The Sydney Opera House joins other leading historic landmarks after being awarded the world’s highest civil engineering recognition.
Already the recipient of several awards, the Sydney Opera House has just been accorded two more – one by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as well as an engineering heritage international marker from Engineers Australia.
ASCE’s Historic Civil Engineering Landmark Program recognises significant local, national, and international civil engineering projects, structures and sites. Previous recipients include Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Panama Canal and Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme.
While the architectural aspects of the Sydney Opera House have long been acknowledged and admired, these are its first major engineering awards. Architect Jørn Utzon’s novel design was inspired by sailboats and swans and there were questions about whether it was even possible to build a structure in the shape of the Sydney Opera House using prestressed concrete.
“To an engineer it’s a marvel of ambition, of audacity,” said President of Engineers Australia Sydney Division Don Moloney CPEng, who represented the organisation at the recognition ceremony. “In essence, designing and building this masterpiece required multi-disciplinary dedication, expertise, skill, ingenuity and fortitude by engineers, architects, surveyors and builders alike.
“The Opera House pushed these disciplines to the limit, to achieve something truly unique, the process having profound engineering and scientific significance, influencing structural design for ever more,” he added.
Breaking engineering ground
Built in the sixties, the Sydney Opera House holds the honour of being the first computer-designed building of significant scale and was led by the groundbreaking work of former Arup Chair Dr John Nutt. When the Opera House was being built, Frank Johnson MIEAust was a budding student engineer and recalls using slide rules and log tables in his engineering course. He is now the Chair of Engineering Heritage Australia and tells create that the Sydney Opera House could not have been built with the tools engineers were using at the time.
Nutt pioneered the use of computers in engineering practice, worked on the design and analysis of the Sydney Opera House roof and oversaw the construction and completion of the building.
In Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House, Nutt explained the problem. “The shells converged to points at the supports, concentrating the forces in an undesirable way,” he wrote.
“The ridges had sharp discontinuities of surface. Curvatures near the pedestals caused enormous problems which were not resolved until late in the design. Each shell had to be linked to its neighbour to achieve overall stability.”
The Sydney Opera House involved the earliest example in the world of epoxy jointing of matched concrete segments. It also used an erection arch for construction of the roofs that was the most complex piece of scaffolding used in the construction industry in Australia at that time. The project also pioneered the factory manufacture and erection of large precast concrete units of complex geometry.
Nutt called it “a magnificent tribute to the collaboration of architect and engineer, to art and technology.”
Inspiring the next generation of engineers
Johnson is keen to see the next generation learn from, and be inspired by, the incredible engineering that went into the Sydney Opera House. He highlights the Build Creative Lab organised by Western Sydney University which enables 40 students to explore the architecture, engineering and design of the Sydney Opera House in an immersive experience.
“Michael Elfick, John Kuner and Wilf Deck are some of the engineers who worked with Ove Arup, the project’s design engineer over 50 years ago, and will participate in the Build,” said Johnson.
Engineers Australia’s Engineering Heritage Recognition Program has recognised over 260 engineering and industrial heritage sites around Australia. Works that have significance beyond Australia, are recognised as being Engineering Heritage International Markers, and the Sydney Opera House joins other internationally significant works in that category, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
It is only fitting that the building that pioneered the use of computers in its design be given the first ever digital plaques – one each from ASCE and Engineers Australia. Moreover, a metal plaque would not meet the Opera House Trust’s conservation management plan. And, as Moloney noted, “the House has enough nails in the wall”.