The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House

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The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House

Among his many works, Danish architect Jørn Utzon (1918-2008) is best known for the Sydney Opera House. Learn more about The Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House.

Utzon was born in Copenhagen, the son of a naval architect, and grew up in Aalborg, Denmark, where he became interested in ships and a possible naval career. As a result of his family’s interest in art, from 1937 he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where he studied under Kay Fisker and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. Following his graduation in 1942, he joined Gunnar Asplund in Stockholm where he worked together with Arne Jacobsen and Poul Henningsen. He took a particular interest in the works of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After the end of World War II and the German Occupation of Denmark, he returned to Copenhagen.

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House
The relatively unknown 38-year old Dane Jørn Utzon was the surprise winner in 1956 out of 233 designs from 32 countries.

Utzon was influenced by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund and later Alvar Aalto, with whom he worked in Finland for a short period after the war. In 1949 he received a grant that enabled him and his wife Lis to travel extensively in USA and Mexico, coming into contact with some of the most influential architects and designers of his day, inlcuding those at Frank Lloyd Wright’s school at Taliesin, Mies van der Rohe and Ray and Charles Eames.

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House
Finn Eero Saarinen, who was on the judging panel, hailed Utzon’s vision as “genius”. Photo: Store norske leksikon

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Fascinated by the way the Mayans built towards the sky to get closer to God, he commented that his time in Mexico was “one of the greatest architectural experiences in his life.”

In 1957, he travelled first to China (where he was particularly interested in the Chinese desire for harmony), Japan (where he learnt much about the interaction between interiors and exteriors) and India, before arriving in Australia in 1957, where he stayed until 1966. All this contributed to Utzon’s understanding of factors which are important to successful architectural design

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House
Utzon’s vision for a sculptural, curved building on the Harbor broke radically with the cube and rectangular shapes of modernist architecture. Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica

The competition to design Sydney Opera House was launched in 1956. The relatively unknown 38-year old Dane Jørn Utzon was the surprise winner out of 233 designs from 32 countries. Finn Eero Saarinen, who was on the judging panel, hailed Utzon’s vision as “genius”. His vision for a sculptural, curved building on the Harbor broke radically with the cube and rectangular shapes of modernist architecture. The building transformed his career and, in turn, transformed the image of an entire nation.

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“To me it is a great joy to know how much the building is loved”, said Jørn Utzon.

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House
The building transformed Utzon’s career and, in turn, transformed the image of an entire nation.

The Opera House was completed in 1973. When it was declared a World Heritage Site on 28 June 2007, Utzon became only the second person to have received such recognition for one of his works during his lifetime, after Oscar Niemeyer. Other noteworthy works include Bagsværd Church near Copenhagen and the National Assembly Building in Kuwait.

Utzon said he took inspiration for the Sydney Opera House from peeling an orange: the building’s 14 shells are supposed to form a perfect sphere if combined. The building is 180m long and 125m wide, and its highest point is 67m above sea level – equivalent to a 22-storey building.

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House
Concert hall in the Sydney Opera House. Photo: ArchDaily

Jørn Utzon’s realisation that the form of the Sydney Opera House could be derived from the surface of a sphere marked a milestone in 20th century architecture.

However, Utzon had a troubled working relationship with the engineer and fellow Dane, Ove Arup. Though things started well, Utzon apparently rejected many of Arup’s practical suggestions for building in loadbearing concrete to preserve the purity of his design, soon they were not talking and the relationship never recovered.

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While there were cost overruns on the ambitious project, a change in the local government in 1965 signaled the end for Utzon: the new minister for public works, Davis Hughes, questioned Utzon’s capabilities and refused to pay running costs. In 1955, Utzon left and never returned. The building finally cost AUD$ 102 million (now about NOK5bn); the original estimate was AUS$ 7m.

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House
THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE – 2010 – Sydney, Australia – Photograph by: JACK ATLEY www.jackatley.com – for The Sydney Opera House.

Since Queen Elisabeth II opened the Sydney Opera House in 1973, the building has become a symbol of Sydney and Australia- The Royal Australian Institute of Architects awarded him its gold medal the same year, though Utzon did not attend the ceremony. Utzon was awarded the Freedom of Sydney in 1998 and again did not travel. In 2008, Utzon was awarded the Priztker Architecture Prize by a panel including Frank Gehry.

Jørn Utzon died peacefully in his sleep in Copenhagen on 29 November 2008, aged 90. Two years earlier he had been represented at the opening of the Opera House’s Western Colonnade, redesigned with Utzon’s involvement, by his son Jan Utzon. “My father is too old by now to take the long flight to Australia,” Jan said of his father. “But he lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it.”

The Danish Architect Who Designed the Sydney Opera House, written by Tor Kjolberg

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