When you think of Australia, what image comes to mind? For most folks, it is the Sydney Opera House, that iconic building that stands on the shores of Sydney Harbor. There really is no structure quite like it anywhere else in the world.
During World War II, Australians were shocked when England all but abandoned them and then had the nerve to ask their soldiers to go help British forces elsewhere. Suddenly, they found themselves all alone in the vast Pacific. It was then they realized they were not really a part of Europe at all, but rather an adjunct of Asia. That rude awakening caused a national identity crisis.
The Sydney Opera House changed all that. Just as the Taj Mahal stands as a symbol of India, this bold, sweeping structure on the shores of Sydney Harbor has come to define how Australians see themselves and and how the rest of the world sees Australia.
The story of how the Sydney Opera House came to be is a fascinating tale. In 1948, the director of the Sydney Opera proposed the construction of new facility. A call went out around the world for people to submit design proposals. Most of them were insipid or derivative. Some were just square concrete boxes reminiscent of Soviet era architecture. But one, from Danish architect Jørn Utzon, was different. So different, in fact, that it was rejected initially by the design committee.
Utzon’s submission amounted to little more than some rough sketches with few architectural details. But his vision so impressed world renowned architect Eero Saarinen, who was asked to help make the final selection, that it was rescued from the pile of discarded designs and declared the winner.
Sydney was scandalized. The concept was too bold, too out of the ordinary, too brash. Many doubted whether Utzon’s vision could even be built. But Sydney decided to push ahead and construction started in 1958. Due to the enormous engineering challenges presented by the design, the building would not be completed until 1973.
Its most distinctive elements are the sparkling white roof panels that soar above the harbor. Some say they represent the billowing sails of the ships that brought most Australians to these shores. Others say they are really a temple to the power of music. To me, the building reflects Australian culture as it has evolved in the post war period – bold, confident and assured.
In 2003, Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. The award citation states:
There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.
In 2008, I had the excuse I needed to finally make the long journey Down Under to see this magnificent building for myself. My son Matt had moved there the year before. During a trip to visit him, I took him and his wife to a piano recital at The Opera House. Since we bought our tickets at the last minute, we were seated way at the back of the concert hall, yet the exquisite acoustics in the theater carried every note clearly to our ears. It was like we were sitting close enough to reach out and touch the piano. Incredible.
On our trip in February, my wife and I attended a play at the Opera House. Afterwards, we sat outside on the promenade between the Opera House and the harbor. There are several cafes along the waterfront and the area is always packed with people. It’s as if the building is a magnet, attracting tourists and locals alike to come bask in its aura.
Visiting the Sydney Opera House in person has been the defining moment of my globe trotting adventures. The building is such an enduring testament to human achievement that it is worth the trip even if you do nothing else in Australia. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to take all the photos that accompany this post personally with my very own camera, rather than just plucking them from Google Images. I think that makes me a very lucky fellow.
Please enjoy them!