Highlighting the Build: Using Lighting to Showcase the Sydney Opera House





Illumination, Lighting, Sydney Opera House, Utzon

How to Cite

Dwyer, S. (2017). Highlighting the Build: Using Lighting to Showcase the Sydney Opera House. M/C Journal, 20(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1184
Vol. 20 No. 2 (2017): build
Published 2017-04-26


The Sydney Opera House is Australia’s, if not the world’s, most recognisable building. It is universally recognised as an architectural icon and as a masterpiece of the built environment, which has captured the imagination of many (Commonwealth of Australia  4). The construction of the Sydney Opera House, between 1959 and 1973, utilised many ground-breaking methods and materials which, together, pushed the boundaries of technical possibilities to the limits of human knowledge at the time (Commonwealth of Australia 36, 45). Typical investigations into the Sydney Opera House focus on its architects, the materials, construction, or the events that occur on its stages. The role of the illumination, in the perception and understanding of Australia’s most famous performing arts centre, is an under-investigated aspect of its construction and its use today (Dwyer Backstage Biography 1; Dwyer “Utzon’s Use” 131).

This article examines the illumination of the Sydney Opera House from the perspective of light as a construction material, another element that is used to ‘build’ the structure on Bennelong Point. This article examines the illumination from an historical view as Jørn Utzon’s (1918-2008) concepts for the building, including the lighting design intentions, were not all realised as he did not complete the project. The task of finishing this structure was allocated to the architectural cooperative of Hall, Todd & Littlemore who replaced Utzon in 1966. 

The Danish-born Utzon was appointed in January 1957 having won an international competition, from a field of over 230 entries, to design a national opera house for Sydney. He quickly began the task of resolving his design, transforming the roughly-sketched concepts presented in his competition entry, into detailed drawings that articulated how the opera house would be realised. The iteration of these concepts can be most succinctly identified in Utzon’s formal design reports to the Opera House Committee which are often referred to based on the colour of their cover design. The first report, the ‘red book’ was issued in 1958 with further developments of the architectural and services designs outlined in the ‘yellow book’ which followed in 1962. The last of the original architects’ publications was the Utzon Design Principles (2002) which was created as part of the reengagement processbetween the Government of New South Wales and the Sydney Opera House with the original architectthat commenced in 1999.

As with many modern buildings (such as Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center, Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church or Adrian D. Smith’ Burj Khalifa), concrete was selected to form the basic structural element of the Sydney Opera House. Working with the, now internationally-renowned, engineering firm Ove Arup and Partners, Utzon designed some of the most significant shapes and finishes that have become synonymous with the site. The concrete elements range from basic blade walls with lustrous finishes to the complex, shape-changing beams that rise from under the monumental stairs and climb to terminate in the southern foyers. Thus, demonstrating the use of concrete as both a structural element and a high quality architectural finish. Another product used throughout the Sydney Opera House is granite. As a hardwearing stone, it is used in a crushed form as part of the precast panels that line the walls and internal flooring and as setts on the forecourt. As with the concrete the use of the same material inside and out blurs the distinction between interior and exterior. The forecourt forms a wide-open plaza before the building rises like a headland as it meets the harbour. The final, and most recognisable element is that of the shell (or roof) tiles. After many years of research Utzon settled on a simple mix of gloss and matt tiles of approximately 120mm square that, carefully arranged, produced a chevron shaped ‘lid’ and results in an effect likened to snow and ice (Commonwealth of Australia 51).

These construction elements would all remain invisible if not illuminated by light, natural or artificial. This paper posits that the illumination reinforces the architecture of the structure and extends the architectural and experiential narratives of the Sydney Opera House across time and space. That, light islike concrete, granite and tilesa critical component of the Opera House’s build.

Building a Narrative with Light

In creating the Sydney Opera House, Utzon set about harnessing natural and artificial illumination that are  intrinsic parts of the human condition. Light shapes every facet of our lives from defining working and leisure hours to providing the mechanism for high speed communications and is, therefore, an obvious choice to reinforce the structure of the building and to link the built environment with the natural world that enveloped his creation. Light was to play a major role in the narrative of the Sydney Opera House starting from a patron’s approach to the site.

Utzon’s staged approach to a performance at the Sydney Opera House is well documented, from the opening passages of the Descriptive Narrative (Utzon 1-2) to the Lighting Master Plan (Steensen Varming). The role of artificial light in the preparation of the audience extends beyond the simple visibility necessary to navigate the site. Light provides a linking element that guides an audience member along their ‘journey’ through several phases of transformation from the physicality of the city on the forecourt to “another world–a make believe atmosphere, which will exclude all outside impressions and allow the patrons to be absorbed into the theatre mood, which the actors and the producers wish to create” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 2) in the theatres. Utzon conceived of light as part of the storytelling process, expressing the building’s narrative in a way that allows illumination is to be so much more than signposts to points of activity such as cloaking areas, theatre entries and the like. The lighting was intended to delineate various stages on the ‘journey’ noted above, to reinforce the transition from one world to another such that the combination of light and architecture would provide a series of successive stimuli that would build until the crescendo of the performance itself. This supports the transition of the visitor from the world of the everyday into the narrative of the Sydney Opera House and a world of make believe. 

