Jørn Utzon

Jørn Oberg Utzon, born on 9 April 1918 and died on 29 November 2008 in Copenhagen, was a Danish architect famous for designing the Sydney Opera House, which has become the emblem of that city and "one of the best-known symbols of Australia in the world", in the words of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.


Childhood and education

Jorn Utzon was born into a cultured family who were involved in the construction of the shipyard in Aalborg, where he grew up. His father built ships and yachts, and he was lucky enough to attend shipyards and to enter workshops where craftsmen produced them. The models and work forces were part of his childhood and shaped his work.

In 1930, the Utzon family left for Stockholm where the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition was held: it was a major event in their family life. The exhibition buildings (glass facades, white surfaces and flat roofs) were designed by Gunnar Asplund.

As a teenager, he took sculpture classes with the painter Carl Kylberg, through which he developed his artistic talents. He then considered becoming an artist. However, after attending compulsory classes at the Catholic school in Aalborg, the Utzon family moved to Helsingor, where, with the help of the sculptor Einar Utzon-Frank, Jorn Utzon's uncle, he entered the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He began his architectural studies at the age of 19.

Immediately after his birth, Utzon's parents moved from Copenhagen to Aalborg, the city where he grew up and which honours him with the Utzon Centre on the harbour front. He studied at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. After graduating in 1941, he worked for three years in Stockholm and then for two years with Alvar Aalto in Helsinki. He then travelled through Europe and Morocco and worked for a short time in Paris. In 1949, he travelled through Mexico and the United States, where he met Frank Lloyd Wright, who had a great influence on him. In 1950, he returned to Denmark and founded his own architectural firm in Copenhagen.

In 1957, his design for the new Opera House in Sydney was declared the winner of an international competition. This building functions as a landmark for Sydney, as the Eiffel Tower does for Paris or the Tower Bridge for London. During the execution of the project in 1966, Utzon had a disagreement with the client (the Australian government) about the costs. He left Australia and was not invited to the opening in 1973 by Queen Elizabeth. He never saw the building in its completed state. Later it was fully restored and showered with Australian honours. He even designed an extension to the building, although he could not come to Sydney for health reasons, which was opened in 2006, again by Queen Elizabeth.

Utzon designed many buildings in Denmark, but his buildings are also found in Switzerland and Kuwait. In 1998 he was awarded the Danish Sonningprisen for 'his outstanding contributions to European culture'. In 2003, he won the Pritzker Prize for architecture.

He spent his last years in seclusion in the house Can Feliz on Majorca which he himself designed. He died at the age of 90 after a series of unsuccessful operations in a nursing home near Copenhagen.



After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1942 under the guidance of Steen Eiler Rasmussen, he moved to neutral Sweden during the Second World War. Stockholm had become a cosmopolitan city where many Danish architects lived. In 1942, Utzon married Lis Fenger and until 1945 worked with Hakon Ahlberg and then with Paul Hedqvist, where he met the Norwegian architect Arne Korsmo.

Between the end of the German hostilities in Denmark and the official surrender of the German Army troops on 5 May 1945, Utzon created a project of temporary housing for the post-war reconstruction of European cities. In the meantime, he won the Academy's gold medal with his design for the Royal Danish Academy of Music building on a platform.

In 1945, on 25 October, he began a brief collaboration with Alvar Aalto, which ended on 5 December. Nevertheless, the synthesis between tradition and modernity developed by Aalto and the influence of Gunnar Asplund were very important for Utzon's future career: "They were my teachers"...

A period of competitions

At the end of the war, he returned with his family to Denmark and opened his own office. From 1945 to 1947, in collaboration with Tobias Faber, he took part in numerous competitions for the design of public buildings and landscaped housing complexes. The Crystal Palace project in London displayed the plastic concerns he would develop throughout his career: the pavilions are placed on podiums that take into account the irregularity of the terrain, while the analogy with forest estates is manifested inside the building. The project was characterised by the vigorous development of the structure.

During these years he travelled a lot, especially in America (Mexico, USA) and Asia (China, Japan, India). In 1947, during a stay in Morocco, for the creation of a series of factories, he discovered Moroccan architecture which had a decisive influence on his work. In 1949, Utzon went on an extensive trip to the United States. He visited Charles and Ray Eames in their house in Pacific Palisades, stayed in Taliesin East with Frank Lloyd Wright and then met Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. He continued his journey to Mexico City, where the Mayan buildings on the Yucatan Peninsula at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, built mainly on horizontal planes, were "one of the best architectural experiences of my life".

