were later modelled and found to be very good. The subsequent Todd, Hall and Littlemore versions of both major halls have some problems with acoustics, particularly for the performing musicians. The orchestra pit in the Opera Theatre is cramped and dangerous to musicians’ hearing. The Concert Hall has a very high roof, leading to a lack of early reflections onstage—Perspex rings (the “acoustic clouds”) hanging over the stage were added shortly before opening in an (unsuccessful) attempt to address this problem

 

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