Danishnet logo

Jørn Utzon (1918-2008)

Jørn Utzon was a Danish architect and furniture designer. Utzon was born in Copenhagen (København) in 1918. While he was still a baby his father moved the family to Aalborg in Northern Jutland (Jylland). Utzon’s father “Aage Utzon” was a brilliant naval architect at the Aalborg shipyard.

While Utzon was still in secondary school he began helping his father in the marine workshops by studying new designs, drawing up plans and even designing new ship models. Utzon’s early exposure to the designing of ships had a great influence on his future career in architecture. It was hear where he first faced the challenges of implementing functional as well as aesthetically pleasing ships.

Jørn Utzon came from a wealthy family and thus went to the private St. Mark’s Monastary School (Klostermarkskole) and later to the Aalborg Cathedral School (Aalborg Katedralskole). However, Utzon always struggled with his studies because of his dyslexia. It is interesting to note that Denmark's famous fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen also suffered from dyslexia.

In 1930 Jørn Utzon’s family took a trip to Stockholm, Sweden. While in Stockholm they visited an exhibition which featured the works of Erik Gunnar Asplund, who was arguably the most famous Swedish architect at the time. In the 1920’s Asplund helped put Swedish architecture on the world map with his design for the Stockholm Public Library (Stockholms Stadsbibliotek). This exhibition would have a great impression on Utzon and the rest of his family. In fact Utzon’s family were so inspired by some of the exhibits that they renovated their own house to follow these new trends.

When Utzon completed his secondary schooling he decided to apply to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. In fact, Utzon’s father had a cousin named Einar Utzon-Frank, who was a sculptor as well as a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the time. During this period of his life Jørn was very interested in sculpting, and he was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Royal Academy.  

So in 1937 Jørn Utzon moved to Copenhagen and began his studies at the famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts. At the Academy Utzon was instructed by the famous architects Kay Fisker and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. Over the next five years Utzon worked hard to develop his talent and he graduated in 1942.

Later in 1942 Utzon, like many Danish architects affected by World War II, fled to neutral Sweden where he was employed in the Stockholm office of Hakon Ahlberg for the duration of the war. In Sweden he was joined by fellow Danish architects Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Halldor Gunnløgsson, and Tobias Faber amongst others. When the war ended he did not immediately return to Denmark, instead going to Finland for a short time to work with great Finish architect Alvar Aalto.

After the German surrender in 1945 Utzon would help with the reconstruction of Europe. He designed a number of temporary houses in the Netherlands. In the latter part of 1945 Utzon returned to Denmark where he, along with Tobias Faber, participated in several architectural competitions. Utzon’s submissions showed that he had a true understanding of the complex problem of integrating nature into architecture; or rather the problem of designing a building which fits comfortably into its natural surroundings. This was an important skill which characterized much of his work.

From 1947-1949 Utzon spent much of his time abroad. He spent time in Morocco, the United States and Mexico. In Morocco he produced some designs, and he was introduced to Islamic architecture. Utzon was impressed with wisdom of ordinary people in respect to building and architecture. It was here that his appreciation for the relationship between a building and the material used in its construction reached fruition. This appreciation was clear throughout Utzon’s career and he was always interested in using local materials in the construction of his designs. He felt that this helped a building fit better into its natural surroundings.

In early 1949 Utzon received a scholarship to go to the U.S. and Mexico. In the U.S. he met the world famous American architects Ray and Charles Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright; as well as the famous German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Utzon then traveled to Mexico where he helped restoring some famous pre-Columbian Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula, including the Chichen Itza and Uxmal pyramid complexes. Utzon himself called his experience in Mexico, “One of the greatest architectural experiences in my life”. He was fascinated by the way the Mayan’s built towards the sky to get closer to God.

In 1950 he retuned to Copenhagen and opened up his own architectural studio. During the early 1950’s Utzon was involved in several modest projects such as the Svaneke water tower on the island of Bornholm in 1952, multiple housing complexes, and his own home also in 1952. However, his career was about to take a sharp turn.

In 1955 a competition was launched for architects from around the world to submit their designs for what would become the Sydney Opera House. Architects from all over the world submitted their proposals. In all 233 designs from 32 countries were submitted, and many of them were done by the most famous architects of the day. In 1957 it was announced that Jørn Utzon’s design had been chosen. It was completely unexpected that a little known architect from the tiny country of Denmark would produce the winning design.

Oddly enough Utzon’s proposal had not been immediately accepted by the original panel in charge of picking the design; in fact his design had already been discarded. However, when the architect Eero Saarinen joined the panel (later than the other panel members) he was immediately impressed by Utzon’s daring design. He rescued Utzon’s design and set about opening the eyes of the other panel members so that they could see how spectacular Utzon’s design really was.

Jørn Utzon has said that his design was inspired by peeling an orange. There are 14 outer ‘shells’ in the design of the Sydney Opera House and if you were to assemble them they would form a perfect sphere. Utzon also wanted to create a building in which the façade is not same from all angles; something which he no doubt achieved.

Construction began in 1959 and was not complete until 1973. However Utzon left the project in 1966 after bitter arguments with Australian officials regarding cost and schedule issues. The construction of the Opera House was plagued with problems from the beginning since the technology did not exist to cast such large pieces of curved concrete. Utzon solved the problem prior to his departure from the project. Ironically Utzon left the project over disputes about costs of the project. When he left the project in 1966 the shells were almost complete and the total cost was only around $22.9 million Australian dollars. However, after Utzon left the project major changes to the original plans for the interiors were proposed. These changes finally drove the total cost up to $103 million Australian dollars. Unfortunately these changes resulted in many of his designs for the interiors to be discarded.

In 2007, the Sydney Opera House was added to the World Heritage List. Jørn Utzon is first person to still be alive while one of their works was added to the List.

Towards the end of his active career, he built the Church in Bagsværd (Bagsværd Kirke) in 1976 which he says was inspired by the clouds in Hawaii.

Some of his other well known projects include the Fredensborg Housing Estate (1959-62), the Kingo Housing Estate (1956-58), and the Skagen Nature Center (2001), all in Denmark.
Jørn Utzon was the winner of the 2003 Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is often considered to be the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He is the only Danish architect to be awarded this prize.

Both of Jørn’s sons, Kim Utzon and Jan Utzon are architects. 

Jørn Utzon passed away in Copenhagen in 2008. He was 90 years old.

  • His own home in Hellebæk, 1952
  • Water Tower in Svaneke, Bornholm (Vandtårnet), 1952
  • Opera House in Sydney in Australia (Operahuset i Sydney), 1957
  • Roman Houses in Helsingør (Romerhusene), 1958
  • Fredensborg Houses (Fredensborghusene), 1962
  • Theater in Zurich, Switzerland (Teater i Zürich), 1964
  • Eline Berg Houses in Helsingborg, Sweden (Elineberghusene), 1965
  • Sports Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Sportsstadion i Jeddah), 1967
  • Parliament Building in Kuwait (Parlamentsbygningen), 1972
  • Bagsværd Church (Bagsværd Kirke), 1976
  • Paustian House in Copenhagen harbour (Paustians Hus), 1986
  • Skagen Nature Center, Skagen (Skagen Odde Nature), 1989  
  • Utzon Center Aalborg designed by Jørn Utzon and his son Kim Utzon, 2008