The Architecture of Jørn Utzon - Selected Works

A Look at the Architecture of Jorn Utzon

aerial photo of modern complex of swirly buildings near water
The Utzon Center in Aalborg, Denmark, 2008. Bang Clemme Film & Openhouse/utzoncenter.dk (cropped)

Danish architect Jørn Utzon (1918-2008) will always be remembered for his visionary Sydney Opera House, but the shell-shaped landmark was just one work in a long career. His last building is the cultural center built near his father's shipyard in Aalborg, Denmark. Finished in 2008, the Utzon Center shows the architectural elements found in much of his work — and it's by the water.

Join us for a photo tour of the 2003 Pritzker Laureate's great projects, including the Kuwait National Assembly in Kuwait City,  the Bagsværd Church in his native Denmark, and, most remarkably, two innovative Danish experiments in courtyard housing, organic architecture, and sustainable neighborhood design and development — Kingo Housing Project and Fredensborg Housing.

Sydney Opera House, 1973

white sails on a brown base by a bridge over water
Sydney Opera House, Australia.

Guy Vanderelst/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The Sydney Opera House is actually a complex of theaters and halls all linked together beneath its famous shells. Built between 1957 and 1973, Utzon famously resigned from the project in 1966. Politics and the press made working in Australia untenable for the Danish architect. When Utzon left the project, exteriors were built, but the building of the interiors was overseen by Australian architect Peter Hall (1931-1995).

Utzon's design has been called Expressionist Modernism by The Telegraph. The design concept begins as a solid sphere. When pieces are removed from a solid sphere, the sphere pieces look like shells or sails when placed on a surface. The construction begins with a concrete pedestal "clad in earth-toned, reconstituted granite panels." Precast ribs "rising to a ridge beam" are covered with white, custom-made glazed off-white tiles.

"...one of the more intrinsic challenges that are inherent to his [Jørn Utzon] approach, namely the combination of prefabricated components in a structural assembly in such a way as to achieve a unified form that while incremental is at once flexible, economic and organic. We can already see this principle at work in the tower-crane assembly of the segmental pre-cast concrete ribs of the shell roofs of the Sydney Opera House, wherein coffered, tile-faced units of up to ten tons in weight were hauled into position and sequentially secured to each other, some two hundred feet in the air."—Kenneth Frampton

Although sculpturally beautiful, the Sydney Opera House was widely criticized for its lack of functionality as a performance venue. Performers and theater-goers said that the acoustics were poor and that the theater didn't have enough performance or backstage space. In 1999, the parent organization brought back Utzon to document his intent and help solve some of the thorny interior design problems.

n 2002, Utzon began design renovations that would bring the building's interior closer to his original vision. His architect son, Jan Utzon, traveled to Australia to plan the renovations and continue future development of the theaters.

Bagsvaerd Church, 1976

unconventional stepped building, skylight roofing
Bagsvaerd Church, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1976.

Erik Christensen via wikimedia commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Notice the skylight roofing on the church corridors. With bright white interior walls and light-colored floor, the interior natural light intensifies by reflection in this church in Bagsværd, Denmark. "The light in the corridors provides almost the same feel as the light you experience on a sunny day in winter high up in the mountains, making these elongated spaces a joy to walk in," describes Utzon on the Bagsvaerd Church.

No mention of the snow that must blanket the skylights in winter. Rows of interior lights provide a good backup.

"So with the curved ceilings and with the skylights and sidelights in the church, I have architectonically attempted to realise the inspiration that I derived from the drifting clouds above the sea and the shore," says Utzon about the design concept. "Together, the clouds and the shore formed a wondrous space in which the light fell through the ceiling – the clouds – down on to the floor represented by the shore and the sea, and I had a strong feeling that this could be a place for a divine service."

The Evangelical-Lutheran parishioners of this town north of Copenhagen knew that if they hired the modernist architect, they would not get a "romantic idea of what a Danish church looks like." They were okay with that.

Kuwait National Assembly, 1972-1982

curving roof sweeping up to a white facade of draped columns
The Parliament Building, Kuwait National Assembly, Kuwait, 1982.

xiquinhosilva via Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The competition to design and build a new Parliament building in Kuwait City intrigued Jørn Utzon as he was on a teaching assignment in Hawaii. He won the competition with a design reminiscent of Arabian tents and marketplaces.

The Kuwait National Assembly building contains four major spaces emanating from a grand, central walkway—a covered square, a parliamentary chamber, a large conference hall, and a mosque. Each space forms a corner of the rectangular building, with sloping roof lines creating the effect of fabric blowing in the breezes off Kuwait Bay.

"I am quite aware of the danger in the curved shapes in contrast to the relative safety of quadrilateral shapes," Utzon has said. "But the world of the curved form can give something that cannot ever be achieved by means of rectangular architecture. The hulls of ships, caves and sculpture demonstrate this." In the Kuwait National Assembly building, the architect has achieved both geometric designs.

In February 1991, retreating Iraqi troops partially destroyed Utzon's building. It's been reported that a multi-million dollar restoration and renovation strayed from Utzon's original design.

