Utzon, Jørn

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Jørn Utzon


Born April 9, 1918, in Copenhagen, Denmark; son of Aage Utzon; married Lis Fenger, 1942; children: Jan, Kim, Lin. Education: Royal Academy of Arts, Copenhagen, Dip. Arch., 1942.


Home—Can Feliz, Mallorca, Spain. Office—c/o Utzon Architects, 62 Strandbyvej, 5683 Haarby, Denmark. E-mail[email protected].


Assistant architect in the offices of Paul Hedquist and Gunnar Asplund, Stockholm, Sweden, 1942-45, and in the office of Alvar Älto, Helsinki, Finland, 1946; private practice in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1950-62, in Sydney, Australia, 1963-66, in the United States, Switzerland, and Denmark, since 1966, and in Mallorca, Spain, since 1972; visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1971-75. Major works include a house near Lake Fureso, Denmark, 1952-53; architect's house, Hellebäk, Denmark, 1952-53; housing estate, Elineberg, Denmark, 1954-60; Sydney Opera House, Australia, 1957-66 (completed by others in 1973), interior renovations, beginning 2002; Kingohusen Housing Estate, Helsingør, Denmark, 1957-60; Trade Union Congress High School (design), Helsingør, 1958; Melli Bank, Tehran, Iran, 1959; Danish Cooperative Building Company Housing Development, Fredensborg, Denmark, 1962-63; Municipal Theater, Zurich, Switzerland, 1964; Can Lis (architect's house), Mallorca, Spain, 1971-73; Bagsvärd Church, near Copenhagen, 1974-76; Kuwait National Assembly, 1983; Paustian Furniture Building, Copenhagen, 1986; and Can Feliz (architect's house), Mallorca, 1992.

Awards, Honors

Gold Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects, 1978; Sonning Prize; Sulman Award, Royal Australian Institute of Architects, 1992; Wolf Prize in the Arts, 1992; Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2003.


Sydney Opera House, edited and photographed by Yukio Futagawa, text by Christian Norberg-Schultz, A. D. A. Edita (Tokyo, Japan), 1980.

Church at Bagsvärd, edited and photographed by Yukio Futagawa, text by Christian Norberg-Schulz, A. D. A. Edita (Tokyo, Japan), 1981.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including "Additive Architecture," in Arkitektur, Volume 1, 1970, "Elements in the Way of Life," in Arkitektur, Volume 2, 1983, "Platforms and Plateaus: Ideas of a Danish Architect," in Zodiac, Volume 10, 1962, and "Can Lis" and "Jørn Utzon on Architecture," both in Living Architecture, Volume 8, 1989.


Danish architect Jørn Utzon created what Time magazine called one of the five wonders of twentieth-century architecture—the Sydney Opera House. Richard Weston, a professor of architecture and author of the critical work, Utzon, noted that, "as an icon," the Sydney Opera House "rivals the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and the Pyramids and its profile must be almost as familiar as Muhammad Ali's face or a Coca-Cola bottle." The familiar tripartite, sail-like structure built, virtually in the Sydney Harbor at Bennelong Point, has, since its opening in 1973, come to symbolize Sydney and indeed all of Australia. The high point of Utzon's career, the Opera House was also his undoing. Cost overruns and a change of government in Australia led to forty-eight-year-old Utzon's highly publicized departure from the project in 1966; the interior was thereafter completed by three other architects. The controversy damaged Utzon's reputation for years. Though completing other well-known projects, such as the Bagsvärd Church and the Kuwait National Assembly, he ultimately retired to the Spanish island of Mallorca, where he built a family house and continued to work in semi-obscurity.

Utzon's career has been marked by a mixture of monumental public buildings, such as the Lutheran church at Bagsvärd, Denmark, and the Kuwait project, as well as more unobtrusive housing projects and houses for his own family that blend into their environment. His style is often sculptural, and critics have found a bit of the quality of Gunnar Asplund, the Finnish architect, Alvar Älto, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in his designs. Utzon is, according to a contributor to ArchitectureWeek.com, "one of the last of the generation of architects who, during the formative stages of their career, studied with these original master form-givers of twentieth-century architecture." His work was further influenced by travels that introduced the architect to Mayan, Chinese, Islamic, and Japanese architectural traditions. Utzon's personal motto, "To work on the edge of the possible," reflects his career-long interest in discovering new architectural uses for modern building technologies.

