Sydney Opera House: Masterpiece of design

The Sidney Opera House.

This story was first published on May 22, 2011.

A uniquely designed performance space can help put any city on the map. Rita Braver has the proof of that:

The Sydney Opera House is one of the most dazzling buildings in the world - a soaring sculpture that's become a symbol of Australia.

Simon Spellicy, tourism manger at the Opera House, says visitors come from all over.

"When people see it in a photograph, it's hard to imagine what it actually looks like as a building in its place," he said.

The Opera House entertains seven million visitors a year.

"When people come to Sydney, one of the first things they need to do is to almost sort of find the truth behind the image that they've seen," Spellicy says.

And the truth is pretty stunning: 22 stories high and 67,000 square feet of specially designed glass.

"What are the tiles made from?" Braver asks guide Natalie Moran.

"They're ceramic tiles," she says. "They were imported from Sweden - and in total there's 1,056,006 of them, to be exact."

And Moran says even the story of the Opera House is of operatic proportion, beginning with the competition to design the building in 1955. The chief judge was none other than Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. He didn't like the final entries, and demanded to look at the reject pile.

"And he pulled out entry number 218, which was by a 38-year-old Danish architect called Jorn Uton," Moran says. "And Eero Saarinen said, 'Ladies and Gentleman, this is your winner.'"

But there was a problem: the technology to build the design - finding a way to support the sail-like roofs - did not exist.

"The engineer looked at all these different methods to build what Jorn Utzon wanted to do and in the end he said, 'This cannot be done. It's impossible,'" says Moran.

But somehow, they figured it out. It took 10,000 construction workers and a lot more time and money than anyone expected.

"In the end, instead of three years, it took 14 years," she says. "Instead of $7 million it cost $102 million."

In the process, the city government curtailed Utson's authority.

"So he left Sydney and took his family back to Denmark," Moran explains.

The building, finished by a committee, finally opened in 1973, with Queen Elizabeth presiding. The complex, with five theaters, has been host to more than 100,000 performances - everything from operetta to Oprah; from a concert for dogs to the Pussycat Dolls; from the circus to Sting.

In 1999, Utzon reconciled with the Opera House management. But too old to travel, he died without ever seeing the completed building.

Today, a lounge - with a tapestry he designed - is dedicated to the man who gave Sydney a masterpiece.