The quiet, eclectic Dane rose to the monumental challenge of the Sydney Opera House project and delivered one of the greatest designs in architectural history.

Architect Jørn Utzon is best known for his design of the Sydney Opera House, a building that transformed the identity of a nation to become the symbol of Australia, recognised the world over.

Sydney Opera House is a World Heritage-listed masterpiece of human creativity and one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century.

Like many architects, Utzon had initially entered the Australian competition for a national Opera House to exercise ideas. He was surprised to learn he had won.

The judging panel included eminent architects Eero Saarinen, from the United States, and the head of architecture at Cambridge University in the UK, Leslie Martin. The panel was supported by then New South Wales Premier, Joseph Cahill, who was instrumental in making the Opera House a reality.

Inspired by their confidence in his winning design, Utzon held fast to his ideals for a “perfect building”, delivering extraordinary and beautiful designs and solutions for both the external and internal spaces. Even as the program for the building and character of the original aspirations changed around him, Utzon would work to maintain these founding ideals.

However, Utzon's position would eventually become untenable and he was forced to resign, as he saw it, by circumstances involving the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes.

Complex and fraught, the politics of Utzon's withdrawal and the subsequent completion of the building by a committee of architects including Peter Hall are explored in detail elsewhere.

Here you can explore the artistry inherent in Utzon's approach to architecture, the startling originality of his ideas, and his re-engagement with Sydney Opera House near the end of his life.

This signature design from Utzon's entry to the international competition for the Sydney Opera House shows the shallow Monumental Steps and the underside of the thin concrete shells leafed in gold.

Eminent architects Leslie Martin and Eero Saarinen, either side of Utzon, meeting in London in 1957 to discuss next steps in the Sydney Opera House project, having selected Utzon’s as the winning design.

Jørn Utzon’s son, Jan Utzon, describes his father's competition design.

This visualisation of Utzon's competition entry illustrates how low the roof profile was in comparison with the upright design we see today.

This shell design is reminiscent of the works of architects who were designing thin shell concrete structures in the 1950s. Engineer and architect Felix Candela had built several examples of hyper-parabolic structures that had influenced Utzon.

However, the sheer size of the shell design in Utzon’s competition entry made their realisation impractical. Utzon worked with Arup engineers through many variations until settling on the elegant, spherical geometry we see today.

Yet back in 1956, all four judges of the Sydney Opera House competition recognised Utzon’s strong sculptural approach and were eventually unanimous in their decision to make his the winning design.

Jan Utzon describes his father's competition design.

Saarinen's celebrated Kresge Auditorium, for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was completed in 1956, the year of the international competition for an Opera House in Sydney. Saarinen became one of four judges of this competition.

His Kresge Auditorium is defined by an elegant, thin-shell structure of reinforced concrete, one-eighth of a sphere rising to a height of 15 metres (50 feet), sliced away by sheer glass curtain walls so that it comes to earth on only three points.

The auditorium is defined by an elegant thin-shell structure of reinforced concrete, one-eighth of a sphere rising to a height of 50 feet, and sliced away by sheer glass curtain walls so that it comes to earth on only three points.

Saarinen's enthusiasm for Utzon’s design was directly related to a commission Saarinen had been working on for what would become his most famous building, the TWA Passenger Terminal at what is now known as John F Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York.

In 1954, at the beginning of the commercial jet era, the Port Authority of New York had given Trans World Airlines permission to develop a passenger terminal at Idlewild Airport (now JFK Airport). TWA commissioned Saarinen and Associates to design the terminal in 1956.

By the time of judging in 1957, Saarinen would have begun thinking about the form of his celebrated shell structure, which would resonate strikingly with Utzon's original submission drawings.

Another eminent American architect, Cesar Pelli, a young associate working on the TWA building, later recalled he had no doubt that the similar aesthetics between the two designs resonated strongly with Saarinen.

Unique among the competition entries, Utzon’s design placed the concert halls side by side, their roofs cantilevering out over the end of Bennelong Point, evoking Sydney’s cliffs and sails.

It was a sculptural response to both the competition guidelines and the location, unequalled by the other entries.

As the shape of the shells changed, their position remained the same.

The cover of the Red Book, featuring a profile of the Sydney Opera House cut out freehand by Utzon.

Utzon was heavily influenced by natural form in his approach to design. This image is reminiscent of those found in biologist and mathematician D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's book, On Growth and Form, which was a favourite of Utzon's.

Sketches of the roof profile from the Red Book reminiscent of leaves and organic forms.

Jan Utzon describes the inspiration his father's took from nature.

