36 views of the Sydney Opera House

Is there an image that symbolises Australia better than the Sydney Opera House? This architectural masterpiece is one of these iconic buildings that everyone can identify at first glance, just like the Statue of Liberty, the pyramids of Egypt of the Eiffel Tower. That’s why 50 years after its inauguration, I wanted to pay tribute to this extraordinary building and to the men who designed it, taking my inspiration from the work of the Japanese artist Hokusai: here are 36 views of the Sydney Opera House.

You might not be familiar with the name of Hokusai, but I’m quite sure you know at least one of his works: The Great Wave off Kanagawa. This very famous woodblock print is the first of the series 36 views of Mount Fuji, realised by this Japanese painter and drawer between 1831 and 1833, which has sinced inspired a great number of other artists. More modestly, it also inspired me for this article!

I will always remember the emotion I felt the very first time I stared at the Sydney Opera House. It was in September 2016, I was in Australia since almost three months, and I was very impatient to finally explore the largest city of the country. I then knew almost nothing about this stunning building, not even the name of its architect! An error since corrected, and 50 years after is inauguration, on the 20th of October 1973, I wanted to share with you its fascinating and tragic history through a series of 36 views of the Sydney Opera House. Here’s the first one!

The Sydney Opera House

The History of the Sydney Opera House

In the 1950s, Sydney didn’t have the international presence that it has nowadays. It was even outshined by its eternal rival Melbourne, which was chosen to organise the 1956 Olympic Games! It was time for the city to react. Under the impulsion of Eugène Goossens, director of the Conservatorium of Music, and Joseph Cahill, Labor Premier from New South Wales, it was decided that a brand-new opera would be built on the peninsula of Bennelong Point, in the middle of the bay, right next to the Royal Botanic Garden, where was located until the significantly less glamourous tram depot. An international design competition was held in 1955. Out of the 233 entries, an almost unknown 38-year old Danish architect who had never built anything outside of Denmark was selected: Jørn Utzon.

His project could have never seen the light of day though. The jury of the competition was unable to pick a winner, so they asked the finno-american architect Eero Saarinen for help. He was the one who decided to select Utzon’s contribution, although it has been initially dismissed by his peers. A genius idea, especially considering how uninspired the other finalists’ projects were… (link to the website of the Guardian).

The legend says that Utzon found the inspiration for these famous structures in the shape of sails or shells by peeling an orange. They are actually sections of a sphere, which could be entirely reconstituted by sticking them to each other. But this revolutionnary design was going to cause huge technical issues. As soon as the construction began, delays started to pile up, and the cost exploded. In May 1965, the Liberal party won the State election of New South Wales. Put under pressure by the new Premier Robert Askin, who was a strong opponent to its project, Jørn Utzon eventually resigned. He left Australia on April 28 1966 and never came back, incapable of seeing his vision being distorted by the work of someone else. The Australian architect Peter Hall was given the task to complete the construction.

The Opera was eventually inaugurated with great pomp on the 20th of October 1973 by Her Majesty Elizabeth II, more than ten years after the date initially set. The budget had been multiplied by fifteen, rocketing from seven to more than hundred millions of dollars! But beyond this material cost, there was also an important human cost. The name of Utzon wasn’t pronounced even once during the ceremony, and by some sort of malediction, neither him nor any of the three other men at the origin of its construction weren’t present. Joseph Cahill died from a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 68. Eero Saarinen also passed away because of a brain tumour in 1961, at the age of 51 only. As for Eugène Goossens, he was involved in a sexual scandal in 1956 and arrested in possession of dozens of pornographic items. He left Australia to England where he died in disgrace six years later.

The construction of the Opera House didn’t leave Peter Hall unscathed either. When he accepted to take over the role of Utzon at short notice (despite having been one of the signatories of a petition demanding his return), some of his colleagues considered him as a traitor et most of his decisions were strongly criticised, which weighed on him a lot. He nevertheless accomplished remarkable work, but only Jørn Utzon’s name eventually went down in history. A plaque commemorating its work was unveiled in 1993. He received the Pritzker Price in 2003, the equivalent of the Nobel Price for architecture, and in 2004, a room entirely renovated according to his instructions was named Utzon Room. He passed away on November 29 2008 at the age of 90, without having ever stared at “his” Opera House with his own eyes. As for Hall, he died in 1995 at just 64 years old, forgotten by the general public, ruined, and suffering from alcoholism.

The Sydney Opera House today

I ignored everything of all these dramas that had punctuated the history of the Opera House when I stared at it for the first time. I arrived in Sydney on a Saturday evening, under pouring rain, but luckily on the Sunday morning the dark clouds had been replaced by an etheral blue sky dotted with a few white cumulus. It was the break of day and it was very cool, but the streets were almost deserted at this early time and I was the only tourist. I walked until Mrs Macquarie’s Point, the most famous view point over the Opera House. The shiver that ran down my spine the moment my eyes rested on its elegant silhouette was not only due to the cold. The sorts of shells forming the roof of the building seemed to spring from the ground, giving it an almost leaping appearance, as if it were a ship just about to leave the harbour whose immaculate sails had just been hoisted, contrasting with the enormous pylons and graceful steel arch of the Harbor Bridge in the background. This panorama was of a stunning beauty.

During the following days, I admired it from every possible perspective. From a ferry sailing to Manly…

…and coming back in the late afternoon for a gorgeous sunset;

from the Rocks, the historical district of Sydney at the foot of the Harbour Bridge;

from the Harbour Bridge itself, during the day…

…and during the night;

from Kirribilli, across the Sydney Harbour, where people have the most amazing view over the city;

and from Luna Park, with the interesting perspective of the Harbour Bridge in front of it.

I watched it playing hide and seek with the trees of the Botanic Garden;

I admired ships sailing in front of it;

I took pictures from very close

…I took pictures in black and white

…I took pictures during the day

…and I took pictures during the night.

I even saw a ferry that used the shells of the Opera House as sails!

My only regret is that I never saw it during Vivid Sydney, an annual festival of lights during which its white structure turns into an explosion of colours. Hopefully someday!

For more information, have a look at the official website of the Sydney Opera House, where you’ll find a lot of details about its construction!

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