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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018

History Of Sydney Opera House Construction


The Sydney Opera House is today known to be the busiest performing arts centre in the world. Since project completion and its subsequent opening in 1973, it has brought countless hours of entertainment to millions of people and has attracted world class talent to this day. On entering the building, people are still surprised to find that the Sydney Opera House is a complex of theatres and halls all linked together beneath its famous shells. The aim in the construction of the Sydney opera house was to design an iconic structure. In order to achieve this, a building has to be different from anything else of its kind. This was the main objective with the opera house. This document shall address some initiatives that aided in project co-ordination, while also addressing other aspects of innovation that has helped to make the Sydney Opera House one of the world’s iconic buildings. Final project drawings can be seen in Fig 1.1 and Fig 1.2

Fig 1.1

Fig 1.2

Project Overview/Background

The site history of the now world famous Sydney Opera house goes back a long way. Back in 1788 and 1789 the British had attempted to learn about the indigenous people. They hoped that they could succeed in teaching aboriginal people English and then training them as go-between to find further information. But first they had to capture them. A man named Bennelong, of the Wangal people, was captured in 1789. He formed a bond with the British Governor Arthur Phillip and for his loyalty was rewarded with the construction of a hut, in which he lived. While Bennelong was in London with Arthur Philip, the hut was knocked down and a number of years after his return Bennelong died a lonely man. The site has since been known as Bennelong Point. Bennelong point was remembered for the wrong reasons and now was the chance to put things right, and at the time when Melbourne had just hosted the Olympic Games, this project would lift the people of Sydney which was very important. So the pressure it would seem was on from the start. Maybe it was this urgency that subsequently resulted in the projects demise. However, this already historical site was now in the spotlight again when the decision to build the Opera house was taken. With such a historical background added to these new revolutionary design ideas, the potential for brilliance was evident. So architects put pencil to paper and drafted their design ideas.

It was during1956 that the 38 year old Jorn Utzon created the designs for his visionary building in his office in Hellebaek, Denmark. At the end of 1956, Jorn sent his 12 drawings off to Sydney to enter a competition with the winner ultimately receiving the contract to design the project. (Drawing can be seen in Fig 1.3). Less than two months later he was pronounced the winner. This was the start of a new era for Australian architecture. However, Utzon’s design was initially regarded too bold to build. This immediately raises the question as to whether Australia was ready for such an innovative project. However, the plans did continue and construction eventually started in 1959 with Utzon holding the position of chief architect. Part of his position held was also the duty of managing the project.

Fig 1.3

Project Team/Stakeholders

The team was divided among different contractors, each having their individual roles as is common today. Within days of Utzon winning the competition for the design early in 1957, he was sought out by the Danish engineer Ove Arup. Ove Arup & Partners were subsequently appointed consulting structural engineers on the project; they were major players during the three phases of construction from the project start in 1959 to project opening in 1973. The company were even forced to open a Sydney branch in 1963 due to the complex construction demands of the Opera House. There seemed to be a rather auspicious feel about the project.

In relation to team co-ordination, there was a company ‘modus operandi’ set up by Ove. The idea was to collaborate creatively with architects. This plan would not go accordingly, as differences later became apparent between him and the architects. Ove Arup had talked to Michael Lewis about Utzon. This had caused Lewis to make assumptions of Utzon. Because of this, Ove Arup and an angered Utzon fell out. However, this does not represent the Ove Arup and Partners working methods and was the only thing that would suggest bad team coordination throughout the project.

Another of the project team was the contractor. This was M R Hornibrook, they carried out the civil works on the project. Hornibrook were an Australian company based in Queensland and went on to win the contract to build Stages 2 and 3 of the Opera House from 1962. Steensen & Varming were the mechanical services contractors for Stage 3, and Höganäs, were a Swedish company that supplied the tiles to roof the building. One million tiles as a whole. In relation to the architects, Hall Todd & Littlemore took over from Utzon in 1966. Further members of the project team were the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC), Politicians, Consultants, The Public Works Department (PWD) and the supporting cast. The PWD would be funding the project and were the main stakeholders. Although lottery funds greatly contributed,

In relation to meetings, there was a certain lack of them on site. With difficulties arising so much there should have been more meetings in order to keep a close project team and accurate minutes of meeting as is the case today, on a weekly basis in most cases. However, this was not the case. It also must be noted how easy it was to even receive a contract back then, it is in stark contrast to nowadays when projects are tendered to a high standard with lawyers scanning through contracts before anything was signed. Although things have obviously moved on since then, there still should have been more co-ordination between teams. That goes for everybody and the blame should fall on managers of all contractors, not just Utzon’s architecture firm.

