From September 3 through October 22, Sydney will be in celebration mode. The Sydney Opera House is turning fifty, and the city is recognizing the milestone with a film festival of fifty films that recount the iconic history of this Australian landmark. The films will alternate with performances by artists, performers, musicians, dancers, and singers.
Meanwhile, in Bologna, Cersaie – the International Exhibition of Ceramic Tile and Bathroom Furnishings – will be paying its respects to the work with a conference chaired by Françoise Fromonot. A professor of design, history, and theory at ENSA Paris-Belleville, Fromonot has also published several books on contemporary architecture, including Jørn Utzon et l’Opéra de Sydney (1998).
The Sydney Opera House is one of the most important modern architectural works in which ceramics play a leading role, demonstrating how the material can play its part in the quest for originality and decisive architectural character. As Fromonot has said, “The Sydney Opera House looks like it was created with an ancient appearance that, through time, has become increasingly contemporary.” A distinguished jury selected Jørn Utzon’s project from among hundreds of submissions from famous architects. The news was first reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 30, 1957, under the headline, “Dane’s controversial design wins opera house contest.”
Of course, ceramics aren’t the only materials used in the Opera House, with the main ones being concrete, granite, and glass. The building’s white sails – which Fromonot also calls “shells” – are its distinguishing element. Made of precast steel-reinforced concrete, they are covered with more than a million glazed ceramic tiles, developed by Utzon himself in collaboration with Swedish ceramics company Höganäs.
As mentioned by Fromonot – as well as other critics and architectural historians over the years – the shells of the Opera House resemble the sails of a ship, bringing to mind the many boats that can always be seen in the harbor it overlooks. The idea might have come to the Danish architect, who wasn’t well known at the time, from his father, a naval engineer from whom he learned many building techniques, applying and reinterpreting them in his projects. According to Fromonot, the architect and his team spent over 350 thousand hours studying the engineering of the shells.
Opening like a fan, the shells were designed to be viewed from any angle, without there being a readily identifiable main elevation to the building. Its nature as a symbol of a city is partly created by its reversal of the relationship between life in the harbor and life on land. The site of the Opera House creates a connection between the city of Sydney and Sydney Harbour, also reversing the way the two elements are enjoyed by people.
Among its many rooms, the two main halls give the whole structure an idea of horizontality, of projection towards the sea, while also maintaining a feeling of cloud-like lightness despite their grandness.
Jørn Utzon’s ultimate recognition came in 2003 when he won the Pritzker Prize as the creator of one of the 20th century’s most iconic buildings. In 2007, the Sydney Opera House was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.