In his designs for the Sydney Opera House, all such concerns came together. Over the three decades after he left Australia, Utzon was asked to return and essentially finish his project by renovating the interior to his original design. In 2002 the architect, at age eighty-three, accepted the commission; the following year he won the prestigious Pritzker Architectural Prize in acknowledgment of his lifetime of work. The jury chair, Lord Rothschild, noted that "Utzon created one of the great iconic buildings of the twentieth century, an image of great beauty known throughout the world. In addition to this masterpiece, he has worked throughout his life fastidiously, brilliantly, quietly, and with never a false or jarring note." Utzon's biographer, Philip Drew, further noted in his The Masterpiece: Jørn Utzon, a Secret Life, "Utzon is a key player in a fundamental change that led to a broadened agenda for Modern architecture after the 1950s. At the time of its inception, the Sydney Opera House challenged many cherished and fundamental tenets of Modern architecture. By tracing Utzon's progress, we gain new insights into how, aided by his close identification with Scandinavian traditions and Alvar Älto, Utzon humanised and opened up modernism to include ideas about organic form, without abandoning its commitment to standardisation or the industrialisation of the building process." It was Utzon's genius to blend the new forms of building with a sense of architecture arising from its place and fitting in with its environment.

Scandinavian Roots

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1918, Utzon developed an early love for life on and near the water. His father was director of a shipyard and was also a naval architect whose yacht designs are still in production. Yachting and sailing were family passions, and young Utzon also became a proficient sailor. A career in the Danish navy was Utzon's early ambition; art and architecture were also among his early pastimes. He worked with his father in the shipyards as a teenager, helping to draw plans and make models. A family relation was a sculptor and member of Copenhagen's Royal Academy and influenced Utzon's interest in sculpting. Finally, however, it was decided that architecture might be the best use of all Utzon's talents. He was a mediocre student, but his drawing skills helped to earn him a place at Copenhagen's Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Graduating in 1942 as war was waging throughout Europe, he fled Denmark for neutral Sweden and worked in the office of Paul Hedquist throughout World War II; there he also came under the influence of the designs of Asplund. Immediately after the war, Utzon went to Finland and worked for Älto.

In 1949 he won a scholarship to the United States and became familiar with the works of architects such as Wright and Mies van der Rohe. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Utzon traveled widely, taking in the architectural traditions of Mexico, China, Morocco, Japan, India, and Australia. Specifically, during a 1949 trip to Mexico's Yucatan, he became fascinated with the concept of building on platforms, above the tree line, as Mayan builders had been fond of doing. Such a concept later came to play heavily in his design for the Sydney Opera House.

Early Designs

Returning to his native country in the early 1950s, Utzon set about constructing a house for his own family at Hellebäk, near Elsinore, "probably the first open-plan house in Denmark," according to Jorgen Sestoft in Grove Art Online. Sestoft further described the house as a "narrow, one-storey structure with one long side completely closed and the other almost entirely glazed." The architect also designed another private home at Lake Fureso near Holte that was influenced by Japanese traditions. However, much of Utzon's early work consisted of his competition designs, such as a winning project for a restaurant, the Langeline Pavilion, which was to be shaped as a tower and built in Copenhagen's harbor.

In 1956 Utzon learned of a design competition for an opera house to be built in Sydney, Australia. The little-known architect had already been doodling with a design that resembled the hulls of upturned boats, or perhaps sails in the water, or as Utzon himself later acknowledged, the peels of a segmented orange. He combined this image with his love for platforms in a design that was more sculptural than architectural. "It was like sculpture," Utzon told Eric Ellis in an interview for Good Weekend online. "I worked like a sculptor; I tried to shape things and I made many models.…Inprinciple it was very simple. I wanted something that looked like it would grow, as Australia was growing." After months of patient working, he sent the design and model off to Sydney, just one of over two hundred other hopeful entrants. Legend has it that his proposal was salvaged from the rejected pile of entries and finally chosen as the winner. Notified months later in Denmark, Utzon—then age thirty-eight—was amazed. "It was a miracle that I won that contest; it was fabulous," he told Ellis.

