Plateaus, Platforms and Billowing Clouds

By Carter, Brian | Scandinavian Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Plateaus, Platforms and Billowing Clouds


Carter, Brian, Scandinavian Review


These were words once used to describe Jorn Utzon 's monumental design for the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Now the famous 85-year-old Dane has been named the 2003 laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in his profession.

THE CONTRIBUTION OF JORN UTZONTO the development of modern architecture is focused on a small group of buildings, but his nomination for the 2003 Pritzker Prize, the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize, highlights a renewed appreciation of the importance of that work and the ideas embedded within it.

Born in Denmark in 1918 and with a significant part of his professional education, experience and built work there, he is obviously first and foremost a Scandinavian architect. His role in the advancement of a tradition of modern architecture, however, is not limited to that setting. Utzon is a committed advocate for the greater understanding of natural landscape, vernacular building and the inherent characteristics of materials. His ideas have been influential in tempering the radical modernism that created an international style advanced by architects enthusiastic to explore the potential of the machine and the capacity of industry earlier in the twentieth century with a pragmatic humanism.

On receiving the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in London in 1978, Utzon spoke of the influence of Scandinavia and how "my family of architects goes back; and [Gunnar] Asplund in Sweden and [Alvar] Aalto in Finland have something more than pure functionalism, they have sometimes what I would call spiritual superstructure." He went on to describe how, for him, this superstructure "makes each building represent exactly the life within the building. For instance, in the courthouse in Goteborg by Asplund, you feel comfortable. You feel you will experience justice; it's a friendly, warm, relaxed building. In his famous crematorium, he takes care of the bereaved." It was, he reaffirmed, these two architects who were his teachers.

Utzon also identified other important influences. The son of a naval architect, he was also a frequent visitor to the shipyards, where he watched many of the large steel ships and yachts that his father had designed actually being built. He has spoken of how these were places where "in principle there was nothing that could not be done" and of his realization, through the observation of these processes, of the value of geometrical systems. Both were to be insights that informed his own work.

Inspiration and Encouragement

After graduating from the Royal Academy in Copenhagen in 1942, Utzon went to Sweden where he joined the architect Paul Hedquist in Stockholm. He later moved to Helsinki to work for Alvar Aalto and, after the end of World War II, returned to Denmark, where together with the architect and architectural historian Tobias Faber, he established his first practice. Later other Scandinavians were to play important roles in the development of his professional career-the Finnish-American Eero Saarinen, who was an influential juror for the Sydney Opera House competition; the engineer Ove Arup; Sverre Fehn, the Norwegian with whom he collaborated on several different occasions; and the artist and leading member of the Situationist International, Asger Jorn. Each offered inspiration and encouragement at different times. All of them were important in the development of Utzon's work that first took root in Denmark but subsequently was designed for sites across the world.

Utzon was to travel widely before receiving his international commissions. In 1948 a trip to Morocco provided the young architect with an opportunity to study vernacular building in North Africa. A year later, with the help of a scholarship, he traveled extensively in the United States. This was to be a trip that, enabled Utzon not only to see the work of influential architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, but also to meet those architects face to face. …

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