Jørn Utzon occupies a special position in 20th-century architecture that defies simple categorization. As a Dane, he invites com-parison with German Expressionism, especially Hans Scharoun; his greatest works are in Australia, Kuwait, and Mallorca; and although he gave Gunnar Asplund, Alvar Aalto, and the Dane Kay Fisker as his mentors, his casual spontaneity, his daring, and the absence of a fastidious refinement go against the grain of Danish tradition in much the same way as Asger Jorn’s paintings. His architecture is self-consciously sculptural in its appeal, making Utzon more Finnish and European than Danish. Instead of intensely focusing inward in the way that Arne Jacobsen did, Utzon relocated his vision outside Denmark, taking his models from within the modern Scandinavian tradition and from Le Corbusier; this was, at the same time, allied to a new interest in an anonymous vernacular building aesthetic.
His outstanding contribution was the application of an anonymous vernacular expression to repetitive industrial building production disciplined by geometry to create a more varied, flexible, romantic building form that responds to changing human requirements.
Jørn Utzon was born in Copenhagen in 1918 but spent his childhood at Ålborg, where his father, Aage Utzon, was engineering director of the local shipyard. He completed his schooling at the Ålborg Katedralskole in 1936 and was accepted at the Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole in Copenhagen, from which he graduated in 1942. While living in Stockholm, where he stayed for the remainder of the German occupation, he was awarded a minor Royal Academy Gold Medal (1944) for his design for a music academy in Copenhagen. In 1950, Utzon returned to Denmark and started in private practice.
At the Royal Academy, Utzon was exposed to Kay Fisker and to the historian and planner Steen Eiler Rasmussen, whose experiential theory of architecture in his small book Experiencing Architecture, published in 1959, Utzon seems subsequently to have adopted.
Utzon traveled extensively in the early years after the war, first a short stint in Alvar Aalto’s Munkkiniemi office in 1946, followed by trips to Morocco in 1947 and to the United States and Mexico in 1949. These travel experiences helped solidify his maturing organic approach. From 1945 to 1957, he vigorously participated in many competitions that he combined with extensive travel, absorbing influences from Islamic, Chinese, and Mayan architecture.
He worked alone and with others, including such Danish contemporaries as Tobias Faber and Mogens Irming; however, the most important collaborator was the Norwegian modernist Arne Korsmo. Other influences were Gunnar Asplund (from his time in Sweden) and the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier, whom he met in 1948.
Utzon adopted the additive composition principle of combining standard industrial components that could be augmented by adding extra elements, so that his buildings appear to grow in a manner that crudely mimics the replication of cellular organisms. Utzon was inspired in his architecture by natural phenomena, such as clouds, beech forests, and breaking waves, that he adopted in the early conceptual stage in developing his ideas.
A number of architectural ideas recur in Utzon, the courtyard house being one and the motif of the platform as a technique for relating group forms another. In 1953, with Ib Molegelvang, he won the Skaanske low-cost housing competition for “Scania” house types. His scheme was based on the ancient Chinese courtyard house, and although it was not built, Utzon went on to design the Kingohusene Housing Estate (1960) near Helsingør and a more elaborate development (1963) at Fredensborg using the courtyard principle. Although these are less known than Sydney’s Opera House, they are no less significant, and they demonstrate Utzon’s humanitarian commitment to housing innovation. The timber-component house system known as “Espansiva” (1969) took this a step further and attempted to simplify and adapt housing to exploit simple industrial materials and methods. The same concern is apparent in his Utsep Mobler Flexible Furniture (1968) system, which also applied the same additive architecture principle.
Jørn Utzon’s world fame rests largely on one work: the Sydney Opera House. Winning the international competition in 1957 thrust him overnight into the international architectural spotlight. Its completion in October 1973 made Sydney instantly recognizable and provided it with an architectural symbol that emphasized the importance of its harbor.
