Jørn Utzon

November 3rd, 2010


Just over 3 years ago, the Sydney Opera House was declared a World Heritage Site, making architect Jørn Oberg Utzon the second architect to have his work listed during his lifetime. Utzon was born in Copenhagen in 1918 and seems to have inhereted the mental capabilities of his father who worked as a naval engineer. After completing an architecture degree at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Utzon moved to Sweden in 1942 to work in the office of Gunner Asplund. After WWII, he went on to work for Alvar Aalto in Helsinki for about a year before he took off for a 3 year pancontinental sojourn, traveling through Europe, Northern Africa, the Far East, Mexico and the United States. He eventually landed at F.L. Wright's school in Arizona. In 1950, he finally settled back in Copenhagen to open his own architectural studio.

Utzon worked under three of the 20th c most artisticly inspired architects and collected visually stimulating influences during his own travels around the world, all which played into his later works. I'm quite jealous really, but inspired by his gumption. He is best known for his design of the Syney Opera House, though he was not able to see that project through to fruition. Shortly after his death in late 2008, Austrailian architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly wrote a brilliant article, which I highly recommend, for the Canberra Times. I do not feign to be an expert in Austrailian political history, but the following quote by Farrelly seems to explain quite bluntly the relationship between Utzon and the then public works minister, Davis Hughes.

"at an election night dinner party in Mosman, Hughes's daughter Sue Burgoyne boasted that her father would soon sack Utzon. Hughes had no interest in art, architecture or aesthetics. A fraud, as well as a philistine, he had been exposed before Parliament and dumped as Country Party leader for 19 years of falsely claiming a university degree. The Opera House gave Hughes a second chance. For him, as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius."

Although Utson's initial design was reportedly chosen by Eero Saarinen from the rejected pile, saying he would accept no other submission and sketched a waterfront elevation that night to convince the panel, in the end,  praise by architecture heavyweights and the general public in Austrailia and abroad was not enough to convince the few key government officials of the significance of his role in the project. Taking a page from Gunner Asplund's book, Utzon resigned from the project and controversy in March 1966, most likely believing that after the waters had cooled, he would be rehired with a new respect and acknoweldgment. This never happened. Utzon never visited the completed opera house and never told his side of the story, though sadly, close relations say it weighed heavily on his mind til the end.

Utzon went on to design other beautiful structures like the Bagsvaerd Church (1968-76) and the Kuwait National Assembly (1971-83), and he is also known for his earlier housing development projects, the Kingo Housing development (1956-58) and the Fredensborg Housing development (1959-62), both of which are worth a look if you're interested in midcentury low-cost mass-housing projects.


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