Cautionary Tales – The Tragedy of Sydney Opera House

15th September, 2023

1957. Jørn Utzon receives a phone call: he’s just won an international competition to design a brand new opera house for the Australian city of Sydney. Utzon is unknown in the field, so this is a triumph. But the young architect couldn’t have imagined what a bitter victory this would turn out to be.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao; the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the Shard in London. These days, everyone seems to want an iconic building. But Sydney Opera House was the first, the greatest – and the most painful. This is its origin story.

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Further reading

Two excellent histories of the Sydney Opera House are The House by Helen Pitt, which vividly covers the story from every angle, and The Saga of Sydney Opera House, by Peter Murray, which is particularly authoritative on the technical details and the relationship between Utzon and Arup.

Other sources include Murray Sayle “In The Tart Shop” in The London Review of Books, 5 October 2000 and Geraldine Brooks “Unfinished Business” The New Yorker 17 October 2005 .

John Pardey describes his meeting with Utzon in “Letters: Utzon’s Legacy” Arq Vol 13 2009

Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner cover both the Opera House and the Guggenheim Bilbao in their book How Big Things Get Done.

Also see Flyvbjerg’s “Design by Deception: The Politics of Megaproject Approval” (June 2005). Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer, no. 22, pp. 50-59

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