Inside the Collection

Opera House models

Architectural model of Opera House
Photo from ‘Sydney National Opera House’, (‘Red Book’), paper, prepared by Jorn Oberg Utzon, printed by Artlier Eleckra, Denmark, 1958. 2003/34/2-1

It is 56 years this month since Jorn Utzon’s success in the design competition for the Sydney Opera House. During January 1957 the four judges (they were all architects: Cobden Parkes, Eero Saarinen, Ingham Ashworth and Leslie Martin) looked through more than 700 entries. Utzon’s win was announced at the Art Gallery of NSW on January 29.

Utzon’s entry lacked the perspective elevation required by the contest conditions, so one was hastily prepared in Sydney for public viewing. Back in Denmark Utzon commissioned a 1:200 model of the building, which he brought to Sydney for his first visit here in July 1957. This first Opera House model looked like this:

Painted model 1:200 scale of Opera House
Model, architectural, Sydney Opera House, 1:200 scale, unknown maker, Australia, 1957.

This is not Utzon’s model but I think it is one of three copies made during 1957 to publicise the building project, a public appeal for building funds and the Opera House lotteries. The model represents the first, sculptural version of the roof design, before the practicalities of construction and engineering saw the roofs redesigned over a number of years. It is a rare artefact of the concept and vision which made Utzon’s entry the unanimous choice of the Opera House design competition jury.

We are hoping to acquire the model for the Powerhouse collection, which already includes several Opera House models. These models have appreciated in cultural value and appeal along with that of Australia’s most famous building.

They’re a high-profile part of our collection also because models were an important part of Utzon’s way of working; he believed they were the best way to envisage, research and test a building’s design. Even his competition entry was based on paper sculptures he created in his studio. These were the basis for the drawings he sent to Sydney.

During the Opera House project numerous working models were created, including models for tests of the major and minor hall acoustics. These large (1:10 scale) models were made in Denmark and Germany and tested in Berlin during 1964 and 1965. Other models were made to test the roof structure during the first years of the project, when Ove Arup’s engineers were attempting to design a buildable roof from sections of parabolas, ellipses and, finally, spheres.

We are lucky enough to have one of these models – a wind tunnel test model of the roof of the major hall used at the University of Southampton during 1960.

Wooden model of Opera House
Model, ‘wind tunnel test’, Sydney Opera House (Major Hall), built to indicate wind pressure distribution on the roof, polished wood, unknown maker for Ove Arup and Partners in collaboration with Jorn Utzon, England, 1960.
PHM collection 2003/34/1-5.

Most of the working models of the Opera House were created at  Utzon’s Hellebeak studio in Denmark.  Unfortunately after his dismissal from the Opera House project in 1966 Utzon burned these models in a beach bonfire.

Most of the Powerhouse Opera House models are display models, which were an important way promoting the Opera House project to the public, the media and the politicians – all of whom needed reassurance about the end product of the lengthy and expensive design and construction process.

One of the models in the PHM collection was displayed from 1965 in a pavilion at the southern (Domain) end of the Opera House building site. It was donated to the Powerhouse after the Opera House was completed in 1973.

Plastic & Wooden model of Opera House
Architectural model, Sydney Opera House, plastic/wood, scale 1:96., Finecraft Scale Models, Sydney, Australia, 1964 – 1974. PHM collection B2097-1.

Also displayed in the visitors’ pavilion was one of a small number of models made in the mid-1960s to demonstrate that the roof was designed and manufactured as sections of a sphere of consistent radius, permitting a marriage of structure and design. The Powerhouse holds one of these models:

Ariel photo of wooden model of Opera House
‘Model Illustrating the Origin of the Roof Geometry of the Sydney Opera House’, wood / cardboard / metal, Ove Arup and Partners / Jorn Utzon, England / Australia, 1961 – 1965. PHM collection 2003/34/1-1.

Another display model had a more significant role – this was a model commissioned to represent Utzon’s interior design for the main hall. Despite the building’s title, it was expected that the Opera House would be used primarily for orchestral concerts, a more popular and familiar performance medium in Australia at that time. Utzon was asked to design a main hall which could seat 2800 people in concert mode and also function as an opera theatre with a proscenium stage.

During 1965 Utzon struggled to design a hall interior which could accommodate the acoustic and seating demands of both concerts and opera. The model represents his best solution – a visually stunning interior which could seat about 2500 people (or so Utzon claimed; his successor architects concluded that its practical capacity was closer to 2000).

Utzon's design for Opera House major hall
Architectural model, Sydney Opera House, Jorn Utzon’s design for the major hall, wood / plastic, constructed by Finecraft Scale Models Pty. Ltd., Sydney, Australia, 1964-1966. PHM collection B2309.

However the shortfall in seating numbers was used as a reason to terminate Utzon’s employment as architect, along with the slow progress and spiralling budget of the project. Yet Utzon was vindicated by the subsequent decision to devote the larger hall to concerts only and redesign the smaller hall (originally intended as a drama theatre) as the opera theatre.  This decision acknowledged the impossibility of creating a functional multi-purpose hall with the 2800 capacity. Ironically, this decision also added considerably to both the project budget and the completion time.

It is clear from the original 1978 collection record that the Opera House didn’t value the model very highly, having recently ‘uncovered’ it stored in an anonymous crate. However this attitude changed during the 1980s with revival of interest in Utzon’s ‘lost’ designs for the Opera House interiors. The model has since become one of the most displayed (and most requested for loan) artefacts in the Powerhouse collection.

Charles Pickett, curator.

4 responses to “Opera House models

  • The 1950s copy model and the 1966 major hall model are now on display at the Powerhouse. They’ll be on view until February 2014.


  • The base of the northern glass wall on model B2309 shown in the image above is incorrectly located. It is properly located in photos taken on 18th March 1966 at the premises of Finecraft, the model maker, just hours before the Government took the model away. The proper location of the mullions is also shown on Utzon’s last glass wall drawings. Utzon’s last scheme for the glass walls is described in “Rethinking the Glass Walls of Sydney Opera House” by Peter Compagnoni and Clive Buhrich, published in 2006 and held in the collections of the State and National Libraries. Jorn Utzon described the book as “a fine record of our work” and Prip-Buus wrote “What a book!! Nobody could have made a better one on the glass walls”.

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