Jorn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House Architect

Jorn Utzon is the visionary architect whose name is linked to the history of Sydney opera house. He designed one of the finest architectural structures in the world, which built his reputation but hurt his career. And he never set foot in it.

The architect came up with the design without seeing the site, was not present at the inauguration of the building, and has never visited it.

Jorn Utzon - The Beginnings

The young Danish architect did not have an impressive CV before winning the international competition for an opera house in Sydney. He did not have the right experience for a grand project, however he had vision.

Jorn was the son of a shipyard manager. He learnt from his father to love nature and use it in his technical drawings.

One of the books that marked his design philosophy was the Chinese building manual of the Sung dynasty written some 900 years ago. The book provided him with the insight that a few simple elements can be used to build any complex structure.

He relied on this philosophy when he created the shell roofs of the opera house.

The Work for Opera House Sydney

jorn utzon - opera sails

Utzon hadn't been to Australia before entering the competition. He only saw photos of the site. So to understand the requirements of the project he took inspiration from another famous site, that of Hamlet's castle in Elsinore.

The setting of the castle was on a headland similar to Bennelong Point in Sydney. He sailed around the castle and envisioned the podium of the future opera and its massive sails.

Jorn Utzon moved to Australia in 1963, long after the work of the podium started. He hired a team of young Australian architects to help him find solutions to bring the innovative design to life.

jorn utzon - sails close up

The sails presented complex issues to the builders. And to top the difficulties Jorn Utzon set his mind to get very specific tiles to cover the sails, glossy but not shiny. He resorted again to Asian mastery. He went to China and Japan to search for ancient roof tiles.

It took him 3 years to come up with the desired tiles and the process to lay them. They are cream, have a chevron pattern but appear to be white from the distance.

Here are some quick Sydney Opera House facts.

The Conflict

His absence from Australia at the peak of the project created more trouble to a project already stretched to the limit with escalating costs, difficult engineering tasks, and unconventional solutions.

Jorn Utzon started work on the interiors. He wanted them colourful, rich, exotic, and elaborate. But in 1966 he was made to resign and left Australia never to set foot there again.

Despite his ingenuous and bold work, Utzon did not get to do many projects of similar significance. He was actually given the cold shoulder when he returned to Denmark.

The Recognition

Later on the architect's outstanding skills were recognized:

  • in 1998 he received the prestigious Danish Sonning prize;
  • in 1999 he worked again for the opera house Sydney, as a design consultant, without leaving Denmark;
  • in 2003 he was the recipient of the international Pritzker Prize for architecture.

The architect died in 2008 at the age of 90 leaving behind what everyone considers a masterpiece of the 20th century.

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