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Australia’s hidden Sydney Opera House history | The role of local ingenuity in construction

UNSW Sydney 2 mins read
A rich group of items from the NSW Archive and Records revealed new information about the construction process used to build the Sydney Opera House. Now researchers have created a VR experience of the construction site.

Experience the construction site of the Sydney Opera House using Virtual Reality at the Heritage Exhibition at the ICC Sydney from September 5th to 8th, from 8:30am to 5:30pm.


While some stories about the Sydney Opera House are widely known, others have remained overlooked. One such overlooked story is the significant contribution made by the Australian contractor, Hornibrook Limited. His local expertise and construction knowledge played a crucial role in empowering the architectural vision of the architect Jorn Utzon and structural definition of Ove Arup.


Dr Luciano Cardellicchio (UNSW), Dr Paolo Stracchi (University of Sydney), and Prof. Paolo Tombesi (EPFL) undertook a research project that uncovered the role of local ingenuity and craftsmanship in the creation of one of the world's most celebrated buildings. Their research, titled "Beyond the Spherical Solutions: The Australian Contribution to the Making of the Sydney Opera House," describes Hornibrook's innovative approach to on-site creation. Their research demonstrates that the Sydney Opera House is not merely a building in Australia designed by a Danish architect and engineered by a British firm, but also an Australian structure built in the "Australian way."


Based solely on so far unknown archival material, their research reveals that the Australian contractor participated in the design development of the sails from the project's beginning. The local expertise and ingenuity played a pivotal role in establishing the sophisticated casting yard, an open-air facility designed to produce the 2400 segments of the sail, showcasing the unparalleled quality of concrete finishing seen in the building today. Additionally, the Erection Arch, an innovative movable apparatus designed to temporarily support the heavy concrete blocks in mid-air, was also Australian-designed and crafted.


Dr Cardellicchio and Dr Stracchi have taken their project a step further by reconstructing the construction site of the Sydney Opera House using Virtual Reality.


"UNESCO acknowledges the Sydney Opera House as a World Heritage site due to its exceptional design, construction, engineering accomplishments, and technological innovations," says Dr Cardellicchio. "For the first time, the public can immerse themselves in the workings of the original building site, gaining an appreciation for its immense complexity, innovation, and the role played by the Australian contractor. This immersive experience offers an unprecedented understanding of the building's remarkable universal value, especially in terms of its technological achievements."


Through a VR headset, viewers can personally experience the events that unfolded at the Sydney Opera House construction site, observing how this revered Australian and global landmark came into being. Participants can engage with the original construction documentation, gaining insight into the project's innovations and complexities.


This immersive experience pays tribute to the collective creativity of the Danish architect, British engineers, and Australian contractors who contributed to this masterpiece.


As the General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) convenes and Sydney commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House, there is a remarkable opportunity to celebrate the Australian contribution to the creation of this iconic building.

Key Facts:

Key facts

Australian contractor Hornibrook Ltd participated in the design development of the Sydney Opera House sails.

Hornibrook also developed an innovate on-site casting yard to create the 2400 segments of the sail.

The construction process has been made into a VR experience accessible to the public at the ICC Sydney from Sept 5-8.


Contact details:

Dr Luciano Cardellicchio is available for interviews.

Media Contact

Samantha Dunn

News & Content Coordinator

UNSW Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture

0414 924 364



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