Jørn Utzon was one of the truly great architects of the 20th century, says John Pardey
Jørn Utzon’s name is synonymous with the Sydney Opera House, and after the furore over his departure from the project, so is the inference that the architect is a maverick – a dreamer who allows the programme and budget to run away with him. Despite the countless words that have been written on the Sydney Opera House affair, the truth is still debated. But one thing is clear: just as the Pyramids define Egypt and the Eiffel Tower defines Paris, Australia owes much of its national identity to the Opera House, possibly the greatest single building of the 20th century.
Talking to Utzon, who died on 29 November, about the Opera House and the events that led to him leaving the project in 1966, I expected him to be bitter and to place the blame on the politicians who undermined his position. But Utzon, I discovered, never spoke ill of anyone, preferring to see challenges as part of life’s education. A sadness remained that he had not been able to finish his building, however, and recent overtures from Australia asking him to oversee various changes to the building were designed with, and overseen by, his architect son. When asked if he would welcome his interiors finally being built, he simply said too much time had passed and he would approach the problem differently now.
Far from being a dreamer, Utzon was an architect with an incisive understanding of the practicalities of building and engineering. After all it was he, not the engineers, who had the crucial insight that allowed the construction of the shells of the Opera House. He had a genius that could translate billowing clouds over the beach in Hawaii into the vaults above his sublime Bagsværd Community Church in Denmark, or could create a house, as with Can Lis (pictured below), from the pattern of birds settling on a cliff-top in Majorca.
Even in his 90s, Utzon was an elegant man with a ‘marvellous’ (his favourite word) sense of humour. He was not reclusive or shy as is often reported, merely intensely private. He was inseparable from his wife Lis, whom he met on his birthday back in April 1940 – the day Germany invaded Denmark. They married two years later and spent the next 66 years together.
As with the loss of all great people, I find it hard to imagine a world without Utzon. Perhaps his architecture can be best described in the words of Alvar Aalto: ‘Architecture still has untapped resources and methods that draw directly on nature and the reactions of the human psyche, which cannot be explained in words.’
John Pardey is director of John Pardey Architects and author of Utzon: Two Houses on Majorca (Edition Bløndal, 2004)