December 7, 2015

How great ideas end up in the bin: a true Sydney Opera House story


Sydney Opera House

Recently, I saw Russel Howcroft speak at the Wheeler Centre. During this discussion of all things ‘ideas’, an idea of Russel’s sparked the ideas in this post.

Whose idea was the Sydney Opera House?

In many opinions, the Sydney Opera House is, generally, a ‘good idea’. Almost more important than its functionality, it’s a cultural icon that thousands of people flock to see each year. Howcroft called it ‘Australia’s best advertisement’.

Like many good ideas, we can attribute the ‘idea’ for the Sydney Opera House to a couple of different people:

  1. First, Joseph Cahill, New South Wales’ premier from 1952 to 1959. It was under his lead that the call for architecture submissions went out in ‘56.
  2. Second, Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who actually designed the iconic building.
  3. Third, Eero Saarinen, the competition judge who purportedly convinced the other judges on the panel to not only remove Utzon’s designs from the discard pile, but to also choose it as the final design.

Save your ideas from the rubbish bin

“Australia has been very constipated with speaking about our ideas,” Howcroft said. We say ‘no’ too quickly. We dismiss ideas when they’re too difficult, or too scary, and we’re not willing to speak up enough about the ideas that are important to us.

Had Saarinen not given Utzon’s designs a second chance, the judging panel was going to choose Joseph Marzella’s concrete design… which today is described as everything from a ‘sewerage treatment plant’ to a ‘vacuum cleaner filter’. Hardly the iconic national advertisement the Opera House is today.

How often, do you think, this happens on a daily basis? We all sometimes let our good ideas slide, and let easier, cheaper, quicker solutions take their place instead. Will that ultimately be worth the ROI?

“All ideas are good until they’re not,’ said Howcroft. “We should be willing to chuck out our ideas. Not every idea should happen, but we should chuck them out there and discuss them.”

Joseph Marzella's Opera House

What could have been: Joseph Marzella’s Sydney Opera House design

Share your great ideas with those that can make it happen

A great idea on its own is not a great idea. “Ideas are worthless,” Howcroft said. “It’s all very good to have the idea, but the real hero of the Opera House is Cahill. It doesn’t exist until someone sponsors it to exist.”

I want to take this idea further – is the real hero Cahill, or is it Saarinen? If Saarinen hadn’t advocated for the unpopular idea, Cahill would still have funded the project, regardless of the design.

A great, strange idea needs a team of people to make it a reality: thinkers, sponsors, and advocators. Remove any one, and you won’t reach your idea’s full potential.

If you have a great idea, but need a hand communicating it to your customers or clients, let us know. We’ll help your ideas take flight.

Industry Insights

January 21, 2022

Content design in theory and practice – who’s doing it well?

November 26, 2021

Who writes your copy? Spotlight on… Marina Penderis

November 10, 2021

Fintech 2021: Who survived and what’s ahead?

October 29, 2021

Could you use a microsite for your next campaign?

October 6, 2021

5 ways technology’s impact is a force for good