For Sydneysiders who see the Sydney Opera House regularly, it can be easy to forget just how architecturally brilliant it is. That is, until you’re standing on the forecourt staircase, gazing up at the shells towering above you while a guide explains the creative and engineering wizardry behind how those tiled behemoths came to be.
The Opera House has launched a series of new architectural tours that take locals and out-of-towners alike through the story of the building’s construction, from the tender awarded to then-little-known architect Jørn Utzon in 1957, through to the technical difficulties behind crafting the one-of-a-kind building, the politics that played out behind (and sometimes in front) of the scenes and, finally, the completion of the building that US architect Frank Gehry said “changed the image of an entire country”.
The tour begins with an introduction to the land the house sits on, known by the local Gadigal people of the Eora nation as Tubowgule. It was later named Bennelong Point after Woollarawarre Bennelong, an Eora man who was significant in the founding history of Sydney Cove, and who was a liaison between the British and the local first nations people. Even before white settlement the land was a place for gatherings. As the tour makes its way over the stairs, through the entry point beneath the stairs and up into Bennelong restaurant, we learn about the challenges of constructing a building the likes of which no-one had designed before.
There’s a fascinating story behind every aspect of the house’s design, from the way the concrete rafters below the stairs were designed to bear loads, to how water drains out of the completely flat podium at the top of those grand stairs, and why the interiors differ from Utzon’s original plans. Though that might sound dry – and there’s some architectural lingo involved – the majority of the tour is at a level that the average layperson (and Broadsheet writer) can understand. You’ll come away from the tour with a distinct impression of Utzon’s creative and technical prowess (and a newfound appreciation of the humble beach ball), and the realisation that recent controversies surrounding the house are nothing new.
The tour finishes with a new 270-degree immersive experience showcasing – via projections on the walls – the Concert Hall’s greatest moments, while it undergoes construction.
The tours run every Saturday and Sunday from 11.30am and last for around one hour.