A heroic journey of engineering and creativity

On 20 October 1973, Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the Sydney Opera House. A true construction feat, this building which bears Jørn Utzon’s signature has also become one of the greatest examples of “collective creativity” in the history of twentieth-century architecture. Fifty years later, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui has published a special issue about the story behind the roof of one of the world’s most emblematic opera houses, a story illustrated by previously unpublished documents, presented here for the first time thanks to the care of the authors of this special issue: Paolo Tombesi, Paolo Stracchi et Luciano Cardellicchio.
The following text, from the AA special issue, is by Tristram Carfrae, Vice-Chairman of the Arup Group, whose founder, Ove Arup, was behind the structural design of the opera house.

The Sydney Opera House was completed fifty years ago and has become one of the most readily recognised buildings in the world. Its image, together with the Harbour Bridge, is synonymous with not just Sydney as a city, but Australia as a nation.

While architect Jørn Utzon’s personal imprint on the harbour landscape has justly acquired a legendary status, the building has also played a key part in defining Arup’s own identity. As I look back on the heroic journey of engineering and creativity that was the Sydney Opera House, I am filled with a sense of awe. Even after 50 years, the Sydney Opera House remains an iconic symbol of Arup’s commitment to ‘total design’, the collaborative approach advocated by its founder Ove Arup in the 1940s. This remarkable project continues to resonate with us, reminding us of how creativity and tenacity can turn visions into reality.

Realising the Sydney Opera House depended on the exceptional quality of the design proposal, the approach of the architect, the site’s potential, and overcoming the technical constraints and the procurement pressures. It would be a project fully exposed to public, political and expert debate, before gaining acceptance and being welcomed as figurehead for city and nation. It was a project that pushed us to harness all the tools and innovations at our disposal.

For Arup, the Opera House marked a pivotal turning point, establishing us as the foremost structural engineering firm of our time. It created a reputation that led us to contribute to other architectural marvels like the Centre Pompidou in Paris, HSBC HQ in Hong Kong, Lloyds of London, CCTV Building in Beijing, and the completion of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Our engagement in the project took a fairly unique form for the time, blending structural engineering responsibilities with project management duties. When I say that it was a ‘total design’ project I mean that it required an intimate collaboration between visionary architects, creative engineers and imaginative builders, especially Hornibrook, the constructors of the glorious ceramic tile clad sails which, glittering in the Sydney sunshine, give the building its beautiful, dramatic and eye-catching form.

The form of the building is absolutely spectacular, but less well understood is the amazing engineering and construction required to achieve it. This required working at multiple scales concurrently, modelling never-before-built structures, making product-supply chains part of the design evaluation process, undertaking new forms of building analysis and devising innovative methods of information exchange in a pre-digital age.

Continuing to design and engineer the building while it was being built was both a significant challenge and yet an inspiration for future endeavours. The project built our confidence that the unsolved problems were solvable and could be addressed as the project advanced. This trust in the future, especially with input from experts in construction, was essential for success.

Our collaborative relationship with the construction company Hornibrook was pivotal. It led to a shared focus on the quality of the build instead of narrow, individual commercial interests and anxieties about costs – a rare occurrence in the industry at the time, or even today.

The 150,000 man-hours spent by Arup’s extended team on the project until 1962 (when the problem of the sails was structurally resolved) is a well-known statistic about this exceptional project. But this number masks a more complex story, of exploration, learning and shared intellectual effort, of investigation and innovation.

I hope that the wealth of technical documentation unearthed by the authors of this special issue manages to do justice to all that work. For me it helps visualise the sheer scale and variety of effort invested in the scheme, and showcases the crucial relationships between architect, engineer and contractor. The design complexity becomes abundantly clear – but so too does the calibre of all those involved.

The legacy of the Sydney Opera House continues to resonate within Arup. We dedicated an entire edition of our Arup Journal in 1973 to explaining the technical intricacies from the structural approach of the sails to the innovative use of laminated glass in the walls. Sharing what we had learnt on such a challenging yet inspiring project has been a central element of our work culture ever since.

When I compare our work on the Sagrada Familia today with what those pioneers achieved on the Sydney Opera House half a century ago, I see many common threads. The use of cutting-edge technology and engineering techniques to bring extraordinary architectural visions to life. A belief that buildings themselves can be both art and inspiration. Both projects embody the “can-do” spirit that should always infuse engineering and construction, proving that when faced with monumental architecture dreams, we can rise to the occasion.

When I visited Sydney in 1985 as a young engineer, I sat on the Opera House podium, watching a yacht sail under the Harbour Bridge, filled with pride. From this early moment in my career, I could truly appreciate the transformative effects of design on a city and its people.

At Arup, the Sydney Opera House will forever remain a beacon of innovation, collaboration, and unwavering determination. More than just a complex building, the Opera House reminds us what can be accomplished when art and engineering unite in harmony.

Visit our e-shop to discover the AA special issue No. 45 and the previously unpublished drawings collected by Paolo Tombesi, Paolo Stracchi and Luciano Cardellicchio.

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