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Jorn Utzon uses his hands to explain Opera House design
Jørn Utzon uses his hands to explain his design for the glass walls in time lapse. Image: Jozef Vissel

Who was Jørn Utzon?

And what were the influences that formed him?

Like many architects, Jørn Utzon had initially entered the competition to design Sydney’s opera house to exercise his ideas. He was surprised to learn he had won.

Born in 1918 in Copenhagen, Utzon grew up in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Despite the enormous disruption wrought by the conflict, modernity was already beginning to remodel the landscape of 20th century Europe.

By 1956, the year of his opera house competition entry, Utzon had inherited broadly from the artistic, cultural and scientific revolutions that arose out of this immense period of change.

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 – a champion of modernism – affected them deeply.

“My parents returned home completely carried away by the new ideas and thoughts. They soon commenced redoing our home,” Utzon would later tell Henrik Sten Møller in Living Architecture. “The concept was space and light. All of the heavy, unpractical furniture was moved out and simple things were brought in.” 

In 1945, Utzon worked briefly with the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who was himself deeply inspired by Gunnar Asplund.

“Asplund is the father of modern Scandinavian architecture,” Utzon would later say. “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.”

The Red Book sydney opera house drawing by utzon
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Sydney Opera House: Inspirations

Google Cultural Institute

Lis Utzon in the family home outside Hellebæk
Lis Utzon in the family home outside Hellebæk, Denmark Image: Jørn Utzon, State Library of New South Wales

Both Aalto and Asplund combined the traditions of Nordic classicism with emerging modernist principles, a fusion that proved 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.

Jørn Utzon noted “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.” 

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.

“Asplund in Sweden and Aalto in Finland possess something beyond pure functionalism... It is called poetry.”
Jørn Utzon

Read ‘Construction Begins’

Stage One and the Podium

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Construction site at Bennelong Point. Image: Jørn Utzon, State Library of NSW