In relation to clients, they would go on to create a huge problem in the project with the PWD frequently in conflict with the architect. Utzon thought it was difficult to operate as he felt he was trying to please two clients, the PWD and SOHEC. This was the start of the conflicting views he would later become so familiar to. These conflicting views that Utzon tried to follow again backs up the theory that there was a lack of meetings between project teams. Regular meetings between project teams would have set one clear path to follow and given clear plans of work before the work went ahead. Lack of meetings was a catastrophic series of events and a major reason for the project failure.

Another victim of poor planning was members of the supporting cast. Sydney plywood company Ralph Symonds Limited. Ralph’s relation with the Opera House was one of wasted potential. There was a chance to create extraordinary interiors that plywood could make possible. With the political interference and subsequent loss of Utzon and his team, these interiors became another major casualty of a project of wasted potential. This proved that the methods of the project team were less than desirable, and therefore latterly costly.


With such a well established team of architects, engineers and constructors. It was thought that the construction of the opera house would be a successful job running from start to finish. Nobody could have predicted what could have happened. This ironically turned out to be the major problem during the construction, the inability to forecast future problems. Construction should have been monitored with records kept in order to foresee problems, but this was not the case.

The Opera House was built in stages; Stage one – platform. Stage two – roof shells and Stage three – walls and interiors. Stage one commenced in 1959 with Ove Arup & Partners as the consulting structural engineers on the project. Civil and Civic were the construction and development team. Stage one consisted of the podium, it included the foundations and columns that would support the above shell roofs, 900 rooms whilst also the entrance which was above the car park. The seating level at the north end alone was regarded as the largest concrete structure in the southern hemisphere. Immediately, the complexity of this project is very clear. For this reason, it is unbelievable that construction had started without all the plans being finalised. This simply should not have happened; it was bad management on Utzon’s behalf. No matter how much pressure was being applied by the client, the job should have not gone ahead until plans were complete.

This is where SOHEC went wrong initially as the client. They wanted the construction completed as soon as possible so hence were pushing for the start date to be as early as possible. SOHEC should not have expected work to go ahead without plans being complete. The client should have agreed a start date with the designer, in this case Utzon. Then Utzon should have completed a detailed tender detailing the whole scope of works. If both agreed to this then there should have been a plan in place which could then be clearly followed. This would have made the construction process easier for everybody. But it was not to be, SOHEC’s unprofessionalism was now highlighted. Although being the architect’s idea of a perfect client as far as letting him use a trial and error method, this was later the undoing of the project as costs majorly increased (see Fig 1.6). SOHEC were held responsible and their position of power taken by the PWD. This meant the previous verbally agreed plans were now in ruins. This is an example of why detailed written contracts are necessary in projects, as should have been the case with the Opera House.

But this was not the case. This was Utzon’s biggest mistake. He made a verbal agreement with SOHEC that they would let him work by using a trial and error method of construction. He should have predicted that the job could cost a lot and then do something about it. If he had gained that written document from SOHEC saying that they as the client were willing to support his trial and error methodology, he could then not be forced to resign as he had formed a written contract with the client. This highlights that verbal agreements do not hold water in construction and furthermore the importance of getting things in writing. This is something that Utzon should have done.

In relation to a detailed contract listing the works of the job, If SOHEC had wanted to go outside the scope of works; the contract should be viewed with work deemed an extra. This would immediately shift the blame to the client and not the designer. Then the designer would not have to carry out any extra demands by SOHEC and can regard them as extras. Utzon’s failure to follow any of these patterns made him responsible for works that he had originally not planned to do and ultimately he paid for it as he was made a scapegoat. The first of many problems was the construction getting underway without the plans being complete as previously mentioned.

