Today marks what would have been the 100th birthday of the leading Danish architect, Jørn Utzon. Notably responsible for what could be argued to be the most prominent building in the world, the Sydney Opera House, Utzon accomplished what many architects can only dream of: a global icon. To celebrate this special occasion, Louisiana Channel has collaborated with the Utzon Center in Aalborg, Denmark to put together a video series to hear prominent architects and designers talk, including Bjarke Ingels and Renzo Piano, about their experiences with Utzon and his work—from his unrivalled visual awareness of the world, to his uncompromising attitude that led him to create such strong architectural statements.
Unlike many architects around at the time of Jørn Utzon, who as modernists rejected tradition in favour of new technologies and orthogonal plans, Utzon combined these usually contradictory qualities in an exceptional manner. As the architects recount, he was a globalist with a Nordic base, that has inspired the next generation to travel the world and challenge their concepts. Many of them compare his work to Alvar Aalto’s, as both shared an organic approach to architecture, looking at growth patterns in nature for inspiration. Utzon even coined this approach "Additive Architecture," whereby both natural and cultural forms are united to form buildings that are designed more freely.
Fellow Danish architect Bjarke Ingels illustrates how the Sydney Opera House has come to be a landmark synonymous with an entire continent. In its unapologetically modern style, Ingels explains that “the Sydney Opera House is probably the ultimate building,” due to Utzon’s influences from across the world, including archaic gothic vaults, Chinese pagodas and Aztec temples.
As a great admirer of Sydney Opera House and Utzon, Ingels acknowledges the great hardship that he went through to achieve the momentous building: “It was born out of incredible misery,” he says, adding that “everything was a disaster, but the final result was somehow worth all of the sacrifice and all of the hardship in order to get there.”
As Jørn Utzon’s senior assistant for seven years, Oktay Nayman has many stories to tell about his time working with him on the Sydney Opera House and the Kuwait National Assembly Building. One of his fondest memories of Utzon was how he unconventionally educated him as a young assistant by sending him off on a month of summer holidays to visit Alvar Aalto with a book and a bottle of brandy. The Turkish architect says he owes much of what he knows about architecture to Utzon, as his colorful imagination and ability to “see more than other people” acted as a source of inspiration to how he perceives the world.
Hans Munk Hansen
Hans Munk Hansen was a dear friend and collegue of Jørn Utzon, who often accompanied him on his trips around the world. The two of them shared a joint passion for the Middle East and usually found themselves not talking about architecture but the cultures surrounding them. In this video, Hansen explains the many places that Utzon was influenced from as he was often late to work after stumbling upon something in the forest.
Hansen also touches upon the fixed ideas that Utzon developed throughout his career. He took a similar approach to many of his buildings, although how they adapted to the landscape and the function of the house made them all very different.
“Architecture is a funny combination of precision and fantasy. Fantasy is interesting but it is not enough.” Fellow Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano talks about Jørn Utzon’s ability to connect the ideas of precision and the ephemeral in a poetic form: “I always admired everything about him: stubbornness—the famous stubbornness—but also the desire to find rational things, geometrical constructions. And at the same time the fantasy of understanding vision.”
Spanish architect Rafael Moneo is also Pritzker Prize winner who in his early career worked with Utzon for a year whilst he was working on the Sydney Opera House. Despite the difficulties Utzon incurred concerning the Sydney Opera House, Moneo recalls how he was always secure in himself: “He always kept his calm. He had this condition of an almost heroic figure.”
In the video, Moneo explains how he felt his work was an extension of his personality, that there was a continuity between the two as he ensured his projects had real substance.
Both Hiroshi Sambuichi and Jørn Utzon share a mutual interest in their natural surroundings that can be seen translated into their architecture, although Sambuichi feels that their approaches were very different. In the video he says how he would be interested to hear what Utzon would have to say if they had the opportunity to talk in the 21st century.
In the video he compares experiencing the same overwhelming feeling for both the Sydney Opera House and the Miyajima Itsukushima Shrine from his childhood: “If I were to choose two places, it would be this old and this modern one.” Sambuichi further recounts his stay at Utzon’s house in Mallorca, Can Lis, where he was fortunate to stay for three nights and experience the full moon.
Louis Becker was first introduced to Jørn Utzon when he was working for an electrician as a youth. He was lucky enough to be working on Utzon and his wife’s home and instantly noticed that the house was special. From then on and during his architecture career, Becker has admired Utzon’s mystical qualities as the buildings he produces appear effortless.
Becker talks about the private process Utzon went through with each project that led him to appear uncompromising and perhaps distant, although as he explains: “but we don't know, because if you’re a mystic, we wouldn’t know if there are compromises in what’s produced. I think sometimes we assign things to Utzon, which aren’t there.”
Juhani Pallasmaa has been following Jørn Utzon’s work ever since he first won the Sydney Opera House in 1957. Comparing his architecture to that of the present which he describes as “visual one-liners,” Pallasmaa feels Utzon’s work echoes history and has developed a depth that only a few other architects, such as Aalto, have achieved. Behind him, Utzon has left a legacy that puts the importance back onto tradition and a cultural continuum.
Jan Gehl met Jørn Utzon only indirectly in the 1950s when he was still attending architecture school, but the impression he left was far from meagre. Later on in his life, Gehl had the opportunity to work closely with Sydney town planning where he experienced the strong Danish heritage Utzon had left behind in the city and always found himself moved by the Sydney Opera House: “I’ve particularly taken pleasure in that Opera House and in seeing how now, 60 years later, it’s still so beautiful. It’s a building that’s patinated in a wonderful way. Every time it rains, it’s cleaned and shines anew.”
Lene Tranberg believes that Jørn Utzon has had an impact on her entire generation. After studying his contemporaries, she explains that she always finds herself coming back to him for his fundamental and interesting approach to architecture: “he understands how to work with metaphors so that each building is embedded with fantastic narratives,” she says.
Tranberg talks not only about Utzon’s magnificent Sydney Opera House but his lesser known, and equally intriguing, Can Lis in Mallorca that she recently visited. At the house, she ended up laying on the floor to discover the building from a completely different aspect as she explains that “it’s never the same thing that catches your eye,” following that “he totally disregarded the architectural norms. He just did what he thought was right, and it’s so convincing.”
Johansen Skovsted Arkitekter
The Danish architect duo of Soren Johansen and Sebastian Skovsted study the places Jørn Utzon traveled around the world in search of architecture that shared Utzon's existential desire to explore our position in the universe: “it’s admirable that it’s not just about the location in relation to its surroundings, but also the location in a larger context. We’re on Earth underneath the sun, the moon and the stars.”
Necessity and survival were also a common theme the pair found, as he visited vernacular structures that hadn’t required an architect after being developed over hundreds of years such as mill wheel or the Bedouin way of camping. Through this, Johansen and Skovsted explain that Utzon viewed architecture on a broader scale across many civilizations rather than taking the naïve Eurocentric view.