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Who Was Jørn Utzon?

Life and Works of the Pritzker Prize-Winning Architect of the Sydney Opera House

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Jørn Utzon, 2003 Pritzker Prize Laureate

Jørn Utzon, 2003 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate

Jørn Utzon/Utzon Architects
Born: April 9, 1918 in Copenhagen, Denmark

Died: November 19, 2008 in Copenhagen, Denmark

From the Pritzker Prize Committee

Jørn Utzon was perhaps destined to design buildings that evoke the sea. Utzon's father was director of a shipyard in Alborg, Denmark, and was a brilliant naval architect. Several family members were excellent yachtsmen, and the young Jørn became a good sailor himself.

Until about the age of 18, Jørn Utzon considered a career as a naval officer. It was about this time, while still in secondary school, that he began helping his father at the shipyard, studying new designs, drawing up plans and making models. This activity opened another possibility — that of training to be a naval architect like his father.

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However, during summer holidays with his grandparents Jørn Utzon met two artists, Paul Schrøder and Carl Kyberg, who introduced him to art. One of his father’s cousins, Einar Utzon-Frank, who happened to be a sculptor and was a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, provided additional inspiration. Jørn Utzon took an interest in sculpting. At one point, he indicated he might want to be an artist, but was ultimately convinced that architectural school would be the best career path.

Even though his final marks in secondary school, particularly mathematics, were poor, his excellent freehand drawing talents were strong enough to win his admission to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He was soon recognized as having extraordinary architectural gifts.

When Jørn Utzon graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1942, War War II had started. Utzon, like many architects of that time, fled to neutral Sweden. He worked in the Stockholm office of Hakon Ahlberg for the duration of World War II. Following that he went to Finland to work with Alvar Aalto . Jørn Utzon had begun to admire the ideas of Gunnar Asplund, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright while still in school.

Jørn Utzon acknowledged that Aalto, Asplund, and Wright were all major influences. Over the next decade, Jørn Utzon traveled extensively, visiting Morocco, Mexico, the United States, China, Japan, India, and Australia, the latter destined to become a major factor in his life.

All of the trips had significance, and Utzon himself described ideas he learned from Mexico:

    "As an architectonic element, the platform is fascinating. I lost my heart to it on a trip to Mexico in 1949, where I found a rich variety of both size and idea, and where many platforms stand alone, surrounded by nothing but untouched nature.

    "All the platforms in Mexico are placed very sensitively in the landscape, always the creations of a brilliant idea. They radiate a huge force. You feel the firm ground beneath you, as when standing on a great cliff. Let me give you an example of the power in this idea. Yucatan is a flat lowland area covered by an impenetrable jungle which everywhere attains a certain height.

    "The Maya people used to live in this jungle in villages surrounded by small cultivated clearings. On all sides, and also above, there was the hot, humid, green jungle. No great views, no vertical movements. But by building up the platform on a level with the roof of the jungle, these people had suddenly conquered a new dimension that was a worthy place for the worship of their gods. They built their temples on these high platforms, which can be as much as a hundred metres long. From here, they had the sky, the clouds and the breeze, and suddenly the roof of the jungle was transformed into a great, open plain.

    "By means of this architectonic device they had completely transformed the landscape and presented their eyes with a grandeur that corresponded to the grandeur of their gods. The wonderful experience of going from the denseness of the jungle to the vast openness above the platform is still there today.

    "It is like the liberation you feel up here in the Nordic lands when, after weeks of rain, cloud and darkness, you suddenly emerge into the sunlight again."

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