Paolo Tombesi (EPFL), “Sails, Octopuses, and Beds: The Sydney Opera House Turns 50” (School of Architecture)

Event time: 
Thursday, October 26, 2023 - 6:30pm
Hastings Hall, basement level of Paul Rudolph Hall, 180 York Street See map
Event description: 
For the past 50 years, the Sydney Opera House has been the subject of a prodigious hagiography of the personalities involved in its realization and their legendary quarrels. Yet it remains paradoxically unexplored when it comes to its operative construction decisions, particularly those that relate to the erection of its renowned superstructure in the course of Stage II, between 1963 and 1967. A multi-year research project on the shop drawings produced for the innovative formwork system of the iconic roof sails, led by Luciano Cardellicchio at the University of New South Wales and Paolo Stracchi at the University of Sydney, finally permits to shed light on the hitherto unacknowledged design role of the general contractor, in the process questioning the validity of conventional assumptions about the technical division of labour in complex projects, where construction and project management tend to be kept separate from architectural and structural design. By using the documents discovered by Cardellicchio and Stracchi as a basis for three-dimensional simulations of the construction procedures employed, the need for design exegeses that combine project-based and production-based concerns becomes manifest. In positing the value of an architectural history integrating cultural ideas with technical decisions and actions, the study of the Sydney Opera House suggests that a drastic change in historiographic methods may be both possible and required.
An architect by training, Paolo Tombesi has a long-nurtured interest in the relationship between the intellectual dimension of building and the socio-technical aspects of its physical construction. Generation and management of information constitute an important fulcrum of his work, both at macro industry level and within the building development process. By following or delineating its social patterns – in terms of production responsibility allocation as well as exchange – Tombesi seeks to understand functioning and evolution of the construction sector beyond conventional representations.
Since 2020, he has been conducting research in collaboration with Australian colleagues Luciano Cardellicchio, from the University of New South Wales, and Paolo Stracchi, from the University of Sydney, on the technical documentation produced for the Sydney Opera House. This research has been published internationally and is the subject of his lecture in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the building.
Tombesi has been the Professor of Construction and Architecture at EPFL since 2016. Between 2017 and 2020, he directed the university’s Institute of Architecture and the City. Prior to his appointment, he held the Chair in Construction at the University of Melbourne, where he worked for 20 years and where he retained the Professorship of Building until 2021. A former Fulbright Fellow, he has a PhD from UCLA on the distribution of technical design knowledge in the building industry. He has been working as a consultant for state and federal governments on research and heritage issues, most notably on the 2006 World Heritage Listing nomination to UNESCO of the Sydney Opera House.
Image: The Sydney Opera House under construction in 1966 (Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd)