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Children lined up against a brick wall.

Beijing through the eyes of Jørn Utzon

How China influenced the Opera House

Matthew Drummond

How Jørn Utzon saw the world – literally and figuratively – will be revealed in a major new exhibition featuring films shot by the architect as he travelled between Denmark and Australia in the late 1950s, as he worked on designs of the Sydney Opera House.

The rarely seen footage shows architecture, landscapes and cities in India, Nepal, China, Japan and the US. Parts of one film, showing landmark buildings and street scenes in Beijing in 1958, has been shared with the Sydney Opera House by the Utzon Archive and Utzon Center in Denmark.

Utzon was famously inspired by Aztec and Mayan ruins. Less known is the inspiration he drew from traditional Chinese architecture.

“Broadly speaking, traditional Chinese architecture was very inspiring to him,” said Lin Utzon, Jørn Utzon’s daughter. She said that her father, in designing the tiles used on the Opera House’s shells, had been inspired by the ‘engobe’ technique of glazing bowls and tiles. “The technique was used in China and has been used in Japan for very special kind of pottery. Its irregularity was used as an advantage,” she said.

Broadly speaking, traditional Chinese architecture was very inspiring to him.

Lin Utzon

Utzon's extensive itinerary was highly unusual for the times. The exhibition, organised by the Utzon Center and due to open in April 2018 to mark 100 years since the architect's birth, highlights how these voyages informed his approach to architecture.

“As he went through north Africa, central America and the Middle East, the Pacific and made his way to Australia he went from Nordic functionalism to a distilled creative language that was uniquely his intuition,” said Lasse Andersson, Director of the Utzon Center . “He started to look at symbolic meanings and creative metaphors as well as transcontinental themes.”

Lin Utzon said the Opera House combined the many things her father loved about different civilisations, including the Mayan and Aztec ruins he visited in Mexico, which famously inspired the podium upon which the Opera House stands.

Lin Utzon also recalled how life changed when her father, then aged 38 and comparatively unknown, won the competition to design the Opera House.

“It was a very happy time for me. My parents were deeply devoted to the creative life. To grow up in a home where there was the kind of energy of people making things, it was fabulous. It gives you as a child a feeling that life is possible, and you have a lot of courage to go out and eat life and do things, because it’s possible.”

The exhibition, provisionally titled Utzon – 100 years in the Architect’s Footsteps, is due to open in Denmark in April 2018 and will move to Sydney in time for the 45th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Opera House in October 2018.