Why the Queen compared the Sydney Opera House to the Pyramids during 1973 opening

·Freelance Writer
·4 min read

Watch: Queen Elizabeth II arrives at Sydney Opera House for 1973 opening

Today marks the 48th anniversary of when the Sydney Opera House, located on the banks of the Sydney Harbour, was officially opened.

It was Queen Elizabeth II who opened the now-iconic Australian landmark on 20 October, 1973 – following 14 years of building conflict.

But while the unique design is an architectural triumph of the modern era, the Queen compared it to something altogether more archaic.

Addressing a crowd of thousands, as well as a reported millions of viewers of the televised opening, the Queen likened the Sydney Opera House to the Pyramids of Egypt.

Sydney, Australia -22 Aug, 2015: Sydney Opera House view in Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Opera House is a famous arts center. It was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon.
The Sydney Opera House is one of Australia's most iconic landmarks. (Getty)
Opening of the Opera House Photograph shows the opening of the Sydney Opera House by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip on the 20th October 1973. (Photo by Alan Purcell/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)
The Queen and Prince Phillip during the opening of the Sydney Opera House on 20 October, 1973. (Getty)
20th October 1973:  Queen Elizabeth II officially opens the new Sydney Opera House, designed by Danish architect Joern Utzon.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
The Queen officially opens the new Sydney Opera House in 1973. (Getty)

However, it wasn’t the design that drew the comparison – rather the reported controversy surrounding the project to get the landmark built.

Clutching both her skirt and speech notes during the blustery conditions of the day, the Queen said at the opening: “I understand that its construction has not been totally without problems.

“But every great imaginative venture has had to be tempered by the fire of controversy.

Watch: Poppies illuminate the Sydney Opera House

“Controversy of the most extreme kind attended the building of the Pyramids, yet they stand today — 4,000 years later — acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world.

“So, I hope and believe it will be with the Sydney Opera House.”

Building blocks

Planning for what would become the Sydney Opera House began in the 1940s after Eugene Goossens, of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, argued that the Sydney Town Hall wasn’t large enough for grand theatrical productions.

It wasn’t until 1954 that Goossens managed to pull in support for the project from NSW premier Joseph Cahill and an international competition to design the structure was launched in 1956.

The QE2 passenger ship comes into Sydney harbour today.Near the Opera House. February 07, 1992. (Photo by Simon Alekna/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
The QE2 passenger ship comes into Sydney Harbour, near the opera house, in 1992. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
The 1955 design for the Sydney Opera House designed by William Constable.Sir Eugene Goossens' design for Sydney's opera house, as sketched by Bill Constable in 1955.This is the Opera House Sydney might have had.This historic sketch - by Australian theatre designer Bill Constable - was presented to the chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust, Elizabeth Butcher, last night during the opening of the Australian Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty exhibition in the Opera House Exhibition Hall.The recently rediscovered design for the building was suggested by the man who got the Opera House project under way, the late composer and conductor, Sir Eugene Goossens. March 16, 1993. (Photo by Steven Siewert/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
A design for the Sydney Opera House by William Constable. (Getty)

Over 233 designs were considered – including a large natural courtyard and two rectangular structures with hexagonal roof ornaments.

But it was Danish architect Jorn Utzon who was announced as the winner of the competition in 1957 and his modernist design of curved, half conical shaped spires was set for construction.

Years of conflict

Construction on the Sydney Opera House began in March 1959, but the radical designs were the cause of a clash between Utzon and minister for public works Davis Hughes.

Hughes labelled Utzon and “impractical dreamer” and tensions over procurement costs and deadlines quickly became personal.

Funding and payments towards Utzon were withheld by 1966, with $100,000 said to have been owed to the architect.

circa 1965:  Danish architect Jorn Utzon in front of the Sydney Opera House during its construction.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Danish architect Jorn Utzon in front of the Sydney Opera House during its construction. (Getty)
The Sydney Opera House under construction at Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia, 21st April 1964. It was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, with Ove Arup and Partners as the structural engineers. (Photo by J. R. T. Richardson/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Sydney Opera House under construction at Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbourin in 1964. (Getty)

Minutes of an official meeting show that Utzon demanded Hughes pay him what he was owed, saying “if you don’t do it, I resign”.

Hughes told him “I accept your resignation, thank you very much, goodbye.”

2nd February 1957:  Jorn Utzon, architect of Sydney's Opera House, designing at his desk.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Jorn Utzon, architect of Sydney's Opera House, designing at his desk. (Getty)

Utzon left the project in February 1966 and also left Australia, citing differences with Hughes as his motivator to leave.

Hughes and a government architect named Ted Farmer organised a team to bring the Sydney Opera House to completion following Utzon’s departure and construction was completed in 1973, at a cost of $102m (around $962m in today’s money – the equivalent of £523m).

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Architect’s absence

Utzon was not invited to the official opening of his grand design, and was not in attendance when the Queen made her speech in front of millions.

The Sydney Opera House Trust attempted to reconcile with him in the 1990s.

A space inside the building called the ‘Utzon Room’ was developed, while Utzon was appointed as a design consultant for future work.

Army helicopters fly over some of the 2,000 yachts and ships during the opening of the Sydney Opera House 10/20 by Queen Elizabeth.
Army helicopters fly over some of the 2,000 yachts and ships during the opening of the Sydney Opera House. (Getty)
Sydney Opera House,by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. viewed from under harbor bridge in Sydney, Australia
The Sydney Opera House hosts more than 1,500 performances annually. (Getty)

However, he never returned to Australia after he left in 1966 and died in 2008 having never seen his design in person.

The Sydney Opera House became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and hosts over 1,500 performances annually, attended by more than 1.2 million people.

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