Friday, February 4, 2011

New Zealand & Australia 13: Sydney Opera House

Experiencing the Sydney Opera house is something I believe should be on everyone's bucket list.  This building moved me in a way I had not experienced since standing in the Temple of Luxor in Egypt.

This building is an architectural masterpiece.  That's all there is to it. These shots were taken from the zoo ferry on the one morning during our time in Australia that we enjoyed blue skies.

The story behind how the Opera House came to be build is part of what makes it so special, because it nearly didn't happen.

Sydney held a design competition for a new opera house in 1955 and received over 200 entries. 

This design had originally been rejected.  But for reasons known only to him, Finnish architect Eero Saarinen rescued this design by Jorn Utzon from from a pile of 30 rejects and placed it back in consideration.

One of the reasons it had been rejected was that there were no engineering drawings specifying how it should be built.  Basically, the competition entry consisted only of a series of sketches showing an outline of these shells.

But, the design was so breathtakingly original compared to the other entries that it ended up winning.  It is a feast for the eyes from any angle.  No other entry even came close.

The problem then became one of building it.  A structure complicated by this many curves had never been built before.

Cost overruns and construction delays plagued the project until the bitter end.

 During the years from 1957, when the design team began working on the problem, to 1963, when the foundations had nearly been completed, structural design engineering firms from all over the world struggled with the problem of building the curved roofs.

The final answer came back that the shells could not be built within any sort of reasonable cost framework.

There is much more to the story, of course, but the gist of it is that at the last minute, Utzon, in a flash of genius, came up with the solution.  He envisioned each of the different curved roofs as being sections of a sphere.

Defining the problem from that perspective, allowed  a number of identical precast concrete ribs to support each shell.

The key to the success of this idea was the utilization of identical supporting ribs.  Other design firms had either considered building a concrete roof structure over elaborate forms, or devising a system of supporting ribs where each rib in a shell structure needed to be a different size.

Look closely through the different photos shown here and you can see how the ribs for each shell fan out from a single base.  Individual supporting ribs inside the shells can also be seen

The process of bringing any radically new design into fruition requires a certain amount trial and error.  Turning Utzon's rib idea into reality was no exception.  Cost and time overruns continued.  Political pressure to finish the project mounted. 

At some point, Utzon's quest for perfection was seen as a liability instead of an asset and he was relieved of his duties.  Other architects ended up finishing the interiors.

Utzon returned to Denmark and we were told he never set foot inside the finished building.  

This is the concert hall lobby.  Photographs do not begin to do justice to the experience of this space.  The opera lobby is similar but has red carpet instead of purple.

When we first booked our cruise last summer, I looked on line to see if it would be possible to see a performance inside the opera house here.  To our disappointment and dismay, all the tours and performances were sold out.

On Monday, the day before we were to leave for home, after taking photographs from the ferry, Melony and I decided to stroll over and see the opera house close up.

I took a few exterior photographs and then we wandered inside and came across the ticket lobby.  Since we were there, I decided to have a conversation with a ticket agent.

The ticket agent, who was very nice, said that tickets for each performance are always withheld from online sales.

He briefly checked his computer and then brightly announced that two tickets were available for that evening's performance of Madam Butterfly.  Would we be interested?

Melony looked a me. I handed him my credit card without saying a word. We could not believe our good fortune.

As I did, he also mentioned that if we were interested in a tour, space was available for a tour that began in ten minutes.

Photographs here and in the next post of the interior were taken from that tour. 

Next time, more Opera House.
Continue on to Post 14: More Sydney Opera House by clicking here.


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