New cultural buildings are justified via reference to a range of objectives including city image enhancement, national identity, tourism development, cultural engagement, economic development and physical regeneration. This paper examines the role envisaged for the Opera House in Oslo, which opened in April 2008. The study looks at the motivations and justifications for the building, examined through interviews with individuals who played an important role in the project. Research findings suggest that the Opera House is best understood as a cultural and national symbol, although it was also designed to assist urban regeneration and development. One of the interesting aspects of the project is the way artistic and regeneration justifications were coupled to ensure the project came to fruition. Other roles seem to have emerged that were not necessarily planned or expected. Tourism effects have been witnessed and its innovative design means the new Opera House functions as both a marketing symbol and a visitor attraction in its own right. The case demonstrates the value of focusing good urban design, with the possible bonus of external image enhancement, rather than relying on an iconic building and a ‘look at me’ effect. Thus, the Opera House may represent a less speculative type of iconic building — where bombastic design and external focus are replaced with more attention to public access and a local orientation.