20 October 1973: The Queen opens the Sydney Opera House

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s competition-winning design for the Sydney Opera House, complete with iconic roof-top ‘shells’, pushed the boundaries of what could, or rather couldn’t, be built in the 1950s and 1960s to the limit. As Times journalist Murray Sayle reported on 20 October 1973, the day the Queen opened the Sydney Opera House, “Utzon’s shells simply could not be built by twentieth-century technology – a humbling reminder that there are still some things on earth beyond our capabilities”.

Necessity being the mother of invention, a solution was eventually found. The roof-top concrete shells were “derived” from giant spheres, and the project was able to go ahead. But it had been a close call. “The whole project nearly foundered on the concrete shells”, wrote Sayle. But it was, as it turned out, far from being the only bump in the road.

Joseph Cahill, premier of the New South Wales government, had thrown his support behind the project to build a concert venue in Sydney. But his critics saw it as a thinly veiled vanity project that would end up massively exceeding its £3.5m budget, and deadline. They named it “Taj Cahill”.

Utzon became so fed up with the government’s interventions in the design and building that he resigned in 1966. By then, the project was already running behind schedule and the costs were mounting. It was only after 14 years, 7 months, and 18 days – and £62m – that the Sydney Opera House was finally ready for her Majesty.

On a “warm, but very windy spring day”, Aboriginal actor Ben Blakeney scaled the Sydney Opera House’s roof to give an oration on his people’s ties to the site at Bennelong Point. Then, before a televised audience of 300 million, it was time for the Queen of Australia to speak.

She recognised that the project had been dogged by controversy, but that there was nothing wrong with that. After all, the building of the pyramids had been controversial, “yet they stand today 4,000 years later acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world. I believe this will be so for the Sydney Opera House”, she said. And 42 years into that prediction, who’s to say she’s wrong?

Day in history

20 October 1935: Mao’s Long March ends

Almost exactly a year after setting off, Mao Zedong and his army of communists arrived at the foot of the Great Wall of China on this day in 1935. Read more here.