Plucked from obscurity to design the Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon, 90, who also guided the style of Kuwait's parliament never got to set eyes on the building that identifies Australia.
Architect of a modern classic
The death of its architect, Jørn Utzon, has brought attention back to the Sydney Opera House - if, in fact, that attention has ever faded since its completion in 1973. Hailed by Unesco as "a masterpiece of human creative genius", it is the one building that represents Sydney and identifies Australia. It has attracted more than its share of hyperbole. The American architect Louis Khan said of it: "The Sun did not know how beautiful it was, until it was reflected off this building".
Its unlikely creator was born, and died, a world away from his masterpiece. Born in Hellebaek, Denmark, the middle son of a naval engineer, Utzon grew up in Aalborg where, as a schoolboy, he would help his father draw and model the latest yachts. After graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1942, he travelled, benefiting from a number of eminent influences - the Swedish Gunnar Asplund, the Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, the French sculptor Henri Laurens and Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona.
In 1956 the government of New South Wales announced a competition for the design of an opera house for Sydney. In January 1957 this unknown 38-year-old Dane was announced the winner among 233 entries with a breathtakingly bold design featuring 10 sail-like white-tiled shells opening out onto the water from a granite platform on the edge of the harbour. Utzon arrived in Sydney with his family in 1963. A number of technical engineering challenges to make form of his vision were overcome, but mounting costs and delays created a political issue. In May 1965 a conservative government was elected and a new minister, Davis Hughes, assumed responsibility for the project, pledging to "tame" the architect.
By March 1966, Utzon was owed some AUD$100,000 (Dh235,300) in fees and he threatened to resign. Perhaps to his surprise, his resignation was accepted. He returned home to find he was the subject of double taxation and retreated to Majorca, where he built two beautiful houses and maintained a dignified silence. The opera house was completed by three Australian architects. Utzon never returned to Australia. His elder son Jan, also an architect, later said his father had no need to visit the Opera House - he had only to close his eyes to see it.
Unlike other modern masters, his output was not prodigious. Apart from the opera house, he created two other extraordinary public buildings. His Bagsvaerd Church in suburban Copenhagen (1976) may have resembled a grain store with its grey concrete walls and small windows, but its high, undulating ceiling gives an impression of constantly changing light; inspired, according to Utzon, "by drifting clouds on a sunny day at the beach".
His other monument is the billowing, canopied, huge-columned National Assembly building in Kuwait. Inspired by the whitewashed forms and courtyards of old Kuwait, it is said to resemble Egypt's Temple of Karnak. Damaged during the invasion in 1990, it was restored and is again witness to the vigorous parry and thrust of politics, reminiscent of that which surrounded Utzon's other great work in Sydney. In 1999, three decades on, there was a rapprochement when he accepted an offer by the government of New South Wales to refurbish the opera house. He delegated his son, Jan, to represent him in Sydney.
Honours were heaped upon him, the most prestigious being the Pritzker Prize in 2003, but for him it was buildings that mattered: "If you like an architect's work, you give him something to build, not a medal." A mark of the man is evident from his reaction to the death of his nemesis, Sir Davis Hughes, in 2003. Utzon sent his widow, Philippa, a message: "My wife is here. She knows what a difficult thing it was and what it was to have a husband working on it ... It was because of him that the complicated building was finished at all."
Jørn Utzon was born on April 9 1918, and died Nov 29 at age 90. He is survived by his wife, Lis Fenger, whom he married in 1942, two sons and a daughter. * The National