Right from the start the pattern was set, there was now a constant demand for drawings in conflict with an architect who had the need to constantly change his mind in order to create the “perfect opera house”, this combined with the demand from a client SOHEC which was undecided in what their exact requirements were was a disaster waiting to happen. Stage one did continue, but was showing signs of slowing down. There were issues with SOHEC constantly wanting to change plans. Due to these complexities and Utzon appearing to have a free run on the design, costs soon became an issue. Being concerned, in 1960 the NSW government eventually replaced SOHEC as Utzon’s client. It appears Utzon’s bad project management had been noticed.

There was later an issue with the shell design that proves this. Due to bad planning, the shells had to be partially demolished and construction was re-started with a new design. The demolition process alone took six months in total. There were explosions used in the demolition which apart from slowing down the project, made it highly unsafe on site and in the surrounding area with absolutely no regard for safety it would seem. This is another aspect of the project construction that would not have occurred had the role of an active, on site, project manager been in place. But this was not deemed evident as Utzon’s comments in “the saga of Sydney opera house” suggest. Utzon is quoted saying “management is in a way the easiest part of a job”. Although he was a master architect and far ahead of his time, it seemed throughout stage one and two of the Sydney Opera House construction project Jorn Utzon never did master the art of management, hence resulting in his subsequent replacement.

However, stage two had gone from 1962-1965 and the contractors were Hornibrook Limited. Hornibrook had been out priced for Stage one but due to bad provision of drawings, Civil and Civic did not get the contract as the relationship between Arup and Hornibrook appeared to be strong. However, by the end of stage two, the people of Sydney started to become despondent due to the resulting heavy media attention on the now controversial project. This, along with Utzon wanting to dictate affairs resulted in a major development. In 1966 the newly elected Askin Liberal Party Government forced Utzon to step down, sighting costs as the main issue. This was a major setback in the construction of the project. However, Utzon believed that nobody could complete stage three of the project without him. He was wrong in his predictions as Todd Hall & Littlemore took over as architects and subsequently completed the project. But it could be seen where he was coming from as the new architect’s did not have plans, and due to this, costs soon began to rise.

Fig 1.4

There were many issues to be addressed before stage three of the project could go ahead. They were all something that would burden the project with extra time and cost. Firstly, the seating layout had not been drawn accurately so audience capacity was unknown. So no acoustic design was possible. There were no provisions for stormwater drains, there was no provision for power or lighting and there was no decision made on the huge glass walls – after nearly ten tears! This highlights the importance of planning a job. For these reasons, it was apparent that phase three was not planned. This could be the reason the estimated cost for the project would increase so greatly. However, after much deliberation the glass walls were finally complete in 1971 with the construction finally completed in 1973 (although Ronald Sharp did not complete the organ until 1979). The construction can either go down as a success or go down as a failure. A reason for it being a failure is that the target number of seats was not reached. The arrangement ended up121 seats short of the target. But a reason for construction being a success is the perfect acoustics achieved and the more sombre interior provided by Hall in relation to the explosive interior intended by Utzon. This suggests that while the whole saga made the construction a failure, it also made it a great success. Although it was an expensive success!

Clockwise from left: Concert Hall, Rehearsal/Recording Hall, Ply Rib System (Utzon’s Concept Sketch) Concert Hall Area Description.


Project Costs

Fig 1.6

Project costs on the Sydney Opera House were excessive. What an overpriced job it turned out to be. Costs spiralled and ended up at A$102,000,000. This is unbelievable when it is compared to the A$7,000,000 that was originally estimated by the quantity surveyor for building Utzon’s entry. The high cost is all down to bad planning, organisation, preparation, co-ordination and above all, bad communication. All jobs that the chief architect should have had covered. Therefore, this was another major mistake on Utzon’s behalf. As in any project, the stages should be part of a negotiated contract. This was very clearly not the case. With hindsight, it would have been sensible for stage one to have been a negotiated contract. Instead, it was commenced with very little information being distributed. This had a knock on effect and subsequently there was very little information upon which the tenders could calculate their price correctly. However, it should be noted that costs increased on a higher scale once Utzon had resigned. Although there were price increases, they were nothing compared to the money that Hall would now spend completing the building. The trend in cost increases can be seen in fig 1.6

