Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Sydney's opera house turns 30

CONTROVERSIAL PAST It has been 30 years since the building opened, several years behind schedule and more than 10 times over the original estimated budget


Conceived and built amid decades of bitter wrangling over its design and cost, Sydney Opera House began celebrating its 30th birthday yesterday as one of the world's best known buildings and a celebrated architectural masterpiece.

"It has become an icon, a symbol of our city and our country," Norman Gillespie, the concert venue's chief executive, said this week. "The building itself and the performances it showcases excite people around the world."

But the birthday celebrations have also shone a spotlight on what critics say are the substandard acoustics of its main concert hall and other performance spaces.

Plans are already under way to modify the chambers to improve acoustics but Philip Drew, biographer of the opera house's Danish designer, Joern Utzon, wrote this week that the building's operators should consider wholesale changes.

"A comprehensive rebuild of the Opera House halls is probably out of the question but it is worth considering," he wrote in an article for national daily The Australian.

"The long-term consequences of partially solving the acoustic defects could be severe and would not ensure world-class acoustics in the halls," he added. "Anything less will condemn Sydney's great icon to slow decline and fading of its international status."

Sitting proudly on a headland that juts into Sydney Harbor, the Opera House and its white shelled roofs were designed to symbolize the sails of the hundreds of yachts that ply the glittering blue waters around Australia's most populous city.

The building was first conceived in the 1940s as an answer to the lack of venues for opera and concerts in Sydney.

In 1956, the government of New South Wales state announced an international design competition. Utzon, at the time a young Danish architect, was selected the winner from 233 entries around the world.

It took Utzon and the engineering firm chosen to realize his dream more than three years to come up with new engineering techniques needed to move his groundbreaking design from the drawing board to reality.

Construction began in 1959, but was plagued from the start with design and engineering difficulties and cost overruns that triggered political controversy. Utzon deserted the project in 1966 following bitter arguments with state authorities over its interior design, the time delays and rising costs.

The opera house had been expected to take four years to complete at a cost of about A$7 million (US$3.6 million). It was finished in 1973 and the final bill came in at about A$100 million (US$51.5 million).

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Australia's head of state, formally opened the building on Oct. 20, 1973.

"This, without question, must be the most innovative, the most daring, the most dramatic and in many ways, the most beautiful home constructed for the lyric and related muses in modern times," wrote Martin Bernheimer, music critic of the Los Angeles Times, one of hundreds of international journalists who visited Sydney for the opening.

To celebrate its birthday, the Opera House has organized a series of performances and exhibitions starting yesterday, with a concert of symphony music, opera, jazz, ballet and film encapsulating the history of the building.

Each year about 4 million people visit the building, a quarter to attend performances and the rest to admire its stunning architecture.

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