A freehand sketch of the roof profiles from the Red Book illustrates far more upright shell forms than those expressed in Utzon’s competition sketches.

These profiles illustrate the move away from the distinctly horizontal, thin concrete shells, a profile abandoned in the initial period of formulating the engineering of the building.

What is so striking about this sketch is how elegantly and economically Utzon captures the impression of the Sydney Opera House with his idiosyncratic, thick 6B design pencil.

The final profile of the Sydney Opera House, expressing spherical geometry, after more than three years of experimentation with parabolic and ellipsoid geometries and at least eight primary variations.

A page of sketches from the Yellow Book, illustrating Utzon's approval for the form of the side shells that bridge the main shells of the Sydney Opera House. (The Yellow Book presented the "Spherical Solution" – a final design rationale for the roof, alongside the glass wall designs and the most recent designs for the Major and Minor Halls.)

Having arrived in Sydney the previous day, Utzon and engineer Jack Zunz are interviewed by Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth of the University of Sydney about the newly resolved roof scheme for Stage Two of the Opera House project.

Filmed live in a television studio in Sydney by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this excerpt from the film Design 218 gives a wonderful sense of the end of a period of intense work by both architects and engineers to solve the difficult problem of the roof scheme, the elegant resolution of which is known as the Spherical Solution.

Utzon in 1962, holding his 6B design pencil.

Utzon at work at a drafting table in 1960, a year described by his assistants and colleagues as an idyllic time of hard work in the peaceful setting of Hellebæk.

Utzon's father was a naval architect and director of Copenhagen’s Helsingør Shipyards, located alongside the elegant Kronborg Castle, chosen by Shakespeare as the setting for his famous play about a conflicted prince called Hamlet.

In 1956, at the age of 38, Jørn Utzon would go straight to nautical maps to get a sense of the landscape crucial to a recently announced competition for an Opera House on Sydney Harbour.

Kronborg Castle, poised on a promontory into the Øresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden, would provide a natural point of reference in imagining Bennelong Point on the other side of the world.

In 1949, 31 years old and on a visit to Mexico, Utzon climbed out of the dark and confining Yucatan jungle to the top of a Mayan temple to discover an infinitely open plane above the jungle canopy.

Utzon saw how these temples lifted people above their daily lives to a transcendent plateau where, beneath the clouds and sky, they could commune with their gods.

This photograph by Utzon resonates remarkably with the podium of the Sydney Opera House: the Monumental Steps leading to the top of the plateau with the centres of performance at the far end.

A sketch study of clouds above a plateau.

This floating pagoda roof suggests "the required interplay between roof and platform was to be achieved by creating a floating, almost ephemeral roof structure", said Queensland University of Technology Research Professor of Design Tom Heath (1931-88).

Here Utzon's "ephemeral roof" emerges from the pagoda style into an abstracted shell structure, evolving and infusing the form with lightness.

Beneath the roof, the platform on which figures can be seen.

Utzon would go on to use the ancient temple form as a foundation from which to elevate both the monumental Sydney Opera House and its millions of visitors above everyday life.

Arriving on this plateau, at the top of the Monumental Steps, the visitor marvels at the vaulted roof, sculptural from all sides.

Utzon designed his own house in Hellebæk, nestled in the beech forest, and inspired by the “Usonian” style coined by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Much later in life Utzon noted how, in choosing to live in a beech forest and to reflect natural forms and functions in his work, he had been following the advice of the great Scandinavian architect Alvar Aalto.

Arguably Utzon's greatest design achievement in the legacy of his work on the Sydney Opera House was his innovative creation of the roof’s form using spherical geometry.

Utzon's breakthrough was to derive each of the shells from the constant and universal form of the sphere. This one decision solved a multitude of problems at once. It captured the essence of the original sketch while allowing the building blocks to be prefabricated with comparative ease.

It also elevated the finished building beyond a style identified with the times to give it an ageless form.

This animation describes the shells of the Sydney Opera House as they are derived from spherical geometry and resolving into the cover of the Yellow Book which documented the final roof geometry of the building, drafted by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

An early, pristine model of the newly devised spherical geometry for the roof of the Sydney Opera House.

Photographing the first model of the spherical roof geometry.

Utzon leaving the offices of the New South Wales Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, having declared his intention to withdraw from the project (1965)
by Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

Despite the collective ambition and colossal effort demonstrated from the very beginning of the project of the Sydney Opera House, by 1965, disputes and disagreements had seriously fractured the project’s leadership. A change in the state government, from Labor under Premier Joe Cahill to Liberal under Premier Robert Askin, compounded the friction and brought with it a changing political will that, long before the building was finished, compelled Utzon to resign.