The builder’s progress had also been held up by regular changes in the drawings. This was frustrating on the builder’s behalf and it became a big problem as men were being paid and not a lot of work was getting done. This is any project manager’s nightmare. Because of the changing in drawings it also became difficult to produce accurate costing. This raises the question of whether Utzon’s method of trial and error was such a good idea. Maybe it was a good idea on small scale projects like his previous projects, but not on a project of such a massive scale and notably his first big project. The implications of the decision to proceed with stage one of the project without a negotiated contract would not only cause the price to raise, but also set a bad trend and hence a subsequent outcome for the remaining stages. This outcome was massive overspending that occurred due to bad planning.

Another effect on the cost was Utzon’s apparent inability to nominate subcontractors. To give an example of this would be of his dependence on Ralph Symonds Limited. Utzon had plans with Symonds for the inside of the auditoria only to find that Hornibrook were not willing to negotiate with a company that were only guaranteeing $50,000 of a $7million contract. If Symonds went into receivership, then Hornibrook would as they appointed them, have to foot the bill. They were not willing to do this and the plans were soon scrapped. Deliberation over this matter was a lot of wasted time and hence waste of money, this being a prime example of bad planning. If planned properly, there would have been an alternative method which was decided upon and this would have subsequently saved money. This inability to plan and manage tasks was becoming a familiar pattern and because of this pattern, costs were soon on the rise. The cost issue with Symonds was something that ultimately Utzon was responsible for. This latest mistake could have been his undoing.

Notably for the new architects, Hall Todd & Littlemore, their first major decision was to change the interior plans. There were many seating issues left unclear in the design so rather than try work out differences and finish what was started, the decision was made for the new architectural team to go it alone and make design modifications inside the building. With the inability to produce a room with dual functions, Major Hall would become a concert hall with Minor Hall now becoming an opera hall. The cost of this plan was $3million, nearly half of the original project estimation. This indicated that Hall would make serious decisions that would have implications on the cost. Already, Hall Todd & Littlemore with their inexperience in opera houses were having a negative effect on costs, most of the time increasing the cost by a substantial amount. It raises the question of whether it would have been wise to bring back Utzon under negotiated terms. Surely his vision would have helped clarify things, subsequently saving money in the long run. Or to argue this point it is known that prices in general had risen during the latter stages of the project. However, cost rises in relation to time did not seem to be accounted for. This is calculated in every project today (E.g. NPV, Simple Payback) and surely accurate cost rise estimation would have made this project run more efficiently.

In relation to the project efficiency, it was later proposed to the government by Utzon himself, Hall and Ove Arup that they were in favour of Utzon returning to collaborate with the team and hence fulfil his work. Utzon even offered to surrender the position of power on his return, while also solving the seating issues and agree to government terms. This would have been good because Utzon could have focussed on his work and left the management of the project to somebody else. This reflects today’s methods and surely it would have made for a smoother running project.

However, his proposal was rejected by the government. This suddenly raises the cost issue again. Was Utzon unfairly treated? By then (1968), under Hall, Todd and Littlemore, cost estimates had risen to A$85Million. This was confirmation that Utzon was unjustly treated, while also highlighting the massive bill that Hall greatly contributed to.

Things took a turn in 1969 when for the first time; the costs of the opera house had outstripped the income from the lottery. Now to carry the project forward, the PWD were forced to look at bridging finance. This issue was first realised while the plans to build an escalator and multi-storey car park were on-going. When the PWD looked into it they realised that no funds remained. This again was an example of bad planning, this time on behalf of the PWD. This all suggests that project management did not take priority at all, no matter who the designer or client was. This is a big factor in the major financing issues.

These plans to build the car park however were looking to go ahead until an intervention by Ove arup. He disclosed the plans to the media, eventually stopping the plans going ahead. This car park proposal would have ruined Utzon’s concept for the Mayan Plateau and Ove Arup’s intervention is one of the major success stories of the project that is not so well known. It shows that he remained committed to protecting Utzon’s visions. The following extract from “the saga of the Sydney opera house” suggests this. “To strive for perfection to the tune of A$85 Million and then spoil the whole thing in order to save A$3Million is, we think, indefensible.” Ove Arup January 1970. His words suggest to us that that while costs were vital, there was a constant drive for perfection on the project. The strive for perfection subsequently took priority over the cost. This is the single biggest contrasting factor in relation to the construction business of today. Cost along with safety is the driving factor in today’s industry, with perfection making way if needed. However this is maybe one of the main reasons why the Sydney Opera house has gone down as an iconic structure.