On his return, he continued to participate in competitions with Arne Korsmo. In 1947, they collaborated on the Oslo Central Station project, and in 1948 on a housing complex in the centre of Vestre Vika. Through this project he worked with the Norwegian group of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (PAGON). As a response to the post-war reconstruction of European cities, the proposed housing complex in Oslo, Norway, in 1951, accommodates a steep slope, which extends beyond the housing units into a landscape composition for low-cost housing. Later he focused on the Kingo Houses project in Helsingor.

The Utzon style

Utzonian Houses

The large beams, the walls that stretch across the land, the fluidity of the interior space, the chimney "stuck" on the roof and the contact with the surrounding landscape characterise Jorn Utzon's houses. They evoke the ideal of the suburban house and the development of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian model, while the longitudinal arrangement of the house, the rooms and the adaptation to the natural terrain allude to the housing complex at Armebraten. Jørn Utzon's house in Hellebaek (which introduced the free plan to Denmark) and the Utzonian Houses in general share the common characteristics of brickwork, wooden structure and an important relationship with the landscape.

Collective housing

This interest in domestic architecture is due to the competition won in 1953 for the construction of housing on the Skåne coast. The design, based on the traditional Danish farmhouse model built around a central sheltered courtyard, refers to Rudolph M. Schindler's housing complex in Pueblo Ribera and the gardens of designer C. Th. Sorensene and reconciles the way each family occupies space. The following year, the housing complexes of Helsingor and Fredensborg were built, landscape compositions that responded to the principles established at the beginning of the competition: total separation between conflicting circulation systems, double access to the individual house, reunification of the units formed by the addition of dwellings, and nature as a central and continuous element of the complex.

In the first half of 1950 Utzon joined the Swedish studio of Henry and Erik Andersson in Helsingborg, with whom he participated in the competition for housing in Marieberg and Elineberg in 1954. Designed on the basis of a succession of towers in a seascape, the project extended the geographical extent of the site. This project basis was later developed in the 'abstract compositions' of Frederiksberg and Elviria in 1959 and 1960.

Sydney Opera House

In 1957, Utzon's design for the Sydney Opera House won first prize in the international competition. Of the 233 entries, the platform topped with agravitation shells was chosen. Located in the middle of Sydney Harbour, the massive nature of the platform and the realistic appearance of the solid white shells allude to pre-Columbian and Oriental platforms and the ruins and railings of Kronborg Castle in Helsingor. At the age of 38, Utzon's victory in the competition heralded an intense period of work.

The first phase of construction, the platform, began in March 1959, while the geometric and structural development of the shells lasted until 1961. The shells, whose shape was first designed for Nordisk Solar lamps in the 1940s, are "very simple geometric shapes", fragments of a single sphere. It is a real challenge to rationalise the construction of the shells developed from a spherical shape. This model is designed for the manufacture of the roof from prefabricated concrete panels.

Perfection of materials, geometric precision and technical consistency determine the integrity of the Sydney Opera House. During the third phase of construction of the Sydney Opera House, construction of the shells continues and construction of the interior begins. But neither the curtain wall, made of a succession of glulam mullions hinged with bronze, which complements the lightness of the shell, nor the glulam beams, which form the acoustics of the auditorium, were built.

The 1965 election brought a Liberal government to power in New South Wales led by Robert Askin, who was highly critical of the project. After a long series of disagreements, Utzon left the site and went to Hawaii and then back to Mexico. The opera house was completed by a new team of architects who made many changes to the interior design and it was inaugurated on 20 October 1973: Jorn Utzon was not invited to the ceremony and his name was not mentioned2. However, the management structure of the opera house contacted the architect again in 1999; a hall bearing his name was put into operation and he made alterations, among other things to improve accessibility.

In parallel

The formal intentions were confirmed by Utzon during his trip to Sydney in the late 1950s. In parallel, Utzon carried out other projects. The platform and suspended roofs of the Eastern world, with its multicoloured roofs and the structure of the urban ensembles of the Islamic world, are the architectural elements of a whole series of projects such as the Melli Bank (en) in Iran, the platforms proposed for the reconstruction of the urban centre of Berlin in 1957, and in Copenhagen, for the 1959 International Exhibition. Similarly, the design for Hojstrup College in 1958, which won first prize, sets the weightless roof and volume of the tower against the landscape of the Oresund. The platform and folded roof slabs are reminiscent of the porte cochere of the Sydney Opera House. From 1963 to 1964, Jørn Utzon worked on the Silkeborg Art Museum project and the theatres in Zurich and Wolfsburg, always designed on the basis of massive platforms and roofs that allow a good deal of light into the building.

