50Sydney Opera House
For demonstrating architecture’s power to redefine a city
When an Australian government panel leading the design competition for a new opera house in Sydney saw the sketches submitted by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, members were stunned: “It was so unreal. I looked at it and thought, ‘Good heavens, this is fantastic. But of course, it can’t be built,’” recalled Jack Zunz, judge and former chairman of engineering firm Arup.
He was almost right.
Arup’s construction of Utzon’s winning design started two years later in 1959, with a tight four-year project schedule and an AU$7 million budget. An impatience to just get started meant requirements management and planning both got short shrift: Even as the foundation was being poured, the team had a scant number of drawings to work from. On-site issues would fester while the designers in the United Kingdom took weeks to answer questions and amend plans. Progress was glacial.
Not until 1961 did Utzon and Arup crack the problem of how to construct the now-iconic shelled roof. Then shortly after, Utzon resigned from the project. The trio of architects appointed to take over—who had never worked together before—assumed they’d inherit detailed plans. They were wrong: Seven years into the project’s timeline, the plans were still incomplete. It wasn’t until late 1966 that the team finally released a plan to the public, and that was followed by months of public debate and stakeholder squabbles. Among other problems, re-creating Utzon’s designs forced the government to dig deeper for more funds to breathe new life into the project.
The Sydney Opera House opened to the public in 1973—10 years behind schedule and 1,357 percent over budget. In the end, it had taken 14 years and a final cost of AU$102 million to translate those fantastical early sketches into a built reality. Yet few would argue the beleaguered project wasn’t worth it. Now hailed as “an architectural marvel” and one of “the most influential places in history,” the Sydney Opera House is the youngest site to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. It draws more than 8 million visitors every year, and a 2013 Deloitte report estimated the influx of tourists and local cultural excursions adds US$775 million to the Australian economy every year.
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