Then came the hard work of turning a design into an architectural reality. As Nicolai Ouroussoff noted in the Los Angeles Times, Utzon and his engineering team "spent years laboring over how to make the free-form shells structurally viable without losing the delicacy of their forms." Finally the orange-peel analogy solved this engineering puzzle. According to Ouroussoff, Utzon himself "imagined the shells as curved triangular plates cut out of a single sphere. The uniformity of the shapes' curvature made it easier to resolve the design's structural problems."

While work was going ahead on the early stages of building in Australia, Utzon continued with projects in Denmark. In 1958 he began the Kingo Houses, intended as a model housing estate of low and tightly constructed buildings influenced by the courtyard style. Over nine acres, Utzon built sixty-three such dwellings, each with its own distinct view. Critics have found not only Chinese, but also North African influences in these L-shaped houses, which open inward and are closed to the outside. "The architecture is robust," noted Sestoft, "based on traditional materials with common yellow brick-work and steeped roofs." According to a contributor to ArchitectureWeek.com, these houses were "Utzon's demonstration that well designed housing could be as affordable as the poorly designed developments that were then being developed." In 1962 Utzon designed a similar housing development in Fredensborg for Danish foreign service retirees, a compilation of forty-seven courtyard houses; many of these house were also terraced in groups of three. Also during these years he designed the Melli Bank in Tehran, Iran, using this commission as an opportunity to explore Islamic architectural traditions. By this time, preliminary work had been completed in Australia, and Utzon and his family moved there in 1963 so that he could supervise the extensive building phase of the opera-house project.

Sydney Opera House

The tall and slender Danish architect was initially greeted like a rock star down under; however, the public applause soon turned to scorn. Utzon had solved his architectural problems on Bennelong Point by deciding to actually "bury the guts of the theatre in a platform on which would sit his magnificent white shells, all segments of spheres of the same dimensions," according to Giles Tremlett writing in the London Guardian online. Above this rose the three shells, covered in white tiles to reflect the sights of Sydney Harbor and often likened to the sails of a boat. Actually a complex of theaters and halls linked together beneath the shells, the Sydney Opera House would become one of the busiest performing arts centers in the world, averaging over 3,000 events per year.

From the beginning of the project, however, there were difficulties. Utzon's design was so revolutionary that rendering its sculptural forms into three-dimensional, engineered reality took several years of planning. Also, in Australia things had changed by the time Utzon arrived on the scene. Initiated by then state premier Joseph Cahill, the project was to be funded by a special Opera Lottery; Utzon was assured by Cahill that if he had any problems whatsoever, he was to see the premier personally. Cahill, fearful of weak health and of the possibility he might lose the upcoming election, began construction work prematurely in 1959. From the outset the project was under-budgeted. Then with the loss of Cahill's Labor Party in elections that brought to power more conservative liberals, Utzon's funding was suddenly changed. No longer was the state-sponsored lottery the source of moneys for the opera house; now Utzon had to go to the new public works minister for New South Wales, David Hughes, and haggle over every bill.

Utzon and his family were quite happy in Australia, but soon the working conditions grew untenable. The Australian press also increasingly labeled the project a white elephant and prophesied that the opera house would never be finished. Finally, with funding curtailed, Utzon decided he could no longer work on the project. In 1966 he left Australia; subsequently, he acknowledged only the building's exterior as his own design, facilitated by the structural engineering of Ove Arup. "What was lost when Utzon walked out," wrote Tremlett, were Utzon's "colourful plans for the interiors.… They were replaced by dull, functional interiors that leave most visitors, awestruck by the exterior, disappointed." The Australians called in three architects to finish the work, completing the task in 1973 at a cost fifteen times the original estimate. Utzon became the scapegoat for what was in essence a political affair and the result of political infighting and bungling. His fault or not, the affair was damaging to his career. As architect Frank Gehry—creator of the groundbreaking Bilbao Guggenheim Museum—noted on PritzkerArchitecturePrize.com, "Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country. It is the first time in our lifetime that an epic piece of architecture has gained such universal presence." Martin Schwartz, writing in Architecture, similarly found that "with the opera house, Utzon showed himself to be one of the great formgivers of modern architecture." Such recognition took almost four decades, though. Meanwhile, Utzon had a living to make.