Yet, in providing a narrative between these two ‘worlds’ the lighting becomes an anchoror an element held in suspension – a mediator in the tension between the city at the beginning of the ‘journey’ and the ‘other world’ of the performance at the end. There is a balance to be maintained between illuminating the Sydney Opera House so that it remains prominent in its harbour location, easily read as a distinct sculptural structure on the peninsular separate from, but still an essential part of, the city that lies beyond Circular Quay to the south. Utzon alludes to the challenges of crafting the illumination so that it meets these requirements, noting that the illumination of the broardwalks “must be compatible with the lighting on the approach roads” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 68) while maintaining that “the floodlit building will be the first and last impression for [… an audience] to receive” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 1). These lighting requirements are also tempered by the desire that the “night time [...] view will be all lights and reflections, [that] stretch all along the harbour for many miles” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 1) reinforcing the use of light as an anchor that provides both a point of reference and serves as a mediator of the Sydney Opera House’s place within the city.

The narrative of the materials and elements that are combined to give the final, physical form its striking sensory presence is also told through light, in particular colour. Or, perhaps more precisely in an illumination sense, the accurate reproduction of colour and by extension accurate presentation of the construction materials used in the creation of the Sydney Opera House. Expression of the ‘truth’ in the materials he used was important for Utzon and the faithful representation of details such as the fine grains in timber and the smooth concrete finishes required careful lighting to enhance these features. When extended to the human occupants of the Sydney Opera House, there is a short, yet very descriptive instruction: the lighting is to give “life to the skin and hair on the human form in much the same way as the light from candles” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 67). Thus, the narrative of the materials and their quality was as important as the final structure and those who would occupy it. It is the role of light to build upon the story of the materials to contribute to the overall narrative of the Sydney Opera House.

Building an Experience through Illumination

Utzon envisaged that light would do much more than provide illumination or tell the narrative of the materials he had selected – light was also to build a unique architectural experience for a patron. The experience of light was to be subtle; the architecture was to retain a position of centre stage, reinforced by, rather than ever replaced by, the illumination. In this way, concealed lighting was proposed which would be “designed in close collaboration with the acoustical engineers as they will become an integral part of overall acoustic design” and “installed in carefully selected places based on knowledge gleaned from experimental work” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 67). Through concealing the light source, the architecture did not become cluttered or over powered by a dazzling array of fixtures and fittings that detracted from the audience’s experiences. For instance, to illuminate the monumental steps, Utzon proposed that the fittings would be recessed into the handrails, while the bar and lounge areas would be lit from discreet fittings installed within the plywood ceiling panels (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 16) to create an experience of light that was unified across the site. In addition to the aesthetical improvements gained from the removal of the light sources from the field of view, unwanted glare is also reduced reinforcing the ‘whole’ of the architectural experience.

During the time that Utzon was conceptualising the illumination of the Sydney Opera House, the Major Hall (what is now known as the Concert Hall) was envisaged as what might be considered as a modern multipurpose venue, one that could accommodate among other activities: symphonic concerts; opera; ballet and dance; choral concerts; pageants and mass meetings (NSW Department of Local Government 24). The Concert Hall was the terminus for the ‘journey’where the actors and audience find themselves in the same space, the ‘other world’“a make believe atmosphere, which will exclude all outside impressions and allow the patrons to be absorbed into the theatre mood, which the actors and the producers wish to create” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 2). This other world was to sumptuously explode with rich colours “which uplift you in that festive mood, away from daily life, that you expect when you go to the theatre, a play, an opera or a concert” (Utzon Utzon Design Principles 34). These highly decorated and colourful finishes contrast with the white shells further highlighting the ‘journey’ that has taken place. Utzon proposed to use the illumination to reinforce this distance and provide the link between the natural colours of the raw materials used outside the theatre and highly decorated colours of the performance spaces.

The lighting treatment of the theatres extended into the foyers and their public amenities to ensure that the lighting design contributed to the overall enhancement of a patron’s visit and delivered the experience of the ‘journey’ that was envisaged by Utzon (Dwyer “Utzon’s Use” 130-32). This standardised approach was in concert with Utzon’s architectural philosophy where repetitive systems of construction elements were utilised, for instance, in the construction of the shells. Utzon clearly articulated this approach in The Descriptive Narrative, noting that “standard light fittings will be chosen […] to suit each location (67), however the standardisation would not compromise other considerations of the space such as the acoustical performance, with Utzon noting that the “fittings for auditoria and rehearsal rooms must be of necessity, designed in close collaboration with the acoustical engineers as they will become an integral part of over acoustic design” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 67). 

Another parallel between the architectural development of the Sydney Opera House and Utzon’s approach to the lighting concepts was, uncommon at the time, his preference for prototyping and experimentation with lighting effects and various fittings (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 67). A sharp contrast to the usual practices of the day which relied upon more straightforward procurement processes with generic rather than tailored solutions. Peter Hall, of Hall, Todd & Littlemore, discussed the typical method of lighting design which was prevalent during the construction of the Sydney Opera House, as a method which “amounted to the electrical engineers laying out on a plan sufficient off-the-shelf light fittings to achieve the desired illumination levels […] the resulting effects were dull even if brightly lit” (Hall 180). Thus, Utzon’s careful approach to ensure that light and architecture were in harmony as “nothing is introduced into the scheme, before it has been carefully investigated and has proved to be the right solution to the problem” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 2) was highly innovative for its time.

