Jorn Utzon, Pritzker Prize-Winning Architect of the Sydney Opera House

(1918-2008)

Black and white photo of Jorn Utzon, circa 1965, in front of the Sydney Opera House during construction
Danish architect Jorn Utzon, circa 1965, in front of the Sydney Opera House during construction. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

Jørn Utzon is certainly best known for his revolutionary Sydney Opera House. However, Utzon created many other masterpieces in his lifetime. He is noted for his courtyard-style housing in Denmark, and he also designed exceptional buildings in Kuwait and Iran.

Background:

Born: April 9, 1918 in Copenhagen, Denmark

Died: November 29, 2008 in Copenhagen, Denmark

Childhood:

Jørn Utzon was perhaps destined to design buildings that evoke the sea.

His father was director of a shipyard in Alborg, Denmark, and was himself a brilliant naval architect. Several family members were excellent yachtsmen, and the young Jørn became a good sailor himself.

Until about the age of 18, Jørn Utzon considered a career as a naval officer. It was about this time, while still in secondary school, that he began helping his father at the shipyard, studying new designs, drawing up plans and making models. This activity opened another possibility—that of training to be a naval architect like his father.

Influenced by Art:

During summer holidays with his grandparents Jørn Utzon met two artists, Paul Schrøder and Carl Kyberg, who introduced him to art. One of his father’s cousins, Einar Utzon-Frank, who happened to be a sculptor and a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, provided additional inspiration. The future architect took an interest in sculpting, and at one point, indicated a desire to be an artist.

Even though his final marks in secondary school were quite poor, particularly in mathematics, Utzon excelled in freehand drawing—a talent strong enough to win his admission to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He was soon recognized as having extraordinary gifts in architectural design.

Education and Early Professional Life:

  • 1942: Diploma in Architecture, Royal Academy of Fine Arts
  • 1942: Fled to neutral Sweden during War War II. He worked in the Stockholm office of Hakon Ahlberg for the duration of the War.
  • Finland to work with Alvar Aalto .
  • 1949: Received a grant to travel in Morocco, Mexico, the United States, China, Japan, India, and Australia.
  • 1950: Returned to Copenhagen. Opened his own practice.

Influences (people):

Influences (places):

All of the trips had significance, and Utzon himself described ideas he learned from Mexico:

  • "As an architectonic element, the platform is fascinating. I lost my heart to it on a trip to Mexico in 1949, where I found a rich variety of both size and idea, and where many platforms stand alone, surrounded by nothing but untouched nature.

    "All the platforms in Mexico are placed very sensitively in the landscape, 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. Let me give you an example of the power in this idea. Yucatan is a flat lowland area covered by an impenetrable jungle which everywhere attains a certain height.

    "The Maya people used to live in this jungle in villages surrounded by small cultivated clearings. On all sides, and also above, there was the hot, humid, green jungle. No great views, no vertical movements. But by building up the platform on a level with the roof of the jungle, these people had suddenly conquered a new dimension that was a worthy place for the worship of their gods. They built their temples on these high platforms, which can be as much as a hundred metres long. From here, they had the sky, the clouds and the breeze, and suddenly the roof of the jungle was transformed into a great, open plain.

    "By means of this architectonic device they had completely transformed the landscape and presented their eyes with a grandeur that corresponded to the grandeur of their gods. The wonderful experience of going from the denseness of the jungle to the vast openness above the platform is still there today.

    "It is like the liberation you feel up here in the Nordic lands when, after weeks of rain, cloud and darkness, you suddenly emerge into the sunlight again."

    What Others Have Said:

    Ada Louise Huxtable, an architecture critic and a member of the Pritzker Prize jury, commented, "In a forty year practice, each commission displays a continuing development of ideas both subtle and bold, true to the teaching of early pioneers of a 'new' architecture, but that cohere in a prescient way, most visible now, to push the boundaries of architecture toward the present. This has produced a range of work from the sculptural abstraction of the Sydney Opera House that foreshadowed the avant garde expression of our time, and is widely considered to be the most notable monument of the 20th century, to handsome, humane housing and a church that remains a masterwork today."

    Carlos Jimenez, an architect on the Pritzker Jury, noted that "...each work startles with with its irrepressible creativity.

    How else to explain the lineage binding those indelible ceramic sails on the Tasmanian Sea, the fertile optimism of the housing at Fredensborg, or those sublime undulations of the ceilings at Bagsværd, to name just three of Utzon’s timeless works."

    Utzon Legacy:

    At the end of his life, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect faced new challenges. A degenerative eye condition left Utzon nearly blind. Also, according to news reports, Utzon clashed with his son and grandson over a remodeling project at the Sydney Opera House. The acoustics at the Opera House was criticized, and many people complained that the celebrated theater did not have enough performance or backstage space. Jørn Utzon died of a heart attack at age 90. He was survived by his wife and their three children, Kim, Jan and Lin, and several grandchildren who work in architecture and related fields.

    There is no doubt, however, that the artistic clashes will be quickly forgotten as the world honors Jorn Utzon's powerful artistic legacy.

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    Source: From the Pritzker Prize Committee