In Mallorca

Utzon found commissions hard to come by for a time and took a teaching position in Hawaii. From there he returned to Europe, settling in Mallorca and building a family home. The home, named Can Lis, is "Utzon's most intricate composition of courts," according to Schwartz. A contributor to the International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture described the house as a "progression of four anonymous sandstone pavilions, each with its own distinct orientation depending on the view." The same contributor further noted, "A feeling of peace and tranquility pervades the complex." Utzon's next major commission—his "second great masterwork," according to Ouroussoff—was the Bagsvärd Church near Copenhagen, an "austere, rectangular precinct," according to Schwartz. The contributor to ArchitectureWeek.com noted that this church is "characterized by a contrasting rectilinear exterior and sensuously curving sanctuary ceiling," an interior design supposedly inspired by clouds and supported in this case by double outer walls. Writing in Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Kenneth Frampton noted that "precast concrete infill elements of standardized dimensions are combined, in a particularly articulate way, with in-situ reinforced concrete shell vaults which span the principal public volumes." Resembling a boxy sort of farm building, the church employs the precast concrete panels Utzon increasingly began using for what he termed "additive architecture." He further extended the possibilities of prefabricated components in furniture systems he designed during this same period.

Utzon also won the design competition in 1973 to build the Kuwait National Assembly. As Weston described, "the complex was conceived as an evolving fabric with, initially, ragged edges but of uniform height save for the representative spaces—the covered square, parliamentary chamber, large conference hall, and mosque—which would rise as a visually dominant group." An implied rectangle, these four design elements were intended to lie in the same plane. The mosque is oriented toward Mecca, and is somewhat set apart from the other buildings, separating it from secular functions, while the square is covered by a concrete canopy with a distinct swooping sag. Damaged in the 1991 Gulf War, the complex has since been restored, but not per plans by Utzon.

If you enjoy the works of Jørn Utzon, you might want to check out the following:

The glass and furniture design and architecture of Alvar Älto (1898-1976).

The work of architect Ark Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940).

The architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Both of Utzon's sons became architects and began working for the family firm. Utzon himself stayed most of the time in Mallorca, building a second family house, Can Feliz, which has been described as a "miniature acropolis," according to the ArchitectureWeek.com critic. As Utzon got older, he personally took on fewer commissions; however, when Australia announced that plans were afoot to renovate the Sydney Opera House, Utzon let it be known that he would be available for the job. Awarded the contract in 2002, he elected to work with his son, Jan, on remodeling the interior and restoring some of his own design motifs. "With Utzon's return to his 'life-work,'" wrote Peter Myers in Architecture Australia, "the Sydney Opera House is returned to a role in our culture beyond the merely entertaining. Utzon is, of all the great modern architects, the least afraid to admit a sense of the sublime into his architecture." Utzon at long last was given his chance to finish the project he started in the mid-1950s, and in addition, to correct the poor acoustics in the hall that existed since its completion in 1973 by other hands. "This was the most brilliant building any architect could wish to work on," Utzon told Ellis. "When I see my models and all the sails on the harbour, I simply soar into paradise. It is my idea of perfection. There was this feeling of a new epoch, a new school in architecture.…Wewere doing things in our time, in our way as we might [have had we] been Romans in their era, or the pyramids in Egypt." With the awarding of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2003, Utzon's rehabilitation was complete; he was finally acknowledged as a major pioneer of modern architecture.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Architects, 3rd edition, edited by Muriel Emanuel, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

Drew, Philip, Sydney Opera House, Phaidon (London, England), 1965.

