The Sydney Opera House turns 50

Jan Utzon’s iconic creation turns 50 this month, so we’ve dived into the City of Sydney archives to look at the history of Sydney’s most recognised building.

A building to inspire

A series of shells, the billow of sails, the crests of foaming waves – the Sydney Opera House’s silhouette is globally recognised. Together with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it’s a sight that defines Sydney.

The most famous couple in Sydney. The Sydney Opera and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are the globally recognised symbols of our harbour city - you can't have one without the other.

The harbour teems with boats for the official opening of the Sydney Opera House. In the foreground the ferry Baragoola tilts as the crowds on board line the starboard side for a better view. Photo: Graeme Andrews, City of Sydney Archives, A-00075516.

The vision of a genius

Jan Utzon’s design was not well-developed when it was picked as the basis for the new Sydney Opera House. But with its dramatic, peeling shell segments, it was the standout concept. It captured the judging panel’s imagination, trumping more conventional designs.

The pre-cast concrete sections of the sails are assembled by specially designed cranes in 1965. Photo: Allan A. Hedges, City of Sydney Archives, A-00024313.

Engineers, architects and builders had to solve many challenges to make Utzon's design a reality. The roof alone took 5 years to perfect. Segments constructed in precast concrete and assembled onsite with specially designed cranes. In total, construction took 14 years!

An aerial view of the Opera House construction site. Note the large chevron shaped 'scales' (top right of shot) that make up the intricate patterning of the sails. Photo: Len Stone, City of Sydney Archives, A-00057832

Dive deep into the history of the Sydney Opera House with our City of Sydney Archives. Explore our Sydney Opera House collection or learn more about some of the other proposed sites.

Location, location, location

It’s hard to imagine the harbour foreshore without the Sydney Opera House. But Bennelong Point / Dubbagullee was not always the preferred site. More than 30 locations were considered, including converting the Queen Victoria Building. Other possible locations were opposite Hyde Park, The Domain between the Art Gallery of NSW and St Mary’s Cathedral. Even the Royal Agricultural Grounds at Moore Park were an option.

At left, correspondence to the Lord Mayor outlines a proposal to re-purpose the QVB as an opera house. At the time, the Hilton Hotel was putting pressure on the City to redevelop the QVB site into a hotel! At right, Council committee papers outline some of the other sites under consideration for the opera house. Documents from the City of Sydney Archives, A-00116250.

A very crowded house

Some of Sydney’s most memorable social and cultural moments have played out on the steps and forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. The ‘house for the people of Sydney’ has seen concerts , art installations, protests, Olympic events and millions of selfies. In 1997, tens of thousands of people came to see Crowded House play, free.

Tens of thousands of people come together on the steps of the House for a free concert from Crowded House in 1997. Photo: Tim Cole, City of Sydney Archives, ID-A-00083659.

Protesters delivered a very visible anti-war message in 2003, in opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Photo: Time Cole, City of Sydney Archives, A-00083766

The Opera House forecourt set up as the swim-to-bike transition area for the triathlon during the 2000 Olympic Games. Photo: Grahame Edwards, City of Sydney Archives, A-00056582.

A canvas

The sails of the Sydney Opera House are a canvas on which both human and natural light play. Projection on the sails during Vivid Sydney delights millions of people every year. But the way the 1,056,006 tiles reflect the changing light throughout the seasons is arguably much more beautiful.

The 2000 Olympics, a glorious time to be a Sydneysider indeed, saw the sails lit with the Olympic colours. Photo: C. Moore Hardy, City of Sydney Archives - A-00075168.

Enjoying a moment on the sails, a lone worker abseils down the curve of an icon. Photo: Tim Cole, City of Sydney Archives, A-00083474.

The Opera House is lit with the colours of the Progress Pride flag to launch Sydney World Pride in 2023. Photo: Phillip Glanz.

Golden late afternoon light illuminates the sails of the Opera House. Photo: City of Sydney Archives, A-00048879.

Discover Sydney Opera House events, tours, performances and more at What's On.

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