Jørn Utzon

Jørn Utzon

Born: 1918 - Died: 2008

Jørn (Oberg) Utzon is one of the most important 20th century Danish architects, with pioneering buildings in his portfolio including, what could arguably be the most famous buildings of all – the Sydney Opera House.

Born in Copenhagen in 1918, Utzon grew up in Aalborg (in the north of Jutland), where Utzon’s father who was a naval architect and engineer, held the position of Director for Aalborg Shipyard. Young Utzon often helped his father at the shipyard, partaking in drawing, studying the designs and making the models. He actually intended to follow his father, and become a navel engineer, however he ended up studying architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture with Professors Kay Fisker and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. Utzon graduated in 1942.

Later that year, during the German occupation of Denmark, Utzon fled to Stockholm in (neutral) Sweden, an incubator for Scandinavian and international architecture and design at that time. Other Danish architects that took refuge in Sweden counted Arne Jacobsen and Poul Henningsen. In Stockholm Utzon worked at the studio of Hakon Ahlberg, and after the war, he also worked for a short while at the studio of Alvar Aalto in Finland.

In 1949, Utzon won a travel scholarship for trips to Morocco, Mexico, the States, China, Japan, France, India, and Australia. During these travels, he visited with architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, whilst also designing ranges of furniture and glassware. Upon return to Denmark, he opened his own design studio in 1950.

The breakthrough – The Sydney Opera House

Utzon’s international breakthrough came in 1957, when he rather surprisingly was announced as the winner of the ‘International competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney’.

The Sydney Opera House (1957-1973) is a momentous achievement in design and engineering – a complex structure yet as organic as a seashell and natural as a sail on the harbor.

The Sydney Opera House, from original sketch to completed icon

In 1966, and thus before the building was completed, Utzon was driven to resign his position and leave the project – due to prolonged disputes with the Government in New South Wales, and the Opera House was finished by Australian architects. None of Utzon’s spectacular, innovative ideas for the interior were realized – among these a beautiful Le Corbusier tapestry, commissioned by Utzon. The tapestry was completed and delivered in 1960, where it was hung in Utzon’s own house. Utzon left the project and Australia in 1966, and the tapestry was never installed in the Opera House, but remained in the Utzon house, until they went on auction in Copenhagen, in 2015, and the Le Corbusier tapestry was bought by (and returned to) the Sydney Opera House.

Left: Jorn Utzon in front of the Opera House construction. Right: Utzon in front of the Le Corbusier tapestry.

Since 1999, the Sydney Opera House Trust have been working with Utzon and his son Jan Utzon, on reinstating the building as Utzon intended it. When the Sydney Opera House was declared a World Heritage Site in 2007, Utzon became the second person to receive such recognition for one of his works, during his own lifetime.

After the Opera House

Bagsværd Church

Utzon went on to draw and build Bagsværd Church (1968-1976) in Denmark. Located north of Copenhagen and today considered a masterpiece of contemporary Church architecture. An unassuming modern structure with a mesmerizing interior. Topped inside by a softly rounded concrete ceiling, constantly “changing” shape due to a blend of direct and reflected light, filtered through the curves creating an effect of being under floating clouds.

Kuwait National Assembly

In 1971, Utzon was invited to, and won, the competition to design the National Assembly building in Kuwait (1978-85). The result being a building standing on the sea front with a flowing, waving concrete roof, resembling moving fabric, and columns reminiscent of the Karnak temples. The building was destroyed during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in the early 1990’s Gulf War.

Jørn Utzon also designed residential housing projects, like the Fredensborg Houses (1959-1963). Inspired by structures in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, the homes were located around a square in groups of three and all with entrances from the square. Utzon intended these building to be reserved for Danes returning to retire after long careers abroad. Needless to say, these houses are in very high demand, with a long waiting list.   (photo 9)

Utzon also designed his own home, situated in Hellebæk, Denmark (1950-1952) and two summer houses for his family on Mallorca, Can Lis (1971-1973) and Can Feliz (1991-1994). The latter is actual available for renting, via the Utzon Foundation.

Although many of Utzon’s projects have not been realized, they have inspired his contemporaries to unconventional thinking. Utzon has been described by both Danish and foreign peers as one of his generation’s leading architects.

In 1998, Utzon received the Sonning Award, and in 2003 he was the first Dane to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (the Architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize).

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Tivoli by Jørn Utzon for Nordisk Solar Compagni 1948
1948