Drew, Philip, The Masterpiece: Jørn Utzon, a Secret Life, Hardie Grant (South Yara, Victoria, Australia), 1999.

Duek-Cohen, Elias, Utzon and the Sydney Opera House: Statement in the Public Interest, Morgan Publications (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 1967.

Faber, Tobias, Jørn Utzon: Houses in Fredensborg, photographs by Jens Frederiksen, Ernst & Sohn (Berlin, Germany) 1991.

Frampton, Kenneth, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1992.

Fromonot, Françoise, Jørn Utzon: Architetto della Sydney Opera House, Electa (Milan, Italy), 1998.

International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture, Volume 1, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Murray, Peter, The Saga of the Sydney Opera House: The Dramatic Story of the Design and Construction of the Icon of Modern Australia, Spon Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Norberg-Schultz, Christian, and Tobias Faber, Utzon Mallorca, Arkitektens (Copenhagen, Denmark), 1996.

Westcott, Ross, The Sydney Opera House, photographs by Ross Westcott, Tri-Ocean Books (San Francisco, CA), 1965.

Weston, Richard, Utzon, Blondal, 2002.


Architectural Record, May, 2003, John E. Czarnecki, "Denmark's Jørn Utzon Wins 2003 Pritzker Prize," p. 39.

Architectural Review, October, 1996, "Utzonian Houses," pp. 47-55.

Architecture, May, 2002, Andrew Yang, "Sydney Opera Revisited," p. 35; May, 2003, Emilie W. Sommerhoff, "Jørn Utzon Named 2003 Pritzker Prize Laureate," p. 23; September, 2003, Martin Schwartz, "Courts and Complements: Jørn Utzon Is No One-Work Wonder, but a Modern Master Builder with an Oeuvre Rich in Materiality and Light," pp. 52-59.

Architecture Australia, July-August, 1999, "Utzon's Character: Early Catalysts," pp. 80-83; November-December, 2002, Peter Myers, "Utzon's Return," pp. 74-77; May-June, 2003, Philip Goad, "Jørn Utzon Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate 2003," pp. 27-28.

Art in America, June, 2003, "Utzon Wins Pritzker Prize," p. 142.

Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 2000, Shawn Donnan, "Life and Times of an Australian Icon," p. 1; April 10, 2003, Bonnie Churchill, "An Architect Ahead of the Design Curve," p. 16.

Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2003, Nicolai Ouroussoff, "Acclaim for Utzon at Long Last," p. E1.

New York Times, April 7, 2003, Herbert Muschamp, "A Dane Wins Architecture Prize," p. E5.

Science, August 6, 1999, William J. Mitchell, "A Tale of Two Cities," pp. 839-840.

Time International, April 1, 2002, Michael Fitzgerald, "Re-Icing the Wedding Cake," p. 14.

Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2003, Ada Louis Huxtable, "All's Well That Ends Well for Two Innovative Architects," p. D10.

Washington Post, April 7, 2003, Benjamin Forgey, "Jørn Utzon Sails off with a Pritzker," p. C1.


ABC Web Site,http://www.abc.net.au/ (August 7, 2002), Anne Maria Nicholson, "Architect's Unfinished Dream for Opera House."

Age,http://www.age.com/ (April 15, 2002), Fergus Shiel and Giles Tremlett, "Utzon's Unfinished Symphony."

ArchitectureWeek.com,http://www.architectureweek.com/ (April 16, 2003), "Jørn Utzon Pritzker Prize."

Grove Art Online,http://www.groveart.com/ (October 3, 2003), Jorgen Sestoft, "Utzon, Jørn (Oberg)."

Guardian Online,http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (April 1, 2002), Giles Tremlett, "Return of the Master Builder."

International Herald Tribune Online,http://www.iht.com/ (September 28, 2000), Michael Richardson, "After 25 Years, Sydney Embraces Jørn Utzon."

PritzkerArchitecturePrize.com,http://www.pritzkerprize.com/ (October 4, 2003).

Utzon Associates Architects Site,http://www.utzon.dk/ (March 1, 2004).*