Monday, December 1, 2008

Joern Utzon 1918 - 2008

Joern Utzon died in his sleep on November 29, 2008, aged 90. He was a Dane, a beautiful Dane.

The Danes are remarkable people, who, by whatever process and influence, have evolved a tolerant society where living together in harmony with each other and with nature takes an uncommon precedence over competitive materialism. They are, to even their surprise, voted as the happiest people in the world. You could do worse than say they have learned acceptance.

Already so much has been said and written about Joern Utzon and his most famous landmark, our most worthwhile and valuable added asset (in fact our only worthwhile added asset if you ask me). I would recommend Francoise Fromonot's "Jorn Utzon The Sydney Opera House" , if you can beg, borrow or steal one.

My thoughts on the building, its position, and the major players, from tricked Aborigine (Bennelong) through tricked music visionary (Goosens) and tricked Danish genius, are on record. Elizabeth Farrelly's orbiturary in The Sydney Morning Herald explores the seismic clash of ego and inspiration in her usual detail. The former editor of Architecture Australia, Davina Jackson, reflects clearly and evocatively on the man and his works; read this if nothing else.

Among Utzons many honours, he recieved an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture from The University of Sydney in 2003. with this citation:

Chancellor, I have the honour to present Mr Joern Utzon for the conferring of the degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture (honoris causa).

Today, it is our pleasure to celebrate a special symmetry.
In 1955, Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth, then Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, drew up the conditions of an International Architectural Competition for the design of a new National Opera House at Bennelong Point.

The competition was won by the then almost unknown Danish architect, Joern Utzon, with a beautifully resolved design. Today it is Australia’s principal architectural monument in the most perfect locus of our wonderful harbour. Born in Hellebaek, north of Copenhagen, in 1918 in what is one of the most beautiful regions of Denmark, Joern Utzon was influenced heavily by his father, Aage Utzon, a naval engineer who designed famous double-ended yachts and managed the Aalborg and later the Helsingor shipyards. He was raised in a proud and solidly middle-class design and engineering family. At an early age, Joern designed pendant lamps and designed and built polished half-scale models of yachts.

It was Professor Ashworth’s strategy to compose a brief for the competition such that only an architect of genius could win. By eliminating all but the most essential requirements, Ashworth ensured that this competition could only be won by the strength of the submitted architectural project. Professor Ashworth was an utterly inscrutable Mancunian, who, behind a bluff exterior harboured a longing for a radical project that would overturn Sydney’s tired architectural status quo. By inviting the Finnish-American, Eero Saarinen, and his Manchester contemporary, Sir Leslie Martin, to be his fellow competition jurors, Ashworth all but sealed off the local architectural network.

Utzon understood Ashworth; he revered him and, after winning the competition, he involved Ashworth in all of his design studio work, like a benevolent uncle taking a friendly interest in Utzon’s visionary project, secure in the knowledge that it was his, Ashworth’s strategic genius that enabled it all to happen.

Ashworth loved Utzon: I think that is the right word for his untrammelled belief in this irreverent young Dane. When Utzon wrote to Ashworth from China to tell him that he had, from his protracted study of a Sung Dynasty architectural treatise, found a way through some of the most difficult design issues of the Sydney Opera House, Ashworth immediately went – armed only with a cheap modern reprint that Utzon had sent him – and convinced his Technical Committee that Utzon had made a significant breakthrough. Ashworth trusted Utzon’s interpretation of Chinese construction, enabling the second and third stages of the Opera House to be assembled from prefabricated elements produced onsite at Bennelong Point.

At the moment that the then NSW Minister for Public Works was removing Utzon as architect for the Sydney Opera House in early 1966, the German Architectural Association, in an unprecedented move, was awarding him its Honour Plaque. Joern Utzon was being recognised as one of the outstanding architects of our time, not so much for the quantity of his architectural works but for the unique quality of expression and ability to define place. He has received many other major prizes, including the RIBA Gold Medal, the Alvar Aalto Medal, the Wolf Prize and the Sonning Prize in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of European civilisation.

Joern Utzon has never returned to Australia, yet he has never forsaken his affection for the place and the people he worked with all those years ago. Indeed, by placing his archive in the Mitchell Library and insisting that it remain unembargoed, Utzon has put himself forever in our care and trust. Utzon’s faith in both human nature and the spirit of enquiry lets him give the people of Australia this unique and precious record of his most important work, the Sydney Opera House, knowing that disinterested study of his drawings and models of this now national treasure will, eventually, achieve his halls, glass walls and interiors.

Bennelong Point was always an important site. Utzon revealed that with his wonderful composition of the two performance halls placed side by side on a vast platform, so as to acknowledge both the city and the harbour. We can only guess at what rush of inspiration led him to this design.

Like any great work of art, Joern Utzon’s Sydney Opera House will always challenge our creative intelligence.
By giving us the Sydney Opera House, at tremendous cost to himself, Joern Utzon has made a place for himself in the culture of our country, such that we can now embrace him as a truly great Australian.

Chancellor, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science in Architecture (honoris causa) on Joern Utzon. As Mr Utzon is unable to be with us today, I present to you his son, Jan Utzon, to receive the award on his behalf.

Whatever else is said by whomever, no one speaks to the heart and mind more than Joern Utzon himself. In perhaps his last interview, I'm not sure, he speaks of the development and importance of the Utzon (I like to be on the edge of the possible) Centre, and of life and art, speaking with his hands, face, eyes, and his very Danish wisdom.

Part I 9:32 The Utzon Centre

after the War, life, design, existence alongside each other and nature (note the quip at 6:32)

Part II 9:41 The Opera House

continuing, and then suddenly (3:30) there he is talking about the Opera House, 450 men, the building emerging, craftsmen, the story of three workers, call it 'Sisu', past fusing with present...

and finally, an Expression of Love

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