Additive Architecture

1966 - Additive architecture

At the end of the 1960s, the disenchantment of Sydney triggered a process of reflection, with Additive Architecture being the beginning of a new period characterised by the combination of geometry, modulation and standardised production that was tested in Sydney. By the end of the decade, Utzon was mounting a new group of projects based on the Additive Architecture principle: the design for Farum city centre in 1966, which refers to Arab markets; the Jeddah stadium in 1969, where prefabricated modules develop the structure of the building; and the second version of the Silkeborg Art Museum, designed with a series of galleries stretched over the landscape. Similarly, the Espansiva building system project solves the constructive logic of the components of modular individual houses. In parallel, the architect is working on furniture projects: Furniture system and New angle furniture system.

Last projects

In 1973, and without the architect's presence, the Sydney Opera House opened its doors, an emblematic building that became the symbol of a city and a continent. This event coincided with the beginning of the construction of the church in Bagsværd, made of a succession of shells. Then, from 1972 to 1984, the National Assembly building in Kuwait was built, again with a set of giant shells as a roof. During one of his stopovers after leaving Australia, Jorn Utzon discovered the island of Majorca. The island fascinated him and he decided to build a holiday home there: Can Lis. But the tourists soon wanted to visit this house. In 1994 he built Can Feliz, whose location is kept secret. These two houses are his last works.

In 2005, together with his son Kim Utzon, he participated in the Utzon Center project in Aalborg, designed to inspire student architects.

In 2008, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the 11th Venice Biennale dedicated an exhibition to him entitled The Architect's unviverse - Processes and visions, in collaboration with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, curated by Kjeld Kjeldsen. It is on view at Palazzo Franchetti, home of the Venetian Institute of Science, Letters and Arts. The exhibition is presented as a retrospective that aims to explain the architect's creative process.

Jorn Utzon died on 29 November 2008, following a heart attack.



  • Svaneke water tower (1951)
  • Pavilion in Alsgarde (1959, Denmark)
  • Extension to Leidersdorf House (1941, Denmark)
  • Royal Academy of Music (1944-1945, Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Temporary housing (1945, Denmark)
  • Paper factory (1947, Morocco)
  • Housing (1947, Morocco)
  • Svaneke water tower (1949-1951, Denmark)
  • Housing estate (1951, Norway)
  • Utzon House in Hellebaek (1950-1952, Denmark)
  • Middelboe House (1953-1955, Holte, Denmark)
  • Herstad House (1953-1954, Rungsted, Denmark)
  • Rotzau-Larsen House (1953-1954, Denmark)
  • Andersen House (1953, Hillerod, Denmark)
  • Milling House (1953-1954, Hillerod, Denmark)
  • Housing estate in Skjern (1954-1956, Denmark)
  • Bridge in Oslo (1954, Norway)
  • Billie House (1954-1955, Vejby Strand, Denmark)
  • Lillesoe House (1955, Holte, Denmark)
  • Villa Frank (1956, Vedbaek, Denmark)
  • Villa Dalsgaard (1956, Holte, Denmark)
  • Arnung House (1956, Naerum, Denmark)
  • Kingo Houses (1956, Helsingor, Denmark)
  • Housing estate in Bjuv (1956, Sweden)
  • Housing estate in Planetstaden (1956-1957, Lund, Sweden)
  • Sydney Opera House (1956-1973, Australia)
  • Banck House (1958, Helsingborg, Sweden)
  • Housing estate in Fredensborg (1959-1965, Denmark)
  • Melli Bank (1959-1960, Tehran, Iran)
  • Multi-family housing in Birkebo (1960, Helsingor, Denmark)
  • Market in Elineberg (1960, Helsingborg, Sweden)
  • Herneryd House (1960-1962, Helsingborg, Sweden)
  • Fitness Centre in Helsingor (1962-1966, Denmark)
  • Povl Ahm House (1963-1964, Hertfordshire, UK)
  • Utzon House in Bayview (1963-1965, Sydney, Australia)
  • Silkeborg Museum of Art, (1963, Denmark)
  • Espensiva Prototype (1969, Hellebaek, Denmark)
  • College (1969, Herning, Denmark)
  • Prototype Uno-X (1969-1977, Herning, Denmark)
  • Jedda Stadium (1969, Saudi Arabia)
  • Silkeborg Art Museum (1969-1971)
  • Bagsvaerd Church (1968-1976, Denmark)
  • Utzon House in Porto Petro, Can lis (1971-1973, Majorca, Spain)
  • National Assembly of Kuwait (1972-1984)
  • Indoor swimming pool in Copenhagen (1979, Denmark)
  • Paustian Furniture Showrooms (1985-1987, Copenhagen, Denmark)
  • Fredensborg Museum of Modern Art (1988, Denmark)
  • Utzon Houses in Horta, Can Lis and Can Feliz (1972 and 1994, Majorca, Spain)
  • Utzon Center (2008, Aalborg, Denmark with Kim Utzon)


  • Chaise Design for the modern Furniture, concours. 1946 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA)
  • Utsep furniture system 1968
  • New angle furniture system 1968


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