Pritzker Prize winning architect Jørn Utzon (9 April 1918 – 29 November 2008) was the relatively unknown Dane who, on the 29th January 1957, was announced as the winner of the “International competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney’.” When speaking about this iconic building, Louis Kahn stated that “The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.” Unfortunately, Utzon never saw the Sydney Opera House, his most popular work, completed.
Born in Copenhagen in 1918, Utzon studied architecture at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After World War II, he joined Alvar Aalto’s Helsinki office and won traveling scholarships to Morocco and the US whilst also designing ranges of furniture and glassware.
Utzon’s ambition as a young designer was seemingly boundless. Ten years before he submitted his winning entry for the opera house in Sydney, Utzon had entered a competition in London to design a replacement for the Crystal Palace, which he did not win. As noted in The Guardian’s obituary of Utzon, the submission demonstrated that the UK’s capital once had the chance to “build something just as extraordinary as the opera house” with a design that was “personal, sculptural and quite outside the mainstream of architectural development at the time.” Some argue that Utzon’s architectural style correlated with that of Eero Saarinen (who was also a judge for the opera house competition), architect of the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy airport.
In 1966, nine years after his winning entry was accepted by the opera house competition jury, Utzon was driven to resign his position and leave Australia. Those in power had deliberately underestimated costs in order to get the project started; when costs soared, Utzon, it appears, took the majority of the blame, leading to a number of arguments with local and national politicians. His strong, collaborative friendship with Ove Arup—another Dane—also turned sour over the Opera House project.
Back in Denmark, Utzon embarked on two other key architectural projects: the Bagsværd Church (Denmark) built between 1968 and 1976, and the Kuwait National Assembly, designed and built from 1971 onwards and rebuilt in 1993 after being destroyed by Iraqi forces during the Gulf War. Utzon’s obituary in The Guardian notes that they “have a sculptural purity that makes them compelling works of architecture” and that they “seem to stand outside the mainstream of 20th-century modernism.” Alongside these projects, Utzon also built a house for himself overlooking the sea in Mallorca, Spain. Once described as “a domestically scaled summation of Utzon’s architectural ideas,” it symbolizes what became a quiet but profound architectural career.
Utzon’s architectural career was one of pure, ambitious ideas and subsequent broken collaborations and unlucky circumstances. For an architect of Utzon’s talent, his output was relatively modest. Most of his key buildings, such as the Sydney Opera House and the Kuwait National Assembly are often seen as “fatally compromised” projects, often through factors that Utzon could not have controlled.
Utzon missed the opening of Sydney’s iconic building in 1973, and did not attend the ceremony awarding him the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in the same year. When he was offered the Freedom of the City of Sydney in 1998, the Lord Mayor had to take the keys to him in Denmark. He told the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1978, when he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal, “if you like an architect’s work, you give him something to build, not a medal.”
Check out Utzon’s major works featured on ArchDaily via the thumbnails below, and further coverage of him and Sydney’s most iconic building below those. You can also see some of Utzon’s original drawings for the Sydney Opera House on the New South Wales Government’s website.