Australia's Sydney Opera House is one of the greatest designing concepts ever conceived. The shape of this Australian marvel is so complex that its nearly impossible to be built. But this history of this building is more that concrete and steel. This Australian engineering marvel contains a story of a broken dream and a fallen hero.
Sydney, Australia is a bustling, modern super-city and the lifestyle capital of the world. Sydney contains beaching, sun dance and a giant harbour (the Sydney Harbour Bridge) at its heart. But if you mention Sydney to anyone the first thing they think of is The Sydney Opera House - a building that defines and is defined by the city that surrounds it.
The Sydney Opera House is simple in concept yet infinitely complex in design. And only a few people realize the drama that surrounds its creation. This building in Australia re-wrote the record books by changing not just the way we design the things but also the way we build them.
The shells of this Australian marvel alone required one hundred and fifty thousand man-hours to design. This was more than just an engineering riddle - it was an engineering nightmare. Yet the most complex problem needed the most simplest solution.
Designed by a danish architect Jørn Utzon, the story of Sydney Opera House is a story of triumph, drama and heartache. If anyone had come up with a better idea Jørn Utzon would have had no hesitation in scrapping all his previous work - such was his aim to achieve the best result possible. As Jørn Utzon himself said:
"You don't want to have the name Opera House (written on the building itself). You want to see that this is an Opera House, as you see this is a church."
But behind the story of this masterpiece of Australia, is the story of a disaster. Budgets blowing up by fifteen hundred percent and timelines stretching from five years to fourteen. The Sydney Opera House was Jørn Utzon's lifework and to be deprived to be able to finish it, broke his heart.
But thirty years after its ruin, Jørn Utzon's broken dreams were planned to be rebuilt. Now the future plans not only came from Jørn Utzon himself, it also came from his son. Jørn Utzon's son would go on to help his father to make an Australian marvel that will astonish the Australians for decades to come.
Jørn Utzon developed his scheme by making a platform for the Sydney Opera House. That platform was where the artists would prepare and at the top of the platform was where the artists would perform in front of the applauding Australian audience. The roof under the scheme was for shelter.
As part of an international competition from some of the biggest names in the world design, Jørn Utzon's plan was a revolution. Bennelong Point, New South Wales, is one of the most prominent headlands of Sydney which is visible from not just multiple angles around the site but from above as well. Inspired by a similar landscape near his home in Denmark, Jørn Utzon developed a concept termed as the 'Fifth Facade' - a way of looking at this Australian marvel's design not just from front, back or sides, but from everywhere. Judges unanimously awarded Utzon the first prize. The Sydney Opera House was the thirty eight year old Jørn Utzon's first major work. Little did he knew that it would almost be his last as well.
The radical shape of the Sydney Opera House was unlike anything built before and with today's technology it would still be a challenge. Unlike a regular building where strength can be found in simple straight lines and geometric angles, the sails of the Sydney Opera House are a series of curves and complex geometry. This ideal form for this Australian masterwork is a kind of a shell structure. But making one that is twenty story tall and strong enough to bear its own weight was simply a near impossible task.
The question was 'How to make the shells of the Sydney Opera House light, attractive and strong? And the answer was hidden not just in material that was to be used but also in geometry. Many tests very performed to design the best possible shape for the shells. Computer assistance was taken to interpret lengthy data.
For Utzon the pressure was immense. Although guideline plans for the base of the building had been started but could not have been finalized without knowing about the top shells. Politicians were considering to drop the plan altogether unless construction had already been started. This left Jørn Utzon with a dilemma of either to start construction with the completion of the plan or don't start at all.
The construction was started before plans for the shells of the Sydney Opera House had been finalized.
Stage I of the construction (the podium) was started nervously. It was like working from the outside in. Details were constantly refined. Engineers were forced to use assumptions and estimations rather than research and facts.
By late 1962 construction was already overtime and over-budget and no viable solution for the design of the shells had been found yet. And if the solution was not to be found soon, the Sydney Opera House was never going to be a reality.
Ironically the solution to the riddle of the Sydney Opera House sails was hidden not in complexity but in simplicity. It was found in the purest and strongest curve of them all - in a sphere. Spheres are inherently strong because of their even surfaces and curvature which allows weight and stress to be passed around the shape evenly. Every different shell of the Sydney Opera House was made in such a way that all the shells together could be peeled off from a single sphere. And the man with this concept for the shells (Phase II of the Opera House) was, of course, Jørn Utzon.