Staring at the massive building, I found myself wondering: why are those sweeping curves all in tile? Surely, concrete would have been easier. The answer leads back to the Opera House’s architect, Jørn Utzon. He wanted a white roof in stark contrast against the blue harbor and sky. But he also wanted depth and changes in color, and for that, he needed tile. Utzon envisioned a glossy tile, but not mirror-like to cause glare. And he didn’t want bright white tiles under the harsh Australian sunlight. Inspired by the finish of Japanese ceramic bowls, Utzon took his ideas to a Swedish tile company called Höganӓs.
It took three years of experimenting, but Höganӓs at last created the effect Utzon had in mind by mixing in a small percentage of crushed stone with the clay. These tiles became known as the Sydney Tile. Imported from Sweden, the tiles were placed in chevron-shaped beds in a factory set up under the Monumental Steps of the Opera House.
The tiles are fungus-proof and self-cleaning although they still require maintenance and replacement. Maintaining the roof—along with the rest of the massive building—is a huge expense for the Opera House. In 2013, as part of the building’s 40th Anniversary, 125,000 of the tiles were put “on sale” to the public. People can now buy a digital “tile” from the roof, and the money goes toward supporting the Opera House’s long-term renewal goals. This Own Our House campaign will last until the Opera House’s 50th anniversary in 2023.
The wonder of the Sydney Opera House drives home how getting the smallest details right—in this case, 1,056,006 of them—can have a lasting impact for ages to come.