Utzon’s Sydney Opera House scheme coincided with Le Corbusier’s break with the 1920s cubist aesthetic for the Ronchamp chapel, Notre-Dame-du-Haut, completed in June 1955. Both emphasized the organic quality of their forms inspired by exceptional landscapes: the small plateau and acropolis at Ronchamp and a low-lying sandstone peninsula jutting out into and surrounded on three sides by the harbor in Sydney.
A number of factors help explain the Sydney Opera House’s unprecedented originality and use of shell-concrete roofs. The 1930s in Copenhagen witnessed the early development of shell concrete for the Kastrup Airport Terminal (1939) and the Radiohus Building (1946) by Vilhelm Lauritzen. In 1946, Utzon collaborated on a submission in the Crystal Palace International Competition that introduced the identical theme of concert halls with sculptural shell roofs mounted on a common platform.
Although the accusation was justified that progress on the Sydney Opera House was unacceptably slow, it is unlikely that this fact would have provoked the extreme reaction in Europe that it did in Sydney in 1966. The intransigence of Utzon’s new political master convinced him that he was no longer trusted, and this caused his withdrawal from the project. At the time this happened, Utzon had overcome the last remaining problems of acoustics and construction in the interiors and was in a position to complete the work in a reasonable time and cost. The client, Davis Hughes, and party politics prevented him from doing so.
The interiors and glass walls enclosing the open ends of the concrete vault roofs, completed by his replacement, Hall Todd and Littlemore, are neither as original nor as daring as Utzon’s. The Opera House function was emasculated by relegating opera to the smaller hall, which could no longer function as a drama theater. Acoustic problems have dogged the concert hall and will be expensive, if impossible, to remedy. Despite these shortcomings, the outside is clear proof of Utzon’s sculptural genius. It stands as a monument to the human imagination, shared by an entire city, on an extraordinarily sensitive site on the edge of the city where it thrusts into the harbor. Not surprisingly, it has since become the foremost symbol of Sydney around the world.
Of his later works the Bagsvaerd Church (1976) in Copenhagen and the Kuwait National Assembly Building (1983), Kuwait City, Kuwait, provide further evidence of his determination to seek a new anonymous industrial aesthetic using standardized industrial processes that can be varied to match each requirement and that are sensitive to the landscape.
The State Theater complex for Zurich embodied the same’ lessons of geometry and standardization that Utzon learned in Sydney and that were transferred to Kuwait and, to a lesser extent, to Bagsvaerd Church. At Kuwait, Utzon introduced simply draped concrete sheets similar to Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport Terminal (1963) but gave them additional sculptural complexity by folding them laterally so that they echo the folds of the Bedouin black tent. The National Assembly Building is an elaborate mix of standard precast-concrete units that Utzon contrasted with his hanging tent roofs looking out across the Persian Gulf and backed by the desert.
The Bagsvaerd Church incorporates a freely unfolding shell of sprayed concrete that is used to support the outer metal roof and that admits a soft, muted, indirect light into the nave. Inspired in part by medieval stave churches, stacked standard precast elements are used for the double-wall frame. Its linear rectangular plan is of great simplicity and elegance. Outside, it looks more like a factory than a church.
One of Utzon’s most satisfying small works is “Can Lis” (1973), his cliff house near Santyani on Mallorca. Its expression is firmly rooted in the Mallorcan vernacular but incorporates deep window embrasures that are reminiscent of the south wall of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel to frame the sea vistas. It was conceived as a miniature village of four pavilions jostling one another at various odd angles that add interest to the whole and form mysterious spaces between.
Shy and charming by turns and not unlike the movie actress Greta Garbo, whom he resembles, Utzon adopted the life of a recluse after 1970. Since the 1980s, Utzon has been less active in architecture, his professional involvement being mostly indirect in a series of collaborations with his two architect sons, Jan and Kim Utzon, on unsuccessful large-scale commercial projects to rejuvenate the Copenhagen waterfront, a project for a Danish Museum of Modern Art (1988) in Fredensborg and museums at Bornholm (1988), Skagen, and Samsø Island (1995–), the latter yet to be realized.