Jorn utzonThe architect of Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon was a relatively unknown 38 year old Dane until January 29, 1957 when his entry, was announced winner of the ‘International competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney’. With his vision the City of Sydney was to become an international city.

Family life

Jørn Utzon was born on April 9, 1918 in Copenhagen. His father was a naval architect and engineer and director of the local shipyard. A keen sailor, Utzon originally intended to follow his father as a naval engineer, but opted to study Architecture at the Copenhagen Royal Academy of Arts. On graduating in 1942, he worked in Sweden until the end of World War II.

In 1956 the New South Wales Premier, Joe Cahill, announced an international competition for the design of an opera house for Sydney. The competition attracted more than 200 entries from around the world. After having won a number of smaller architectural competitions, Utzon submitted his vision for the Sydney Opera House to the New South Wales Government.

The competition entry

Utzon’s competition entry was a schematic design, clearly explaining the concept for the building. The sketches and “geometrically undefined” curves of course needed to be developed for the building to be built. This is quite normal for competition projects. Utzon himself was sure it could be built and in the pioneering spirit present in Sydney at the time, construction went ahead.

It was Utzon’s life and travels that had shaped his ideas for the Sydney Opera House. Though he had never visited the site, he used his maritime background to study naval charts of Sydney harbour. His early exposure to shipbuilding provided the inspiration for the Sydney Opera House ‘sails’ and would also help him solve the challenges of their construction.

Construction of the podium began on 2 March 1959 with a ground breaking ceremony presided over by NSW Premier Joe Cahill. Over several years Utzon gradually made changes from his original concept designs in order to develop a way to construct the large shells that cover the two halls. After extensive testing, a design based on the complex sections of a sphere was produced.

Sydney Opera HouseFrom 1964 the pre-cast rib vaults of the shells began to be erected on the completed podium. The construction of the roof brought together some of the world’s best construction engineers and craftsmen for this complex stage of the project, devising new and innovative techniques to find the goal of architectural perfection. Although Utzon had spectacular plans for the interior of the completed shells he was unable to realise this part of his design.

When Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973, Utzon was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Architects Australia but was not present at the opening ceremony.

In 1999 the NSW Government and Sydney Opera House Trust were delighted to be able to reunite the man and his masterpiece.

Utzon said in 2002,

“My job is to articulate the overall vision and detailed design principles for the site, and for the form of the building and its interior. I like to think the Sydney Opera House is like a musical instrument, and like any fine instrument, it needs a little maintenance and fine tuning, from time to time, if it is to keep on performing at the highest level.”

In 2003, the same year the Opera House celebrated its 30th birthday, Jørn Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, the highest award in its field. A year later on 16 September 2004, the NSW Premier Bob Carr officially opened the newly refurbished Reception Hall, renamed the Utzon Room. Utzon said it was the greatest honour he could ever receive. “It gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don’t think you can give me more joy as the architect.

In March 2006, at a ceremony, The Queen formally recognise the building’s visionary architect, Jørn Utzon. Jan Utzon represented his father, said his father

“lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it.”

Utzon’s work included collaborating on the Accessibility and Western Foyers Project, completed in 2009, which has greatly improved accessibility for visitors to Sydney Opera House. He also created concept designs for a more extreme interior renewal project, which principally aims to alleviate some of the current constraints in staging and performance in the Opera Theatre.

Jørn Utzon died peacefully in his sleep in Copenhagen on 29 November 2008 aged 90. His legacy lives on through the World Heritage listed Sydney Opera House and his Design Principles as a permanent record of his vision for the place, as well as the many other magnificent structures he designed around the world.

Adapted from

Learn more about Jørn Utzon and his work with the Sydney Opera House here