With its famous curves and lofty sails, the Sydney Opera House is one of Australia’s most recognisable national icons.

This week, she turns 40. But, amidst the celebrations, which involved a giant birthday cake and a flotilla on the harbour carrying lifeguards from around the state, many are reminiscing about her troubled past, while others have raised questions about her function.  

In 1957, Danish architect Jorn Utzon was relatively unknown when his entry was chosen by the NSW government as the winner of the ‘International competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney’.

Utzon’s entry was a schematic design explaining the concept for the building, and declared outstanding by one of the judges, renowned American architect Eero Saarinen.  However, the concept was little more than a sketch when then premier, Joseph Cahill, hastily began construction within two years.

One of Jorn Utzon's original competition drawings. Image: Gallery Records NSW

After extensive testing, Utzon and engineer Ove Arup developed a design based on the complex sections of a sphere. The pre-cast rib vaults of the shells began to be erected on the completed podium in 1964.

Stage 2 of construction - The Shells. Image: sydneyoperahouse.com

Yet, the architect whose designs have created a major visual impact failed to realise his plans for the interiors of the completed shell. In mid 1965, a new Liberal government was elected in the State of NSW, and soon began questioning Utzon’s designs, schedules and cost estimates.

The problem here was cost overruns. Budgeted at an initial cost of $7 million, the Opera House ended up costing more than $100 million, and took over a decade to be completed. According to Danish economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg, the cost blowout of 1400 per cent, makes the Opera House one of the most expensive cost blowouts in the history of ‘megaprojects’ around the world.

“Proponents of the Sydney Opera House intentionally deceived lawmakers, the public and the media when they lowballed the budget to get the project started,” wrote Flyvbjerg in a 2005 article, Design by Deception, for the Harvard Design Magazine.

When the government eventually stopped paying Utzon, who was forced to withdraw as chief architect, he resigned and left Australia.

Utzon never returned to Australia for the opening ceremony of the Opera House in 1973. It was only in 1999 that the man and his masterpiece were reunited.

He also had to wait until 2003 for a Pritzker Architecture Prize as a token of appreciation for his contribution and designs of a much-loved building.

However, concerns have since been raised about the enormous expense and trouble of trying to improve the internal functions of the Opera House, which presents logistical and acoustic problems.

In 2008, Sydney architect Ken Woolley argued that it would be cheaper to build a new opera house. “Trying to create a new opera theatre inside the present building will inevitably lead to compromise,” he said, suggesting an adjacent site for a new hall.

Ken Woolley's impression of his proposal to build a new hall on the adjacent site. Image: smh.com.au

Despite these hiccups and questions, the Opera House has undeniably entrenched itself as one of Australia’s most valuable national assets. According to modelling by Deloitte, it adds $775 million to the economy every year in direct ticket sales, retail and food spending, as well as in boosting tourism to Australia.

Architecturally and aesthetically, its form has also brought life to the landscape.

As former Prime Minister Paul Keating once wrote in 2008, “when the NSW Labor government of Joe Cahill settled on Utzon's design, with all its engineering problems, the city got tapped on the shoulder by a rainbow.”

“Jorn Utzon gave Sydney not only the greatest building of the 20th century but one unique in all history. Its plastic yet classic forms confounded his competitors, who entered designs based on their idolatry of the steel beam and the box-like structures which grew, Meccano-like, from their drawing boards.”

Our leading lady should never have been built as was proposed. Yet, she remains Australia’s most distinctive brand, albeit one that offers a lot of advice for the government and architects as they embark on new 'megaprojects'.

One of Jorn Utzon's original competition drawings. Image: Gallery Records NSW

Lead image: abc.net.au