Biography of Danish Architect Jørn Utzon

Architect (1918-2008) of the Sydney Opera House

black and white photo of smiling white man in suit in front of a large construction site
Danish Architect Jorn Utzon, circa 1965, in Front of the Sydney Opera House During Construction. Keystone/Getty Images (cropped)

Any biography of Jørn Utzon (born April 9, 1918) will certainly say that his best-known building is his revolutionary Sydney Opera House in Australia. Yet, as a private Dane born in Copenhagen, Utzon created many other masterpieces in his lifetime. He is noted for his courtyard-style housing in Denmark, but he also designed exceptional buildings in Kuwait and Iran. His architecture combines the organic elements of Frank Lloyd Wright with Middle Eastern and Islamic elements. 

Jørn Utzon was perhaps destined to design buildings that evoke the sea. His father, Aage Utzon (1885-1970), was director of a shipyard in Alborg, Denmark, and was himself a brilliant naval architect, well-known in the area for designing custom-made yachts. Yachting and racing was an activity within the Utzon family, and the young Jørn became a good sailor himself. The Utzons grew up with sails.

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

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. While in school, he became interested in the works of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who would remain influential all of Utzon's life.

He earned a Diploma in Architecture from the Academy in 1942, and then fled to neutral Sweden during War War II. He worked in the Stockholm office of Hakon Ahlberg for the duration of the War, where he studied the work of Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940), known for what is called Nordic Classicism. Following the War, Utzon had the great opportunity to work with the modernist architect Alvar Aalto at his studio in Finland.

By 1949 Utzon had received a grant to travel in Morocco, Mexico, the United States, China, Japan, India, and Australia — a whirlwind world excursion that would eventually inform his architectural designs for years to come..

All of the trips had significance, and Utzon himself described ideas he learned from Mexico. "As an architectonic element, the platform is fascinating," Utzon has said. "I lost my heart to it on a trip to Mexico in 1949. On the Yucatan he saw land covered by low height, dense jungle. "But by building up the platform on a level with the roof of the jungle," says Utzon, "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...." Utzon remembered this experience as he submitted his design for the Sydney Opera House competition.

The next year, in 1950, Utzon returned to Copenhagen, and opened his own practice.

Utzon's Architecture

When looking at the architecture of Jørn Utzon, the observer notices repeating architectural details — the skylights, the white curves, the appreciation for natural elements, the stationary platform on which Utzon designs may soar. His last project, the Utzon Center in Aalborg, Denmark, opened the year Utzon died, but exhibits the elements he saw throughout his life — the Islamic-like towers, the interior courtyards, the curves and the skylights. The interior of the Bagsvaerd Church, built in 1976, was envisioned with a ceiling of clouds, a sweeping white pillow motif also seen in the 1982 Kuwait National Assembly in Kuwait City and the spiral stairway of the Melli Bank, University of Tehran Branch in 1960 Iran. Yet it is the Sydney Opera House in Australia that has captured the moniker of iconic architecture.

The iconic design of the Sydney Opera House complex comes from the shell-shape of the multiple roofs — they are all geometrically part of one sphere. A bonze plaque located onsite visually demonstrates the architectural idea and design solution, who wanted the plaque to explain the spherical concept of the architecture. The key to the shell design is that each shell or sail is an element of a solid sphere. The plaque Inscription tells the story:

after three years of intensive search for a basic geometry for the shell complex I arrived in october 1961 at the spherical solution shown here.
I call this my "key to the shells" because it solves all the problems of construction by opening up for mass production, precision in manufacture and simple erection and with this geometrical system I attain full harmony between all the shapes in this fantastic complex.
jórn utzon

Danish architect Jørn Utzon was only 38 when he won the competition to build the Sydney Opera House.  The project became the highlight of his career but brought enormous challenges in engineering and building technology. Utzon's winning design, submitted in 1957, moved through a complicated process with many adaptations and innovations before the Sydney Opera House officially opened on October 20, 1973.

Utzon's Legacy

Ada Louise Huxtable, an architecture critic and a member of the 2003 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."

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 on November 29, 2008 in Copenhagen, Denmark 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 that artistic clashes will be forgotten as the world honors Jørn Utzon's powerful artistic legacy. The architectural firm he founded, Utzon Associates Architects, is in Hellebaek, Denmark.

Sources

  • Biography, The Hyatt Foundation, PDF at https://www.pritzkerprize.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/2003_bio_0.pdf
  • About the Utzon Family, https://utzon.dk/utzon-associates-architects/the-utzon-family
  • Jury Citation, The Hyatt Foundation, https://www.pritzkerprize.com/jury-citation-jorn-utzon
  • Gouse History, Sydney Opera House, https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/our-story/sydney-opera-house-history.htm

Fast Facts

  • Born April 9, 1918 in Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Influenced by Mayan, Islamic, and Chinese architecture; Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto; growing up next to a shipyard
  • Best-known as the architect of the Sydney Opera House (1957-1973) in Sydney, Australia
  • Died November 29, 2008 in Copenhagen, Denmark