Sydney Opera House: Inspirations

Sydney Opera House

Glimpse the eclectic array of influences that inspired Jørn Utzon’s remarkable design.

A Great Eclectic
Born in 1918 in Copenhagen, Jørn Utzon grew up in the aftermath of the Great War. Despite the enormous disruption the conflict wrought, modernity had already begun to remodel the landscape of 20th century Europe. By 1956, the year a competition was established to design a National Opera House in Australia, Jørn Utzon had inherited broadly from the artistic, cultural and scientific revolutions that arose out of this immense period of change. The Sydney Opera House embodies Utzon's mastery in fusing craft traditions and ancient architecture with modernist thinking.
When Utzon was 12 years old his parents went to the 1930 Stockholm International Exhibition and were transformed by the experience. The architecture of Gunnar Asplund in particular affected them deeply."My parents returned home completely carried away by the new ideas and thoughts. They soon commenced in redoing our home ... We developed new eating habits ... We began to exercise, get fresh air, cultivate light and the direct, so-called natural way of doing things ... That's how much architects can bring about, and it came to influence our whole society." – Jørn Utzon speaking to Henrik Sten Møller, Living Architecture.

“Asplund is the father of modern Scandinavian architecture. He progressed beyond the purely functional and created a wonderful sense of wellbeing in his buildings.

“He even included symbolic content imbuing each of his buildings with a unique personality, one that expressly emanates the purpose of the building, completely covering and expressing the function, the lifestyle, the way of life lived in the building.” – Jørn Utzon

In 1945, Utzon worked briefly with the great Scandinavian architect Alvar Aalto, who was himself deeply inspired by Gunnar Asplund, who in the 1930s had begun to champion modernism.

Both Aalto and Asplund combined the traditions of Nordic classicism with emerging modernist principles, a fusion that proved so important to Utzon. Much later, 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 Aalto's advice.

“Asplund in Sweden and Aalto in Finland possess something beyond pure functionalism. They sometimes display what I would term a spiritual superstructure. It is called poetry. This superstructure makes every house reflect exactly the life in the house.”
– Jørn Utzon

At the end of the 1940s, Utzon was awarded a travel scholarship that enabled him to visit North and South America. In the north, he met the great American and émigré architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe and designer Charles Eames.

In South America, he was deeply impressed by the Aztec and Mayan ruins. They would directly influence his design of the podium of the Sydney Opera House, wherein he elaborated on ancient ideas of procession and of elevating people up and away from their normal lives to experience higher culture.

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.

"The platform as an architectural element is a fascinating feature. I first fell in love with it in Mexico on a study trip in 1949 ... By introducing the platform with its level at the same height as the jungle top, these people had suddenly obtained a new dimension of life, worthy of their devotion to their Gods. On these high platforms – many of them as long as 100 metres – they built their temples. They had from here the sky, the clouds and the breeze, and suddenly the jungle roof had been converted into a great open plain. By this architectural trick they had completely changed the landscape and supplied their visual life with a greatness corresponding to the greatness of their Gods."
– Jørn Utzon, from Platform and Plateaus, Zodiac no.10, 1962

Natural Form
Inspiration garnered from nature was absolutely central to Utzon’s creative process, with many of his designs originating in natural forms.

The faceted roof in the original design of the main Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House originates from the play between leaves in the beech forest behind Utzon’s house in Hellebæk, Denmark.

Although it was never realised in the finished building, the faceted scheme for the Major Hall features in cross-section in the final design book, under the vaulted arches.
– from the Yellow Book, 1962.

The Spherical Solution, which defines the final form of the roof of the Sydney Opera House, is one ideal example from many of the use of natural forms in Utzon's approach to architecture.

By defining parts of the surface of the sphere that best suited the existing shapes of the shells, each new form could be extracted. Further, one profile for each of the shells was all that was required as this would be mirrored to complete the arch. The Minor Hall of the Sydney Opera House is essentially identical to the Major Hall except in scale.

Credits: Story

Created by Sam Doust and the
Sydney Opera House GCI Team


State Records NSW

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