Jørn Utzon | Denmark

Medal Awarded: 1982

Jury 1982

Aarno Ruusuvuori, Chair, Finland
Juhani Pallasmaa, Finland
Kirmo Mikkola, Finland
Jaakko Numminen, Finland
Henning Larsen, Denmark
Roland Schweitzer, France

“During a career that has lasted nearly four decades, Utzon has not been satisfied with creating a personal style, but rather has started each work from a clean slate. Despite his individuality and uniqueness, his buildings have opened up new perspectives onto the possibilities of building and many of his works represent conceptions of space, form, structure and light that are unprecedented in the history of architecture.”
An excerpt from the statement of the jury 1982

Jørn Utzon (1918–2008)

Jørn Utzon, who is known for his sculptural concrete architecture and was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto, may be considered the most significant Danish architect of the twentieth century. His output is not particularly extensive, but his influence on the international development of modernism is indisputable.

Utzon was born in Copenhagen in 1918. He initially aimed to follow in his father’s footsteps as a naval architect, but ended up studying architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Graduating in 1942, Utzon fled the war to Sweden, where he worked in the offices of Hakon Ahlberg and Gunnar Asplund among others. In 1945, he also worked for a short stint at Alvar Aalto’s office in Helsinki before returning to Copenhagen and opening his own office. During the following decade he travelled to Morocco, the United States, Mexico, China, Japan, India and eventually Australia. These voyages expanded the influences visible in Utzon’s work beyond Nordic modernism. In particular, the Mexican way of using horizontal platforms in construction, which stems from the Maya culture, had a great impact on his and carried over into his own work. Unique characteristics of Islamic architecture are also repeated in Utzon’s designs.

Utzon scored his best-known competition victory in Sydney, Australia in 1956. His entry was the surprise winner of the international competition for the national Opera House. The design, featuring its recognisable concrete sail shapes opening out toward the harbour, was ahead of its time. Construction began in 1959, but the Opera House was not completed until 1973. Weary of criticism that he faced, Utzon detached himself from the project and returned to Denmark in 1966 before the building’s interior design was completed.

After the Opera House victory, Utzon was offered many international projects in Europe and the Middle East. His proposals for the Madrid Opera House (1962) and a new theatre building in Zürich (1964) repeated Sydney’s familiar fan-like forms that opened like pavilions. In Kuwait’s National Assembly Building (1982), which came about through another competition, these curving forms eventually took on a monumental expression. Before this, Utzon had already designed a bank in Teheran, Iran (1962).

Most of Utzon’s output can be found in Denmark, though. He had a particularly strong influence on the development of dense, low-rise construction in the country. His housing designs bring together unique characteristics of ‘the Danish farmhouse and the Chinese courtyard house. His own home in Hellebæk (1952) and the Middelboe house on Lake Furesø (1953) defined the modern Danish house type, with characteristics that could be repeated and scaled. The ingenious, L-shaped Kingo houses in Helsingør (1956–1960), which follow the shapes of the terrain, are an example of comfortable subsidised housing, where all residents are offered views of the surrounding landscapes from their homes as well as optimal natural light. The Fredensborg houses (1962–1963) are a group of terraced and courtyard homes for state employees who have worked abroad. The design mandate called for the creation of a communal living concept.

Other examples of Utzon’s work in his own country include Bagsværd Church (1977), north of Copenhagen, with cloud-like waves in its ceiling, which was especially important to the architect himself, and the Paustian furniture store (1988), which stands on pillars in Copenhagen. His final project, carried out with his younger son Kim Utzon, was the Utzon Center (2008), an exhibition and research centre for architecture students at Aalborg University.

Alongside his buildings, Utzon designed furniture and glassware, and taught at the University of Hawaii in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s he and his wife moved to Mallorca. There he designed two houses for their own use: the seaside Can Lis (1973) and Can Feliz (1994), at the foot of a mountain.

According to the Medal Committee’s statement, “Utzon’s architecture has simultaneously explored previously-unknown boundaries of architecture and bound the expressive language of new architecture into tradition. His designs include, for instance, earth structures that have been handed down since antiquity and the architectural expression of our time. Nature analogies hold a central place in Utzon’s architecture and world of ideas. His designs seem organically convincing and natural. He has also been able to combine imagination-rich plastic perception to new creative structural thinking and industrial production methods.” The committee praised Utzon for extending his design vision from landscapes and cityscapes to the design of interior objects. As a particular rationale for the awarding of the Alvar Aalto Medal, the jury mentioned the similarities between Utzon’s architectural vision and creative approach and Aalto’s life work.

© Alvar-Aalto Medal 2019