Inside the Collection

Happy Birthday to our Sydney Opera House

Photographic print of the Sydney Opera House under construction
Photographic print of the Sydney Opera House under construction, photograph by Max Dupain, Sydney 1958-1973, MAAS collection, 2006/25/1

On this day in 1973, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Sydney Opera House. The ABC beamed the occasion by satellite to an appreciative world. Closer to home there were sighs of relief from the politicians, architects and engineers who had, to that time, weathered one controversy after another. The brave decision in January 1957 that saw the four judges (architects Cobden Parkes, Eero Saarinen, Ingham Ashworth and Leslie Martin) choose Jorn Utzon’s design out of 700 entries was just the beginning of a long journey befitting one of the world’s most challenging and famous buildings.

The next 16 years saw the philosophical clashes leading to the architect’s resignation, structural and design challenges escalate with subsequent lengthy delays, and a massive budget blowout from the original estimate of $7 million to the final cost of $102 million. The Opera House structure was started when Australians were still using pennies and pounds to buy their groceries, and opened to see us comfortably using dollars and cents.

For Sydneysiders today it is hard to imagine our city without the building that has become its most famous built landmark and from 2005, a World Heritage site. Models of the structure are excellent 3-D records of its development and MAAS is home to the most comprehensive and significant collection of Opera House models in the world. Testimony to their importance is that they are regularly loaned to institutions in Australia and around the world. A few are about to embark for the Ove Arup (structural engineer) exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The quantity of models is partly explained by Utzon being a great believer in using models to test concepts. Also, the building’s long and complex gestation required complete models of the building to inform public opinion. Discrete sections were used to predict and solve issues inherent in such a ground-breaking structure. The wind tunnel test model below is part of the Victoria & Albert loan.

Wooden wind tunnel architectural model of the Sydney Opera House
Wind tunnel test model of Sydney Opera House, unknown maker for Ove Arup and Partners in collaboration with Jorn Utzon, England, 1960, MAAS collection, 2003/34/1-5

The roof shell design model section shows the series of radiating ribs. These ‘rib models’ were of crucial concern to the engineer, structurally and visually.

Architectural model of the Sydney Opera House detail of roof
Sydney Opera House model, roof shell profile, Ove Arup and Partners / Hall, Todd, and Littlemore, England / Australia, 1966 – 1968, MAAS collection 2003/34/1-4

As the series of models progress, they allow us to clearly see the development from the original Utzon low-slung concept to the taller silhouette now firmly ingrained in Sydney’s population. I am confident that the Opera House is so familiar to Sydneysiders that if a representation isn’t quite right we will know instantly!

The earliest model in the collection is a good example. It was brought by Utzon to Sydney in July 1957 and while the intent in terms of the arrangement of sails is familiar, they are far more low slung and organic, evoking associations with Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York (1962). In an earlier post, Charles Pickett, the curator who acquired the model at MAAS, commented that ‘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.’

Architectural model of the Sydney Opera House 1:200 scale
Architectural model of the Sydney Opera House, 1:200 scale made by HF Lambert Industrial Models, Australia, 1957, MAAS collection 2013/66/1

Fast forward to 1965 when the model below was displayed in a visitors’ pavilion in the Domain during construction and most would agree it fulfils the ‘Sydneysider test’ of authenticity. It was donated to the Powerhouse after the Opera House’s 1973 opening.

Architectural model of the Sydney Opera House
Architectural model of the Sydney Opera House, made by Finecraft Scale Models, Sydney, 1964 – 1974, MAAS collection, B2097-1

During the period from 1958 to 1961 the Opera House roof had been conceived successively as composed from sections of parabolas, ellipses and spheres. One of a small number of mid-1960’s models demonstrates that the roof was eventually designed and manufactured as a sphere. This permitted a marriage of structure and design. The Powerhouse holds one of these models:

Sydney Opera House Spherical Model 2003/34/1
Model illustrating the origin of the roof geometry of the Sydney Opera House, Ove Arup and Partners / Jorn Utzon, England / Australia, 1961 – 1965, MAAS collection, 2003/34/1-1

Even as it approaches comfortable middle age, the Sydney Opera House’s renown only increases as the fulcrum of Sydney’s glorious harbour setting, and crowning jewel of Sydney’s identity. Happy Birthday!

Post by Paul Donnelly, Curator

One response to “Happy Birthday to our Sydney Opera House

  • I believe the maker of the wind tunnel test model may have been Ross Usher, of Sydney. I believe Ross and his brother were well known model makers, and I understand he (or they) made models of the Opera House for Utzon. I knew Ross into his 80’s, and he showed me images of many of his works, including a commission for QANTAS. This model is very similar to several images I recall him showing me of his work on the project. He lived in Forestville in Sydney, and I believe he never married.

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