Sydney Opera House at 50: Surprising facts about the building you may not know

The Sydney Opera House is seen with Sydney Harbor in the background, in March 1986
The Sydney Opera House is seen with Sydney Harbor in the background, in March 1986 Copyright Credit`: AP Photo
By Theo Farrant
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From Arnold Schwarzenegger's contentious triumph at the concert hall in 1980 to the lesser-known secrets of its architectural design, here are some fascinating facts about the Sydney Opera House you might not have known.

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Australia's most iconic building is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The Sydney Opera House, which officially opened on 20 October 1973 after 14 years of construction, is widely regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture and stands as a symbol of modern Australia. 

In celebration of the building's remarkable milestone, we've curated a collection of intriguing titbits and lesser-known anecdotes that will unveil some of the Opera House's many mysteries and marvels. 

Queen Liz's grand opening

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, left, declares open the Sydney Opera House complex, Sydney, Australia, 20 Oct 1973.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, left, declares open the Sydney Opera House complex, Sydney, Australia, 20 Oct 1973.Credit: AP

The Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973.

Battling the brisk wind, she beamed at the crowd along Bennelong Point, congratulating them for this “remarkable addition to its architecture and to its cultural and community life.”

“The human spirit,” she said, “must sometimes take wings or sails, and create something that is not just utilitarian or commonplace.”

Her Majesty visited the Opera House another four times before her death, the most recent being in 2006. 

Jørn Utzon's winning vision

Jørn Utzon in front of the Sydney Opera House during construction, 1965.
Jørn Utzon in front of the Sydney Opera House during construction, 1965.Credit: Getty Images

In 1956, the Premier of New South Wales, Joseph Cahill, initiated a competition for the construction of a "National Opera House at Bennelong Point," the site that is now home to the Opera House. 

He extended the invitation to people worldwide, not just Australians, to submit their design concepts.

Danish architect Jørn Utzon emerged as the winner with his design, selected as the standout from a pool of 223 entries originating from 28 different countries. 

"In it, the judges could see the innovative design, the response to the setting on the beautiful Sydney harbour, and really what this place could be, which is a sculpture, an artwork in itself, to celebrate and house the performing arts," says Sydney Opera House Heritage Manager Laura Matarese.

Budget blunders

The huge shell-shaped roof of the newly constructed Sydney Opera House on 1 August 1967 in Sydney, Australia, rises before the city's skyline.
The huge shell-shaped roof of the newly constructed Sydney Opera House on 1 August 1967 in Sydney, Australia, rises before the city's skyline.Credit: AP Photo

Initially, the estimated cost for the project was a modest 7 million Australian dollars (€4.1 million). 

Ultimately, it soared to a staggering A$102 million (€61.1 million), with the majority of the funding coming from a state Lottery.

Critics argue that the budget ballooned because it had been underestimated from the start. 

Minister of Works Davis Hughes cut funding to Utzon, which led the Danish architect to abandon the project on 28 February 1966 and return to Denmark.

Utzon stated that his resignation resulted from Hughes's refusal to compensate him and the absence of cooperation, which he later characterised as "Malice in Blunderland."

The task of completing the project was then assumed by the young Australian architect Peter Hall, following consultation with Utzon.

By numbers

Katy Perry is seen on-stage during a special live performance at the Sydney Opera House for the Channel 7 Sunrise Program on 19 October 2013 in Sydney, Australia.
Katy Perry is seen on-stage during a special live performance at the Sydney Opera House for the Channel 7 Sunrise Program on 19 October 2013 in Sydney, Australia.Credit: Kristian Dowling/Invision/AP

Here's a few stats for all you numbers geeks out there! 

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The Sydney Opera House has hosted a remarkable 118,000 performances and sold a staggering 63 million seats since its opening. 

It welcomes nearly 11 million visitors annually and contributes an estimated A$775 million (€465 million) to the Australian economy through tourism and cultural events each year. 

And more than 15,000 light bulbs need replacement inside the building each year.

Tile-ing the truth

A closeup showing the tiles on the roof of the Sydney Opera House
A closeup showing the tiles on the roof of the Sydney Opera HouseCredit: Wikimedia Commons

The Sydney Opera House's renowned sail-shaped roof isn't quite what it appears to be from a distance. 

Surprisingly, the iconic roof is not constructed from one solid piece of material but is instead built from more than one million small tiles meticulously arranged in a repeating chevron pattern.

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This intricate tiling serves a crucial purpose, as it is believed to be self-cleaning. 

When rain falls down through the intricate network of tiles, it's designed to wash away the majority of the grime and debris that accumulates over time.

Arnie's surprise comeback shakes the Sydney Opera House

Arnold Schwarzenegger examines John Riley's bicep after assisting him with 50 pushups at a Special Olympics Celebrity Clinic in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10, 1978.
Arnold Schwarzenegger examines John Riley's bicep after assisting him with 50 pushups at a Special Olympics Celebrity Clinic in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10, 1978.Credit: Barry Thumma/AP

Arnold Schwarzenegger, renowned not only for his acting but also for his tenure as the Governor of California, won his final Mr Olympia bodybuilding title in 1980 at the Sydney Opera House.

But people weren't even expecting the future-Terminator star to be competing and it turned out to be one of the most debated events in bodybuilding history.  

On the eve of the contest, Schwarzenegger took everyone by surprise by announcing he was coming out of retirement to compete, having trained for only eight weeks prior.

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The bombshell sent competitor Mike Mentzer into a fury, leading to a heated confrontation at a pre-contest press conference. Frank Zane, the defending three-time Mr. Olympia champion and Boyer Coe, also expressed their pity for Schwarzenegger's decision to return, expecting him to tarnish his legendary status with a loss.

When Schwarzenegger was announced as the winner, the audience booed, competitors stepped off stage and some retired from the sport in disgust, as the actor clearly lacked his usual size and muscular definition.

The competition marked the first and only time the event has been held on Australian shores.

A cool Sydney Opera House secret

Did you know that the Sydney Opera House employs an innovative cooling system that harnesses seawater directly from the Sydney harbour? 

The system channels cold water from the harbour through an extensive network of 35 kilometres of pipes to facilitate both the heating and air conditioning within the structure.

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This eco-friendly approach significantly diminishes the building's dependence on electricity, resulting in a reduced overall carbon footprint.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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