01 December 2008

Jørn Utzon (1918-2008)

When the New South Wales government decided it wanted an opera house, they went on an international search for its architect. Jørn Utzon's submission in the design contest broke several rules for entries, but was selected nonetheless due to its originality and majestic design. At the time, his submission was little more than rough sketches, lacking detail and specific plans for construction and cost, but it was clear that this was the building to house the new opera house.

However, the design proved problematic when it came time to actually build it. They could not figure out how to construct the shells that would make up the roof without making them too heavy or too complex. It was such a problem that it nearly wiped out the project in the middle of construction. But Utzon himself found the solution while eating an orange. The shells would be based on sections of a sphere, allowing for mass production of the elements and keeping the weight, and cost, at a reasonable level.

Despite the international acclaim the Opera House receives today, including World Heritage status, it was very controversial during its construction, with Utzon himself eventually being forced off the project by the newly elected Liberal government looking to cut costs and leverage for power. At the official opening of the Opera House, Utzon was not even mentioned. Utzon returned to Denmark and never returned to see his most famous design.

However, over the last decade, the Sydney Opera House has again reached out to Utzon, naming him as an advisor on the future development of the Opera House. And although Jørn Utzon has still never returned to Sydney, his son Jan, also an architect, has, where he works in conjunction with his father on the other side of the world. Some have again criticized Jørn, questioning how he can work on the Opera House without having ever seen the finished building. He responded by saying that he carries the Opera House with him in the same way a composer carries his music in his mind.

Jørn Utzon, Danish architect and designer of the Sydney Opera House, died in his sleep in Copenhagen on November 29. The Australian icon of Danish design reigns over the world's most beautiful harbour as his legacy to the world.

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