He would leave Australia in 1965, eight years before the Sydney Opera House opened, never to return to see his masterpiece finished.

There were many forms of protest against the government for, as the protesters saw it, the dismissal of Utzon from the project of the Sydney Opera House.

No one could have anticipated the immediate and intense reaction against then Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, for accepting Utzon's resignation. National and international associates, famous architects, friends and strangers alike called for his return and many supporters took to the streets in protest.

To some, the treatment meted out to Utzon was indicative of a wider social malaise then prevailing in Australia. His creative battles symbolised the increasing irrelevance of so many establishment values.

Broader ethical, social and political questions were being raised at the time, and alongside the generational division of sentiment about the Vietnam War, Utzon's treatment became another cause for tension and dissent.

Within two days of the announcement that Utzon had resigned, architect Harry Seidler and the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hal Missingham, had rallied other architects, students, intellectuals and labourers into the streets, congregating at Bennelong Point for speeches then marching to Parliament House to deliver a petition of 3000 names to NSW Premier Robert Askin that called for Utzon's reinstatement. Renowned novelist Patrick White and the Dean of Architecture at the University of Sydney, Denis Winston, led the march alongside Seidler and Missingham.

Utzon described the protest as "marvellous".

Sydney architect Bruce Rickard (1929-2010) said: "No one can replace Mr Utzon, the perfectionist with fantastic integrity ... No consortium, no committee, has ever – or ever will – create a work of art."

The different forms of dissent and protest proved to be an example of the generational divide. Younger architects saw the behaviour of their superiors as outrageously outdated. The government architect, Ted Farmer, seen as instrumental to Utzon's demise, was regarded as having compromised both a great work of art and its visionary architect on a grand scale.

"The only architect technically and ethically able to complete the Opera House as it should be completed" - support for Utzon from the petition signed by 75 of the 85 Government Architects in the Public Works Department, written by Ted Mack, later Mayor of North Sydney and known as the “father of the independents”.

This is part one of three segments of the same interview recorded in 1973, in which journalist Peter Luck tracked down Utzon holidaying in Sweden to interview him about his thoughts on Sydney Opera House in the year of the building's completion.

In late 1998, another New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, wrote to Utzon asking if he would establish a set of design principles that would ensure his vision for the building would inform its evolution.

In 1999, 33 years after leaving Australia, and with the tumult of 1966 long behind him, Utzon once again signed a contract with the New South Wales government and re-engaged with Sydney Opera House.

In the three decades since his departure, Sydney Opera House had been host to tens of thousands of performances and millions of visitors. It had become the most recognised and esteemed symbol of Sydney, as well as the nation. Its cultural and architectural value is now beyond doubt.

Jørn Utzon with his son Jan after Utzon's re-engagement with Sydney Opera House (1999)
by Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

While he saw no need to return to Australia, Utzon swiftly set about updating aspects of the building with the help of his son Jan. At the same time, prominent Sydney architect Richard Johnson was engaged to work with the Utzons and to develop a Venue Improvement Plan.

On publication of the Utzon Design Principles in 2002, the Carr Government committed $A69 million to the refurbishment plan. This included creation of the first interior space fully realised to Utzon's specifications. The Utzon Room celebrates the form of the Concourse beams that define the ceiling; its southern wall is glass, overlooking the harbour.

The north wall is dominated by a tapestry designed by Utzon, inspired by the music of Bach and Raphael's painting, The Procession to Calvary.

The Utzon Room is explored in detail in "The Master's Chamber" exhibit.

In 2003, Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the world's most prestigious architectural award. The judges recognised Sydney Opera House as “a masterpiece – Jørn Utzon's masterpiece”.

Architect Richard Weston, who worked with Utzon during the re-engagement process, observed: "Like most great works of art that achieve wide popularity its appeal is visceral and optical more than cerebral. A sublime flower with primitive roots, it is one of very few 20th-century buildings to be measured against the achievements of past civilisations."

Jørn Utzon died on 29 November 2008, at the age of 90.

On behalf of the family, Utzon’s son Jan wrote that in his father’s long and full life: "Nothing escaped his keen eye. He observed the world around him with extraordinary clearness. From all these sources of inspiration, be it the pyramids of Mexico, the temple compounds of China, the half-timbered farms of Denmark, the branch of a tree, the leaf on a flower, a stone from the beach, the pattern in the snow, the slant of the sunlight, from music, sculpture, paintings and the humanistic thinking by great philosophers, he created a world of his own, a legacy of great and modest buildings that are ours to enjoy, far beyond his lifetime."

Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team


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