Jørn Utzon

Aalto’s colleague was a master of light

Danish architect Jørn Utzon (9 Apr 1918 – 29 Nov 2008) is best known for designing the Sydney Opera House, even though he abandoned the project before its completion.

Utzon participated in the design competition having read about it in a Swedish architecture magazine. To his surprise, he won the competition in 1957, in part thanks to the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who served on the competition jury. Saarinen found Utzon’s scheme among those that had already been rejected, and declared him the winner.

The same year that Utzon won the Sydney competition he also created another classic, the lamp known as U336, whose white colour and shield-like shape represent the same design idiom as the opera house.

Utzon, who received the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, is considered world-wide a master of original design and light, one who had his roots deep in Nordic modernism.

Jørn Utzon was born in Copenhagen into the family of a naval engineer. One of three children, young Utzon helped his father in the design and construction of boats, spending much time with the workers of the shipyard. The work with shipbuilding in his youth provided inspiration later when Utzon was searching for his own, personal design idiom.

After graduating from the Faculty of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1942, Utzon travelled to Stockholm to work with the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund. After the war, in 1946, Utzon worked in the office of Alvar Aalto where he assimilated the latter’s functionalist and aesthetic ideas.

Jørn Utzon’s son, architect Jan Utzon, recalls how working in Aalto’s office affected his father’s career. “There is no doubt that the time he spent with Alvar Aalto had an influence on the design of the U336 lamp, and on his design work in general. The atmosphere in the office also had an important impact on his later career as an architect and a designer.”

In the 1950s, Utzon founded his own practice in Copenhagen, designing buildings and homes around the world. He travelled widely, not only in the United States, but also in Europe, Mexico and China, always searching new solutions for his work.

In 1982 Utzon was awarded the Alvar Aalto Medal in recognition of his significant contribution to creative architecture. In its citation, the jury noted that Utzon had in his work preserved the humane, universal and inspiring legacy of Alvar Aalto.