Sydney Opera House: Sculptural Marvel and Architectural Wonder

A trip to Sydney is never complete without a visit to the Sydney Opera House. One of the most popular and most visited tourist destinations not only in Australia but arguably also in the entire world, the Opera House is an unusual structure that appears to be a grand sculpture from afar.

Just like any other first timers in the “Land Down Under,” the very first thing I did on my first trip to Sydney (and in entire country-continent of Australia) was to walk my way to this popular man-made Oz-ian destination.

As someone from the performing arts, it was important for me to see this performance space: to pay homage, in other words. At the same time, it was important for me to at least glimpse the inside of the whimsical performing arts structure. A better way for me to see the inside was to catch a local performance produced by the Sydney Opera House’s resident companies.

The majestic Sydney Opera House from the streets of Sydney (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

In October 2017, I saw “Two Weddings, One Bride,” an operetta based on a story by composer Charles Lecocq, at the Sydney Opera House. I have to say, the operetta was upbeat and very lively. Its music definitely made the show enjoyable. But, did I like the performance? Well, it was the first time on my part to see an English operetta. I am quite familiar with local operetta productions in my country. Seeing the show at the Sydney Opera House was a definitely a different experience. Nonetheless, different does not necessarily mean an amazing and wonderful experience. But I digress. This post is not about the show but my experience/encounter with the architectural wonder. As I stated earlier, from afar, it is a giant sculpture – a giant work of art!

The Facade of the Opera House (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Design by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the dynamic harbour seems to be embodied in the design. Utzon seems to incorporate all the playful elements found in the area: the gigantic and very busy Harbour Bridge, the imposing muscle-flexes of sea vessels and ferries, and the graceful dances of the yachts and other smaller boats. Also, the architectural design, almost a sculpture-like artwork, is a reminder of the beautiful natural landscape surrounding the bay.

According to some online sources, Utzon’s inspirations were the gigantic edifices of the Americas – the pre-Hispanic structures of the Mayans and the Aztecs. In a way, the design was envisioned to be a temple where the public gets to connect with the gods. Others suggest that his inspirations were the huge castles of the Scandinavian region, particularly those from Denmark, his home country. Like what I wrote in the previous paragraph, there are narratives that link the building with the natural and cultural landscapes of the city: the cliffs and the sails of the harbour.

A detail of the video map during my visit in October 2017 (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

At nighttime, the magnificent opera house transforms itself into another art-form: a video installation/video map. I saw this transformation on Youtube and other social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. I remember during the 2000 Olympic Games, a video map was projected onto the outer shells of the entire structure. Luckily, during my short visit in Sydney, I was able to see a fifteen-minute video wall-mapping about the original locals / indigenous groups (the Eora People) of the very place where the opera house currently stands. It was an amazing and heartfelt video map even if it was only projected on one of the many outer-shells of the building.

I learned from the marquee stand of this amazing structure that the construction began in 1959. The construction immediately commenced after Jørn Utzon was selected by a jury of Australian officials remarking: “because of its very originality, it is clearly a controversial design. We are however, absolutely convinced of its merits.” According to the official website of the Sydney Opera House: Utzon’s entry contained “schematic designs, clearly explaining the concept for the building but not how it would be built. The challenge of constructing the concrete shells that form the roof would confound the building’s engineers for years.”

As a solution, he introduced the ‘spherical solution’ to craft the shells from the surface of an imaginary sphere. I am not an engineer or an architect. The simplest notation about this concept is stated in the website of the opera house: “This spherical solution elevated the architecture beyond a mere style – in this case, that of shells – into a more permanent idea, one inherent in the universal geometry of the sphere. It was also a timeless expression of the fusion between design and engineering.” If this is still incomprehensible, do not worry, you are not alone!

A panoramic view: the Sydney Opera House somewhere off-center, on its right are some modern buildings and on its left is the famous Harbour Bridge (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The story behind the construction is also controversial – from a simple misunderstanding between the Australian government and the Danish architect to a conflict leading to the cancellation of the contract (or more appropriately the Danish architect resigning from the project). But in the end, both had a reconciliation.

In 1999, Utzon even wrote his “Design Principles” which to date is used as the guiding principles for future renovations and alterations.

But I doubt if any alteration is even allowed, especially since it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The description for its inclusion is criteria (i) or representing a masterpiece of human creative genius. More specifically, the nomination asserts “the Sydney Opera House is a great architectural work of the 20th century. It represents multiple strands of creativity, both in architectural form and structural design, a great urban sculpture carefully set in a remarkable waterscape and a world famous iconic building” (UNESCO File).

Inscribed in 2007, the Sydney Opera House is considered the youngest site (since the construction commenced in 1959 and only completed and opened in 1973) to be included in the list of World Heritage Sites.

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