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The History of Rome / – 553 Cautionary Tales of the Sydney Opera House

The History of Rome – 553- Cautionary Tales of the Sydney Opera House

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The Sydney Opera House is an iconic and distinctive building in the world, but the saga of making it a reality is a cautionary tale. In this episode of “The History of Rome,” we delve into the challenges, controversies, and delays that plagued the construction of this architectural masterpiece. From the young Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, winning the international competition to the project’s completion a decade behind schedule, this episode uncovers the fascinating story behind the Sydney Opera House.

Main Takeaways

The Design Competition

  • The young Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, won an international competition to design the Sydney Opera House, but it proved to be a bitter victory.
  • Sydney Opera House competition challenged architects to design a huge, visible, and cheap building.
  • Eero Sarinen, the final judge, was unimpressed with the leading entries.
  • Sarinen discovered Utzon’s sketch, which was completely different from the rest.
  • Utzon’s design had monumental base and light, shell-like roof structures.

The Construction Challenges

  • The Sydney Opera House project faced challenges from cramped site limitations to conflicting desires for the type of concert halls to be built.
  • Hudson’s sketches were impressive, but his entry for the opera house was criticized for not following competition rules and overstepping the site’s boundaries.
  • The sail-like roof structures were questioned for their ability to stand up, and Utzon had taken no engineering advice until Over-Arupp was brought in.
  • The building was rushed, with workers starting before Utzon and Arup had figured out how to build it.
  • The attitude of architect Jørn Utzon towards design changes and expense led to the creation of the “most beautiful building in the world”.

The Controversies and Delays

  • Utzon’s habit of disappearing for weeks at a time caused delays and bottlenecks in the project.
  • Utzon’s travels to China, Japan, and Nepal inspired his design for the opera house, but caused further delays.
  • Utzon’s solution to the expensive and structurally unsound roof design involved proportioning each part as though it was sliced out of the same sphere.
  • The relationship between Utzon and engineer Arup deteriorated, leading to delays and issues with decision-making.
  • The longer the construction phase of a project lasts, the more time there is for something to derail everything.

The Aftermath

  • The project was hugely over budget, and conservative rural voters had started to wonder why that lottery money couldn’t be spent on something else.
  • No prominent architect would touch the Opera House project after Utzon’s acrimonious departure. It was a matter of professional solidarity.
  • Over Adop, the engineer, did not resign and Utzon saw this as a betrayal.
  • Davis Hughes hired a young local government architect named Peter Hall to finish the project.
  • The Opera House cost 15 times the original budget, and it was completed a decade behind schedule.


The Design and Construction Challenges

The saga of the Sydney Opera House began with a design competition that challenged architects to create a huge, visible, and cheap building. Jørn Utzon’s unconventional design, with its monumental base and light, shell-like roof structures, stood out among the entries. However, the construction process faced numerous challenges, including cramped site limitations, conflicting desires for the concert halls, and concerns about the roof structures’ stability. The rushed construction, lack of engineering advice, and Utzon’s attitude towards design changes further complicated the project.

The Controversies and Delays

Controversies and delays plagued the Sydney Opera House project. Utzon’s frequent disappearances and travels to Asia caused bottlenecks and significant delays. The strained relationship between Utzon and engineer Arup added to the project’s challenges, with decision-making becoming difficult. The project’s prolonged construction phase allowed for further complications and setbacks, ultimately leading to a fiasco of how not to run a mega project.

The Aftermath

The Sydney Opera House faced significant financial and professional consequences. The project went vastly over budget, causing concerns among conservative rural voters. Utzon’s acrimonious departure resulted in no prominent architect wanting to touch the Opera House project. The engineer, Over Adop, remained, leading to Utzon feeling betrayed. Eventually, a young local government architect, Peter Hall, was hired to complete the project. The Opera House was completed a decade behind schedule and cost 15 times the original budget.


The Sydney Opera House stands as a masterpiece and repays its debt to the citizens of Sydney many times over. However, the process of building it was a cautionary tale of poor planning, controversies, and delays. The price paid for the Sydney Opera House was not only in delays and dollars but also in the missed opportunities for Jørn Utzon to design other buildings in the city. Despite its tumultuous history, the Sydney Opera House remains an architectural marvel and a symbol of the city’s identity.

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