The use of light to provide an experience was not necessarily new, for example RSL Clubs, theme parks and department stores all used light to attract attention to their products and services, however the scale and proposed execution of these concepts was pioneering for Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. Utzon’s concepts provided a highly experiential unified design to provide the patron with a unique architectural experience built through the careful use of light.

Building the Scenery with Light

Architecture might be considered set design on a grand scale (for example see Raban, Rasmuseen and Read). Both architects and set designers are concerned with the relationship between the creative designs and the viewers and both set up opportunities for interactions between people (as actors or users) and structure. However, without light, the scene remains literally, in the dark, isolated from its surroundings and unperceetable to an audience.

Utzon was acutely aware of the relationship between the Sydney Opera House and the city in which it stands. The positioning of the structure on the site is no accident and the interplay between the ‘sails’ and the sun is perhaps the most recognised lighting feature of the Sydney Opera House. By varying the angle of the shells, the reflections and the effects of the sunlight are constantly varying depending on the viewer’s position and focus. More importantly, these subtle variations in the light enhance the sculptural effect of the direct illumination and help create the effect of “matt snow and shining ice” (Commonwealth of Australia 51): the ‘shimmer of life’ so desired by Utzon as the sunlight strikes the ceramic tiles. 

This ‘shimmer’ is not the only natural lighting effect. The use of the different angles ensures variation in the light, clouds and resulting shadows to heighten interest and create an ever-changing scene that plays out on the shells as the sun moves across the sky, as Utzon notes, “something new goes on all the time and it is so important–this interplay is so important that together with the sun, the light and the clouds, it makes it a living thing” (Utzon Sydney Opera House 49). This scene is enhanced by the changing quality of the sunlight; the shells appear to be deep amber at first light their shadows long and faint before becoming shorter and stronger as the sun moves towards its midday position with the colour changing slowly to ‘pure’ white before the shadows change sides, the process reverses and they again disappear under the cover of darkness. Although the scene replays daily, the relative location of the sun and changing weather patterns ensure infinite variation in the effect.

This changing scene, on a grand scale, with light as the central character is just as important as the theatrical performances taking place indoors on the stages. With a mobile audience, the detailing of the visual scene that is the structure becomes more important. The Sydney Opera House competes for attention with shipping movements in the harbour, the adjacent bridge with the ant-like procession of climbers and the activities of the city to the south. Utzon foresaw this noting that the “position on a peninsular, which is overlooked from all angles makes it important to maintain an all-round elevation. There can be no backsides to the building and nothing can be hidden from the view” (Utzon Descriptive Narrative 1). The use of natural light to enhance the sculptural form and reinforce isolation of the structure on the peninsular, centre stage on the harbour is therefore not a coincidence. Utzon has deliberately harnessed the natural light to ensure that the Sydney Opera House is just as vibrant a performer as its surroundings. In this way, Utzon has used light to anchor the Sydney Opera House both in the city it serves and for the performances it houses.

It is not just the natural light that is used as such an anchor point. Utzon planned for artificial lighting of the sails and surrounding site to ensure that after dark the ‘shimmer’ of the white tiles would be maintained with an equivalent, if manufactured, effect. For Utzon, the sculptural qualities of structure were important and should be clearly ‘read’ at night, even against a dark harbour on one side and the brighter city on the other. Through the use of artificial lighting, Utzon set the scene on Bennelong Point with the structure clearly centred in the set that is the Sydney skyline. This reinforced the notion that a journey into the Sydney Opera House was something special, a transition from the everyday to the ‘other’ world.


For Utzon light was just as essential as concrete and other building materials for the design of the Sydney Opera House. The traditional bright lights of the stage had no place in the architectural illumination, replaced instead by a much more subtle, understated use of light, and indeed its absence. Utzon planned for the lighting to envelope an audience but not to smother them. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete his project and in 1968 J.M. Waldram was eventually appointed to complete the lighting design. Waldram’s lighting solutionsmany of which are still in place todayborrowed or significantly drew upon Utzon’s original illumination concepts, thus demonstrating their strength and timeless qualities. In this way light builds on the story of the structure, reinforcing the architecture of the building and extending the narratives of the construction elements used to build the Sydney Opera House.


The author acknowledges the assistance of Rachel Franks for her input on an early draft of this article and thanks the blind peer reviewers for their generous feedback and suggestions, of course any remain errors or omissions are my own. 


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Author Biography

Simon Dwyer, PhD Candidate, CQU

Simon Dwyer has over twenty-five years of experience working in many technical and production roles in the entertainment industry across Australia and New Zealand. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Central Queensland University examining the theatricality of the lighting of the Sydney Opera House. Simon has presented original research in the creative industries at numerous conferences and has written on a wide range of topics including architecture, education, facilities management, literature and the performing arts.