How Sydney’s Opera House became a symbol for Australia

 —  Article by Alwynne Gwilt
Sydney opera house viewed from a Ferry.
Credit: Jimmy Harris via Wikimedia Commons

“It transformed the psyche of the people here in Sydney to say: ‘We have something quite special to offer.’ It wasn’t just about building a concert hall but about positioning the city on the world stage for the future.”

When the design of the Sydney Opera House was first drawn up in 1955, Australia was finding its feet as the power of the British over its colonies was beginning to wane. And for Graham Coutts –  JLL’s International Director of Strategic Consulting in Asia Pacific – nothing better signifies that transition than the soaring sails of the harbour-side building.

“When much of Australia’s architecture resembled provincial cities in England, it signified that Sydney was asserting its independence,” says Coutts, who first saw the Opera House on a visit to Sydney in 1978, just five years after it opened its doors.

But while the Opera House may be one of the world’s most well-known buildings, the controversy over its construction was, for many years, less public. First conceived by Danish architect Jorn Utzon it took 18 years to complete, and was wrought with political disagreements, budget overruns, and finally the departure of its designer who felt his vision was being stymied.

“There was a documentary about it produced by the BBC in the 1960s that was actually banned and the original film physically destroyed by the Australian broadcaster due to revelations about the battles between the politicians and the architects. It was only in 2013 that the BBC dusted it off and reprogrammed it for airing so it’s taken quite a long time for the acrimony that surrounds the building to be put to bed,” he says

Despite this, the Opera House went on to be listed as a World Heritage Site and won Utzon the prestigious Pritzker Prize, with the judging panel writing: “It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.”

Ageless qualities

A key aspect of the Opera House is that despite being completed in the early 1970s, it still seems modern today with its soft-cornered triangular sails of cascading sizes and its prime position on the waterfront of Australia’s largest city.

“Many buildings designed at that time are looking quite brutalist now but the Opera House is an elegant building that is accessible to everyone. Sixty years after it was first designed, when many landmarks are showing their age, it remains fresh, original and inspirational,” says Coutts.

This fact is what will help it stay the test of time, he adds. “The Opera House is not going to date, especially in comparison to the quirky stuff  some of today’s “starchitects” are designing: they’re a little bit too smart for their own good. I think people will look back and say those buildings were fun but they won’t have the same longevity that the Opera House has managed to capture,” concludes Coutts.

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