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Sydney Opera House, a notable icon of 20th-century architecture, is undergoing a major transformation to renew its facilities for the 21st century. Located at Bennelong Point in Sydney, Australia, the building represents a creative and technical achievement for the country.

Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and opened in 1973, the building received World Heritage recognition in 2007. The opera house receives approximately 1.5 million tourists and witnesses more than 2,000 performances a year. It holds a distinct national identity value, which is valued at $4.6bn, according to estimates from Deloitte Access Economics.

To incorporate the latest technology and make the building more relevant, the Australian Government is undertaking a $202m renewal project to upgrade the building as part of a ten-year plan, which commenced in 2013.

Scheduled for completion in early-2021, the project will upgrade the existing building while maintaining its original heritage and integrity.

Need for Sydney Opera House’s renewal

At the time of Utzon’s exit from the project, the roof sails were nearly completed without any interiors. The Australian Government appointed architects, led by Peter Hall, who retained the exterior design but significantly altered the interior of the building.

Utzon’s original design included a large concert hall and an opera theatre, which was altered by Hall to include only the concert hall and a minor hall. For a building synonymous with holding operas, the re-designed concert hall does not serve the purpose as it is too small. In addition, the acoustics of the concert hall are inferior despite many upgrades and improvements.

The renewal project is being launched to address all the above-mentioned issues and make the building ready for the future.

Details of the renewal project

The opera house renewal is the biggest since the building’s completion and will be completed in stages. The first stage will perform major refurbishments to the concert hall, replace ageing technical systems and open up additional areas to the public to welcome more visitors.

The concert hall will be upgraded to improve its acoustics and accessibility. A new acoustic ceiling equipped with acoustic reflectors will help in the even distribution of sound across the hall. A 3D surround-sound system will be installed to enable amplified performances. The stage and backstage areas of the hall will be expanded and worn-out theatre systems will be replaced.

The existing air-conditioning equipment will be shifted from above the ceiling of the hall to minimise background noise. In addition, existing theatre equipment will be relocated to improve flexibility and safety. A new passageway will also be constructed to improve accessibility.

Construction work on the concert hall, which is scheduled to start in 2019, will require its closure and are scheduled for completion in 2021.

A new creative learning centre is planned, where children and young adults can experiment and learn new things. The centre will include space for workshops, play activities and performances and dedicated digital classroom space. Its construction is expected to commence in 2017.

A new function centre with space to hold between 190 and 500 people will also be developed to celebrate important occasions such as weddings and corporate gatherings.

The entry and foyer areas under the forecourt will be upgraded to become a welcoming entrance and meeting place as envisioned by Utzon. The foyer area of the main box office will be upgraded to add seating and improve accessibility.

Financing for the renewal project

The renewal project is being funded by the NSW government through the sale of electricity assets.

Contractors involved

ARM Architecture and Schuler Shook have developed the design for the renewal project. German acoustic engineers Müller BBM have been appointed to provide acoustic systems for the concert hall.

Original design and inspiration for Sydney Opera House

The Australia Government announced its decision to build an opera house in 1952 and subsequently launched an international design competition in 1956. Utzon’s design was appointed to oversee the construction of the building.

Utzon drew inspiration from the Sydney harbour and nearby land marks to create a design, which included shell-shaped roof sails, standing atop a concrete platform. The roof sails represented the natural and organic forms of the harbour and sails of yachts.

Lined with white ceramic tiles, the roof sails are the most striking feature of the opera house. The roof sails were designed to have a large span in order to accommodate a concert hall and an opera theatre in the red-granite platform.

The roof sails were conceptually the best feature of the building’s design, but their construction posed a major problem for engineers. Utzon along with engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners and building contractors M R Hornibrook worked together on developing a technical solution to construct the sails.

After nearly four years of development, the problem was addressed by basing the design of the roof sails on the geometry of a sphere. The roof shells were created by cutting a three-sided section of a sphere and installed using pre-stressing steel tendons.

The recurrent delays and cost overruns raised questions on the viability of the project and ultimately led to the resignation of Utzon as the chief architect. Utzon was unable to finish his vision and left the country in 1966.

He was, however, re-engaged in 1999 to provide guidelines for improving the building for the future. The architect provided a set of design rules, now referred to as the Utzon Design Principles, for making any future changes to the building.

The Utzon Principles have since then been used for making any changes to the building, including a newly refurbished hall named after the architect. Utzon also worked on developing the concept designs for the renewal project.