Executive Summary

In the development of this project here should be questions relating to the Government. Were they responsible? They appointed the Opera House Executive Committee to liaise with Utzon and to pay his fees. The government should have predicted the costs that Utzon’s modus operandi methods would eventually amount to and whether this would eventually throw the project into disrepute. They could have initially insisted that Utzon had to stick to original plans if he was going to be funded, even if the design process would have been delayed. But such was the desire to start as soon as possible, this was not the case.

This shows that from the start, barriers had to be overcome. Determination however was present and this would carry the project forward for a period, but along with determination there needs to be direction. And due to Utzon’s failure to ensure the project was managed properly, combined with the imperative views of the Liberal/Country party Coalition Minister for Public Works – Davis Hughes, the consequences would soon follow.

When Utzon was replaced by Hall Todd & Littlemore who correspondingly assumed the design of the inside of the building, this meant his visions of a masterpiece would now never be seen. It appears these visions were lost to the ongoing political battle. Maybe these changes happened with the theory in mind that local mediocrity was preferred to foreign genius. This raises the question, was the Australian government ready for such a big development? It would appear not.

Utzon stepped down believing that he would be taken back as no successor would be able to complete the project without plans. Utzon’s reason for this of course was because the plans for the buildings were in his head. Another example of bad project management on his behalf, a way to correct this would have been to construct and distribute drawings of future plans to members of the team. The architect assumed the management role back in that time but he should have hired an individual to solely concentrate on management. This is another area where Utzon went wrong in a big way. Back during the construction of the project, there was prefabricated concrete work used on the shells and with the application of UK based computer technology to help solve engineering problems; this was a benefit to the team as precise measurements were needed for sections to fit together. In an interview in 2005 Utzon himself recalls the segments being constructed. He likens them to joints on the human fingers, likening the shell segments to hands, where fingers meet perfectly at the top. He states how important it was for measurements to be precise. This suggests that Utzon may have later realised his mistakes in not appreciating the true importance of planning a project.

Nobody had seemed to plan or manage the project to a great deal. An example of this is SOHEC’s handling of Utzon. During the construction period they should have managed their relationship better by means of better communication. Being the client, this responsibility falls on SOHEC to deal with Utzon. They did not deliver and the PWD stepped in to try rectifying the situation. The PWD did take action so far as putting pressure on Utzon to resign. But was this the correct move? Doing this resulted in a substantial cost increase for the remainder of the construction. This highlighted bad project management on the client’s behalf. A way to keep costs down would have been to review tender documents from Hall, Todd & Littlemore before awarding them with the duty of project completion. This would have highlighted whether in relation to costs it would benefit to keep Utzon or to replace him.

However, it must be recognised that hall was not given his due rewards for the outcome of the project. He did an extraordinary job keeping in mind the massive task that he had taken on. On the other hand, his initial need for working drawings does suggest that he did put an emphasis on planning. This planning did finally take the project forward and it shows that planning is a must in the construction of any successful project.

For all the previously listed reasons, it can be seen that the Sydney Opera House was a massive failure while also proving to be a massive success. Not many projects are known for their failures and still regarded a huge success. How many projects with a Pritzker prize winning architect and an awarded world heritage site are regarded by some as a complete failure? Not a lot. Not to mention it only being the second construction project in modern history to be recognised as a world heritage site while the architect was still alive. This is why this project was so unique. Strangely, the project’s synopsis mirrors the project achievements of architect Jorn Utzon. His work on the project proved to be a massive failure while also being a massive success. His success obvious in the fact that he created a masterpiece, but his shortcomings in the Project Management of the project emphasize the importance of project management. Views have massively revolved down through the years into what we now have in today’s industry. This is personnel who recognise the importance of project management. The construction of the Sydney Opera House of course contributed greatly to this.

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