The architect who designed one of the world’s most recognizable buildings, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, yet never saw the completed project, Jorn Utzon, died of heart failure in his sleep in Copenhagen this last week. He was 90.
Born April 9, 1918 in Aalborg, Denmark, Jorn Utzon studied architecture at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. After establishing his own practice in Copenhagen in 1950, he entered the 1956 international architecture competition to design the new Sydney Opera House. He spent six months designing the unique sail-like roofs, his nautical design is said to have been inspired by sections of an orange. Utzon triumphed over 232 other entries; he was just 38 years age and hardly known outside his native country. For the next five years he worked on the project from his office in Denmark until he moved his family to Sydney to oversee construction in 1962.
It would be Utzon’s greatest design, on which most of his architectural reputation is based. It is also Australia’s most famous landmark and one of the most celebrated, influential and iconic buildings of the 20th century.
The Opera House is surrounded on three sides by the waters of Sydney Harbour at Benelong Point. The five performance halls are housed under ten reinforced concrete shells, dressed in white tiles. The sail-like shells and the upturned ships’ hulls rise 60 meters high above a four-and-a-half-acre concrete and granite platform which was inspired by the ceremonial steps of Monte Alban in Mexico.
However in 1966, seven years before completion, controversy erupted. Utzon resigned and packed up his family, leaving Australia never to return. With only the shell of the Opera House done, Utzon found himself in the middle of a power struggle and at odds with local politicians, specifically Davis Hughes, the New South Wales minister for public works who criticized the cost overruns and delays. At a price tag of more than $100 million Australian dollars, the original project was budgeted at ridiculously low estimate of $7 million. After Utzon’s resignation, the Opera House was completed by Government appointed architects who finished the interiors by drastically changing the original layouts to the five theaters.
In recent years Australia had tried reconciling with Jorn Utzon. In 2002, he was commissioned to update the interior renovations, in an attempt to alleviate the acoustic problems and bring the building closer to its original vision. In 2003, Mr. Utzon received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney. And in October of 2004 the Utzon Room, overlooking Sydney Harbor, was officially dedicated.
In 2003 Utzon won what is considered architecture’s highest honor, The Pritzker. Frank Gehry, one of the jurors, said Jorn Utzon “… made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.”
After leaving Australia, Utzon worked in Switzerland and Spain before settling in Majorca in the mid-1970s, where he would live and work for the rest of his life. Besides designing the Sydney Opera House, he designed the Bagsværd Church in Denmark (1968-76), the National Assembly of Kuwait, completed in 1983 and rebuilt in 1993, many private residences, and his own home in Majorca.
Jorn Utzon is survived by his wife of 66 years, Lis Fenger, three children, Jan, Kim, and Lin, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.