Jorn Utzon's home in Hellebaek, Denmark, 1952

ranch-type house, large center chimney, glass walls, stone walls
Architect Jorn Utzon's home in Hellebaek, Denmark, 1952.

seier+seier via wikimedia commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) (cropped)

Jørn Utzon's architecture practice was in Hellebæk, Denmark, about four miles from the famous Royal Castle of Kronborg at Helsingør. Utzon designed and built this modest, modern home for his family. His children, Kim, Jan, and Lin all followed in their father's footsteps, as have many of his grandchildren.

Can Lis, Majorca, Spain, 1973

detail of brick pillars mingling with tree trunks in a residential space open to the sea
Can Lis, Jorn Utzon's Home in Majorca, Spain, 1973. Frans Drewniak via wikimedia commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) cropped

Jørn Utzon and his wife, Lis, needed a retreat after the intense attention he received for the Sydney Opera House. He found refuge in the island of Majorca (Mallorca).

While traveling in Mexico in 1949, Utzon became intrigued with Mayan architecture, especially  the platform as an architectural element. "All the platforms in Mexico are placed very sensitively in the landscape," writes Utzon, "always the creations of a brilliant idea. They radiate a huge force. You feel the firm ground beneath you, as when standing on a great cliff."

The Mayan people built temples on platforms that rose above the jungle, into the open skies of sunshine and breezes.This idea became part of Jorn Utzon's design aesthetic. You can see it in Can Lis, Utzon's first home temple in Majorca. The site is a natural platform of stone rising above the sea. The platform aesthetic is more evident in the second Majorca home, Can Feliz (1994).

The interminable sounds of the pounding sea, the intensity of Majorca's sunlight, and the enthusiastic and intrusive fans of architecture pushed the Utzons to seek higher ground. Jørn Utzon built Can Feliz for the seclusion that Can Lis could not offer.  Nestled on a mountainside, Can Feliz is both organic, fitting within its environment, and majestic, as a Mayan temple platformed to great heights.

Feliz, of course, means "happy." He left Can Lis to his children.

Kingo Housing Project, Denmark, 1957

stone low houses, wide chimneys, tile roofs
Kingo Housing Project at Elsinore, Typical Roman house, 1957.

Jørgen Jespersen via wikimedia commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Jørn Utzon has acknowledged that the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright influenced his own development as an architect, and we see it in the design for the Kingo Houses in Helsingør. The houses are organic, low to the ground, blending in with the environment. Earth tones and natural building materials make these low-income houses a natural part of nature.

Near the famous Royal Castle of Kronborg, the Kingo Housing Project was built around courtyards, a style reminiscent of traditional Danish farmhouses. Utzon had studied Chinese and Turkish building customs and grew interested in "courtyard-style housing."

Utzon built 63 courtyard houses, L-shaped homes in an arrangement he describes as "like flowers on the branch of cherry tree, each turning toward the sun." Functions are compartmentalized within the floorplan, with the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom in one section, a living room and study in another section, and exterior privacy walls of varying heights enclosing the remaining open sides of the L. Each property, including the courtyard, formed a 15 meter square (225 square meters or 2422 square feet). With the careful placement of the units and the landscaping of the community, Kingo has become a lesson in sustainable neighborhood development.

Fredensborg Housing, Fredensborg, Denmark, 1962

large, green field surrounded by multi-level stone walls
Fredensborg Housing, Fredensborg, Denmark, 1962.

Jamie Hamilton via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) cropped

 

Jørn Utzon helped establish this housing community in North Zealand, Denmark. Built for retired Danish Foreign Service workers, the community is designed for both privacy and communal activities. Each of the 47 courtyard homes and 30 terraced houses has a view of and direct access to a green slope. Terraced houses are grouped around common courtyard squares, giving this urban design the name "courtyard housing."

Paustian Showroom, 1985-1987

two photos, left are buildings near water and boats; right is spacious interior gallery with columned balconies
Paustian Showroom, Denmark, 1985. seier+seier via wikimedia commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

After forty years in the business of architecture, Jorn Utzon sketched the designs for Ole Paustian's furniture store and Utzon's sons, Jan and Kim, finalized the plans. The waterfront design has exterior columns, making it look more like the Kuwait National Assembly building than a commercial showroom. The interior is flowing and open, with tree-like columns surrounding a central pond of natural light.

Light. Air. Water. These are the essential elements of Pritzker Laureate Jørn Utzon.

Sources

  • Sydney Opera House: 40 fascinating facts by Lizzie Porter, The Telegraph, October 24, 2013
  • Sydney Opera House History, Sydney Opera House
  • The Architecture of Jørn Utzon by Kenneth Frampton, Jørn Utzon 2003 Laureate Essay (PDF) [accessed September 2-3, 2015]
  • Vision and Utzon's article, Making of the Church, Bagsværd Church website [accessed September 3, 2015]
  • Kuwait National Assembly Building / Jørn Utzon by David Langdon, archDaily, November 20, 2014
  • Biography, The Hyatt Foundation / The Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2003 (PDF) [accessed September 2, 2016]
  • Additional photo credit of Fredensbourg courtesy Arne Magnusson & Vibecke Maj Magnusson, Hyatt Foundation