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, Mies van der Rohe and designer Charles Eames. He also met Eero Saarinen, who would go on to become one of the judges of the competition to design the Sydney Opera House.
In South America, he was deeply impressed by Aztec and Mayan ruins. Utzon imagined how these temples would have lifted people above their daily lives to a transcendent plateau where, beneath the clouds and sky, they could commune with their gods.
All of these influences would shape Utzon’s designs for the Sydney Opera House – the building embodies his mastery in fusing craft traditions and ancient architecture with modernist thinking.
In preparing his entry for the Opera House competition, Utzon pored over nautical maps of Sydney Harbour to get a sense of the landscape. He was influenced by Kronborg Castle near his home in Hellebaek, immortalised as Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Poised on a promontory on the strait between Denmark and Sweden, this Renaissance castle would provide a natural point of reference in imagining Bennelong Point on the other side of the world.
Unique among the entries, Utzon’s entry placed the concert halls side by side, their shell-shaped roofs cantilevering out over the end of Bennelong Point, evoking Sydney’s cliffs and the sails on its harbour. It was a sculptural response to both the competition guidelines and the location, and was alone in fully realising the potential of its unique harbourside location.
Inspired by the judges’ 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. In the middle of construction he was forced to resign, as he saw it, by circumstances involving the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes.