By Richard Weston

May 27, 2002 /
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His work will live as long as architecture is valued, and his ultimate legacy is ethical, not formal: a way of working, not a repertoire of form./Richard Weston

The Sydney Opera House is the most celebrated modern building in the world yet it's architect has always shunned publicity and remain the least well known of the major modern architects.

Richard Weston's book, subtitled "Inspiration - Vision - Architecture", finally opens the door to Utzon's techniques and creative processes.

Observations and anecdotes by Utzon, supplemented with a wealth of sketches and drawings from his personal archives, draws the reader into the amazing visionary world of one of the greatest living architects.

Utzon himself... 
An instinctive builder who liked to work "at the edge of the possible" Utzon has little interest in abstract theory, preferring to explore the concrete possibilities of materials as means of giving expression to his ideas. Utzon is a visionary who draws his deepest inspiration from nature and from his many travels in Mexico and the far east.

"My laboratory is the beach, the forest, the sea and seashore..."

utzon-3 Bagsværd Church sketch

For Bagsværd Church Utzon captured his idea for the church in two sketches showing the transformation from a gathering on the beach to a congregation framed by an abstract landscape of tree-like columns and "cloud-vaults", realized as thin-shell concrete structures. Utzon's idea was inspired by regular, Trade Wind driven clouds he saw whilst lying on a beach in Hawaii.

utzon-4 Photo: arcspace
Bagsværd Church interior

Seeing the great Mayan temple complexes on a study trip to Yucatán in 1949 was a revelation and a vital capalyst for Utzon in the development of the platform as an organizing idea and the use of the ranges of steps as public spaces.

Both would eventually be seen at their grandest in Sydney Opera House.





Platforms and "Floating" forms - real and abstract clouds, chinese roof - associated by Utzon with the Opera House.

"As an architectonic element, the platform is fascinating. I lost my heart to it while on a study trip in Mexico.

By building the platforms on the level of the roof of the jungle, the Mayans had suddenly conquered a new dimension that was a worthy place for the worship of their gods. From here, they had the sky, the clouds and the breeze, and suddenly, the roof of the jungle was transformed into a great open plane."

Sketch from Monte Albán


In the competition for the Madrid Opera House the platform reasserted itself as an almost free-standing element. The roof is a variant on the folded-plate structures which fascinated Utzon. Seen in cross-section it appears almost literally to be in the process of unfolding.

Airport drawing.

A theoretical sketch for an airport, made to demonstrate the power of the platform as an organisational device. The conventional "Finger Plan" for an airport was to be revolutionized by separating passengers and "services" in much the same way as the platform in Sydney housed all the "back stage" spaces.

The decisive projects early in Utzon's career were his own house (1952) in Denmark and a competition design for the Langelinie Pavilion in Copenhagen the following year.


Utzon's account of the design of his own house amounts to an epigrammatic philosophy of architecture, containing many insights into his ideas which would inform the rest of his work, as well as fascinating details about the house itself.

The house, secluded on the large forested property, sits on a low brick platform and unfolds between parallel wall-planes, with the living space pinwheeling around the fireplace/kitchen area.


Entered between almost blank walls, the house opens up to the south and command a view down a small, shallow valley.

With his wife Lis he camped on the site for several month, to save money and to be sure to find the perfect spot.

"We started with a couple of full-scale models made of canvas and board, which gave us an impression of our 130 square meters and the possibilities there were for contact with the natural spaces around us; sun, view, shelter and so on......"

utzon-14 Photo: Bent Ryberg/Planet Foto

With his design and response to the brief and the site, for the competition for the Langelinie Pavilion in Copenhagen, Utzon emerged as an architect of striking originality.

The brief called for a restaurant and entertainment facilities on a prominent site lying between the waterfront and the impressive, moated remains of the baroque fortifications around the castle which lay at the heart of the medieval city by "The Little Mermaid"; the city's greatest attraction. Utzon climbed the rigging of a ship and discovered you only had to be a few stories up to capture a panorama of the city's famous spires and domes.

utzon-15Photo: Helge Hjertholm

The tower brings to mind forms as diverse as trees, pagodas and bracket fungi..


As the pavilion rose to its full height, the floors stepped back in groups, narrower mezzanine levels created double-height spaces, and the dramatically cantilevered floors stepped down to ensure that the inner circles could enjoy the view over the heads of their fellow diners. The accomodation culminated in a roof-top viewing terrace through which the core emerged and, as if released from the constraints below, flared out in triumph.

Utzon, like Aalto did, understands the endless variety nature can generate from a modest number of elements; he likens it to adding more trees to a forest or more deer to a heard.

"The true innermost being of architecture can be compared with that of nature's seed, and something of inevitability of nature's principle of growth ought to be a fundamental concept in architecture."

utzon-17 Photo: Arne Magnusses & Vibeke Maj Magnussen
The additive principle was implicit in his courtyard housing schemes, where both bricks and individual houses formed the units of repetition at different scales, much as they did in the Islamic cities he loved.

The courtyard form fascinated Utzon and had roots in traditional Danish farm buildings as well as the Chinese and Islamic cultures from which he derived so much inspiration.


For the state funded Kingo houses, intended for low-paid workers and teachers, Utzon developed two basic house types withih a 15 meter square enclosure, and his site plan made the most of the varied topography and pond, by stringing an unbroken, contour-hugging, ribbon of houses along the higher ground to the north and placing two clusters to the south.


Utzon was striving to make the houses as similar, and as individual, as the cherry flowers he had hear Alvar Aalto talk about. He thought to emulate this organic variety by varying the courtyard walls to admit sun and provide shade, views and enclosure in response to the individual houses positions on the site and relationship to nature.

Previously unpublished projects, like the Silkeborg Art Museum, together with innovative designs for furniture, glassware and lamps, shed new light on his development.

The Utsep furniture for public spaces were inspired by the relaxed, informal arrangements Utzon observed in birds on telegraph wires and people in Paris.




In 1971 the seclusion loving Utzons moved to Majorca and built a house on, Paradise, a cliff-top site. Utzon named the house Can Lis in honor of his wife.


During work on the Kuwait National Assembly (1970's), Utzon began practising with his architect sons Jan and Kim under the title Utzon Associates.

The book is not a "complete works" but it is comprehensive and contain all the buildings, objects and designs Utzon especially values, and others which enrich our understanding of the range and development of his ideas.

The book is not a "complete works" but it is comprehensive and contain all the buildings, objects and designs Utzon especially values, and others which enrich our understanding of the range and development of his ideas.

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Publisher: Edition Bløndal

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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