Page N1.2 . 16 April 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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Jørn Utzon Pritzker Prize


Eclectic Roots

One way to explain this lineage is through the education and early influences of Utzon, now 85 years old. In addition to having an innate talent discovered by his art teachers early on, Utzon was inspired by his father, a brilliant naval architect, and by a cousin who was a sculptor. One of his architecture professors was Steen Eiler Rasmussen, author of the insightful Experiencing Architecture.

During World War II, Utzon was employed in the Stockholm office of Hakon Ahlberg; later he went to Finland to work with Alvar Aalto. He also came to admire the ideas of Gunnar Asplund and Frank Lloyd Wright. He is, perhaps, one of the last of the generation of architects who, during the formative stages of their career, studied with these original master form-givers of 20th-century architecture.

Utzon's work was further influenced by extensive travel and by Mayan, Chinese, Japanese, and Islamic traditions as well as his own Scandinavian roots. The Pritzker jury notes that he "combines these more ancient heritages with his own balanced discipline, a sense of architecture as art, and natural instinct for organic structures related to site conditions."

In the Yucatan, he was awed by Mayan platforms — built up to rise above the jungle canopy — on which they constructed their temples. He borrowed this idea for the platform on Sydney Harbour, on which he placed his opera house.

Pritzker juror Ada Louise Huxtable said of Utzon's being selected: "It has taken half a century to understand the true path of architecture in our time, to pick up the threads of continuity and the signposts to the future, to recognize the broader and deeper meaning of 20th-century work that has been subjected to doctrinaire modernist criticism and classification, or tabled as history."

Huxtable continues: "In this light, the work of Jørn Utzon takes on a particular richness and significance. In a 40-year practice, each commission displays a continuing development of ideas both subtle and bold, true to the teaching of early pioneers of a 'new' architecture, but that cohere in a prescient way, most visible now, to push the boundaries of architecture toward the present."

Sydney Opera House

The famous opera house is actually a collection of performance spaces, under white-tiled, sail-shaped concrete vaults. Sitting on Bennelong Point, jutting out into Sydney Harbour, the unforgettable forms have come to be recognized as representing Australia as surely as the Eiffel Tower represents Paris.

Unfortunately, the citizens of Sydney originally reacted much the same as the Parisians did at first to their new structure. Though universally admired today, the Sydney Opera House was designed and built amid controversy. Utzon entered a design competition for the project in 1957 and initially failed to make the finalist list. However, championed by jury member Eero Saarinen, Utzon's scheme eventually emerged as the winner.

For the next nine years, Utzon worked in Sydney on design development and the start of construction. He collaborated successfully with engineer Ove Arup in shaping and detailing the distinctive shell vaults.

As documented in Contemporary Architects, edited by Muriel Emanuel, "... by virtue of [the shells'] shape, their mass is placed where it is most advantageous structurally. Thus the design is the result of a successful integration of the work of an architect and an engineer who together produced an unforgettable architectural image."

Nevertheless, the project was plagued with problems from all sides. There was popular opposition to the radical design concept, and Utzon was the victim of political power plays. Complaints arose that the design was inadequately documented in drawings, though most of Utzon's initial design creativity was expressed through models.

The cost, initially estimated at Australian $7 million based on insufficient data, skyrocketed eventually to over $100 million. The time needed for construction grew from an initial estimate of five years to 14. Even today complaints remain about some acoustical properties of the performance halls and inadequacy of support spaces.   >>>

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The great tile sails of the Sydney Opera House by Pritzker Prize Laureate Jørn Utzon.
Photo: David Messent

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The Sydney Opera House was built on a platform on the edge of Sydney Harbour.
Photo: David Messent

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The Sydney Opera House seen from above.
Photo: David Messent

ArchWeek Image

The opera house with the city of Sydney in the background.
Photo: David Messent

ArchWeek Image

The Sydney Opera House during construction.
Photo: John Garth/ Max Dupain

ArchWeek Image

Construction workers for the Sydney Opera House.
Photo: John Garth/ Max Dupain

ArchWeek Image

Inside one of the sail-shaped vaults during construction.
Photo: John Garth/ Max Dupain

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The Education Centre Prototype House in Herning, Denmark, by Jørn Utzon.
Photo: Bent Ryberg / Planet Foto


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