Sydney Opera House: Disastrous Start, Fantastic Finish

Opera house

The old cliché “Global Village” sounds quaint, but in a world of unlimited travel choices every tourist board and city government knows that their marketing plan must include an icon.

London has Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower means Paris, and nothing says New York like the Statue of Liberty. For Sydney, this symbol is the still-astounding Opera House. Sitting postcard-perfect on a finger of land in the bustling Sydney Harbor, the 45 year-old entertainment complex continues to amaze visitors.

It’s an awe-inspiring sight, but if there was ever a poster child for a project management disaster, it is this building. Like most iconic buildings, its original concept was innovative and unconventional, but the construction process couldn’t have been uglier.

The original plans called for four years of construction at a cost of 7 million Australian dollars. Construction began in 1959, and 14 challenge and feud-filled years later, it was completed with final price tag of 102 million dollars … Ouch!

The Opera House was designed by Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, who won the international competition with his futuristic plan. His idea was certainly novel, but what should have given everyone pause was that almost every aspect of the building involved new, untried, and in some cases unknown technology.

The perfect example is the primary feature of the building: the soaring, shell-shaped roof. At the time no one, including the architect, knew how to build the roof to support its own weight. I’m no architect, but I’d call that a big stumbling block, and this was just the beginning of the problems.

There were so many disagreements that halfway through construction, the wallet-wielding politicians had had enough and they forced Utzon’s resignation. He left Australia in disgust, and sadly, it took 40 years for tempers to simmer down before he returned to see his stunning brainchild.

I was so surprised to learn that the exterior is covered with individual tiles of two colors (beige and off white), and each panel is handmade.

Despite its long, painful construction process and phenomenal costs Sydney wouldn’t be Sydney without its iconic Opera House. And it hosts over 3,000 events annually, so thankfully, all the construction bumps and scrapes are forgotten.

If you’re visiting Sydney and want to attend an event, take a tour, or dig deeper into the history and trivia, the Opera House website has everything you need.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

22 thoughts

  1. well this was a good read and I liked seeing the close up of the tiles.
    I had no idea this iconic place was that old – nor did I know of the tumultuous building issues – the Eiffel tower had money issues – and was not wrapped like they wanted it (to look similar to the statue of liberty) and they almost tore it down and so I knew of that drama – but you might be right that this opera house had more.
    enjoyed the clear writing here too – thx

    1. Thanks Yvette. It seems that large civic projects are destined to have issues, and with critics in every corner the problems are hashed over constantly. But by any standards, Sydney’s Opera House seemed exceptionally problem-prone. I didn’t know about the Eiffel tower, but it doesn’t surprise me. I guess the lesson here is that when it comes to city projects like this officals need to take the long view. But alas, politicians are elected every few years so short-term results matter most. ~James

      1. that is a good point about the short-term thinking with most politicians –
        and again – I really enjoyed seeing the tiles like this – can in a few years hope to see this in person

  2. The Opera House is a snapshot of my childhood. I was 9 when construction began and 23 when it was completed. Since I lived in Canberra it was not until I was about 26 or 27 that I saw it for myself. The year I turned 18 I lived in Sydney for a bit over a year but since the building was at that time not much more than a construction site and political headache I had little interest in it. I do remember when they started the lottery to finance it. That was a good choice. Basically the people of Australia, with their love of gambling, paid for the county’s stunning icon. I’ve been to see it several times now, and been inside, but never yet to a performance.
    I had no idea about the two-toned tiles. That’s an interesting snippet.

    1. Alison, your comment is an excellent addition to this post. As I wrote it I thought the 14-year construction sounded like a long time, but hearing that it started when you were a nine-year-old and finished when you were 23 really brings it home. After that much time I can believe that everyone just assumed it would never be finished. Also, thanks for the reminder about the lottery financing. There are mixed feelings about government involvement in the lottery and what the funds get used for, but personally, I have no problem with it. And there’s no denying that in this case it produced wonderful results. Thanks for a dandy comment. ~James

  3. Many years ago I worked in Sydney for a while, and would walk to the opera house every day and just sit and watch the harbour. It’s so beautiful. Worth all the effort it took to get it built!

    1. Tracey, in my time as a big-city worker I always found a nice spot to sneak away for a quiet lunch on a bench in the sun. And after our short time in Sydney, I can believe the Opera House and the incredibly scenic and active bay would be the perfect place to recharge your batteries. ~James

    1. And when you think about it GP, the phenomenal acoustics make the building even more of an accomplishment. As far as I know, in 1959 there were no fancy computer programs for running acoustic models, so the architect just had to give it a try. Quite the challenge I’d say. ~James

  4. I had no idea about the tiles being two colours. I very much enjoyed seeing those close up. It makes me wonder why when in Sydney we didn’t have a closer look. Too busy getting photos of the whole building I suspect.

    1. Sue, anytime I’m around a building with interesting shapes and angles, I’m inspired to get up close with my camera – particularly on a sunny, blue-sky day and with a building as unique as the Opera House. For me, these small facets make the building even more impressive and add to its beauty. And the two-color tiles is a good example of this. All the best to you two and hope you’re doing well. ~James

  5. Wow, that is quite a cost overrun! It’s a good thing they didn’t just give up at some point. I’m sure the revenue generated since it opened and the worldwide recognizably has more than made up for its disastrous start.

    1. Laura, the cost overruns were a massive screw-up, but at least they made the decision to pay for the building with lottery proceeds. That way, taxpayers didn’t have to bear the burden of poor planning. And given the success of the building, I’m sure no one even thinks about this stuff any more. I love the curves and angles on this building. ~James

  6. We have never been to Australia, but I do hope one day to see this architectural beauty. I love your photos of it and all the interesting information. I think it is a classic problem that people often design things that LOOK incredible and new and unique, and yet are completely IMPRACTICAL. Those figures are pretty shocking. Wow.


    1. Peta, it took us years to finally get to Australia – not because we weren’t enthusiastic about going, but because it’s such a long, long trip. It isn’t a place one just drops by. Whenever you make it, I’m sure you’ll like it.

      I had seen photos of the Opera House for years but had no idea about its history. It’s a marvel for sure, but I’m not sure what they were thinking when they approved a plan with so many unknowns. But, it turned out wonderful in the end. ~James

    1. Curt, I’m sure there are other iconic buildings that had major problems and setbacks in the construction process, but surely none as disasterous as this one. But luckily for the Aussies, it turned out wonderfully. ~James

      1. It may be the history of most major buildings, James. When you start from zero instead of the tried and true, more problems are bound to happen, however! –Curt

  7. Curt,
    OK, I’ve heard at cost overruns – but a 1357% overrun. I suspect the initial estimate was made a wee bit before the technologically challenging design was presented. But I agree that it is truly ‘the’ iconic building for Sydney. And well used!
    Great post!

    1. Dave, this sounds like serious “back of the envelope” planning – not something I would expect from a world-class architect, but there you go. The good news for everyone is that all involved persevered and the results speak for themselves. However, there must be some lessons in there somewhere. ~James

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