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The Strange History of the Sydney Opera House

Alexander Webb
Alexander Webb – The Wandering Writer


The Sydney Opera House is a world famous icon. With its beautiful design, how could it be any way else? But while everyone knows about this majestic landmark, far fewer know the thrilling story of its creation—and how it was nearly never built at all.

The design came from Danish architect Jørn Utzon who submitted it to a 1956 competition sponsored by the New South Wales government. His visionary proposal was initially rejected by three judges—seemingly dooming his hopes of winning. Yet this concept so captivated the fourth judge that it was chosen as the winner, beating 232 other entrants.

The reality of building the revolutionary, sail-like structure created multiple technological and cost problems. Final designs were completed late, and the project quickly fell behind schedule. The NSW government was afraid that delays would weaken public support, so they forced the project to go ahead before it was truly ready. This meant some early work had to be redone later in the process, ironically leading to more delays.

Building started on March 2, 1959, and problems multiplied. A key issue was creating the sloped, sail-like roof. Concepts for its creation were either too expensive, impossible with current technology, or both. The problem was finally solved when the team cast the roof as different sized sections of a sphere. In this way, the curved nature of the roof could be created in a uniform way.


Disaster struck in 1965 when Robert Askin—who had vocally opposed the project—was elected premier of NSW. Disputes over cost and control meant that Utzon and his staff were not paid—forcing Utzon’s resignation. Bitterness over this political interference meant that Utzon—who died in 2009—never visited the completed Opera House, even after it was declared a World Heritage site in 2007. While Utzon faced much criticism at the time, he was later respected as a visionary within the architectural community.

Famed Architect Frank Gehry noted, “Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.”

Alexander WebbAlex Webb is a traveller who has visited over 30 countries and lived in Hong Kong, Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States. He has written for National Geographic Books and co-authored a book published by the Financial Times Press. When he’s not travelling or writing, he enjoys playing guitar and writing songs. Follow him on instagram at @alxndrwb


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