An architect ahead of the design curve

Jorn Utzon, best known for his Sydney Opera House, has won this year's top architecture award

In 1957, Danish architect Jorn Utzon entered an anonymous competition for an opera house. It was to be built in Australia on a point of land jutting into Sydney Harbor.

Some 230 architects submitted entries. But Utzon's unique idea of a series of shell-like concrete vaults covered with white tiles won.

The Sydney Opera House was completed in 1973 and has become one of the most photographed buildings in the world.

This week, Utzon again broke new ground by becoming the first Danish architect to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor an architect can receive. Thomas J. Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation, announced the jury's selection April 6, and spotlighted the architect's masterpiece. "In designing the Sydney Opera House, Utzon has created a remarkably beautiful building in Australia that has become a national symbol to the rest of the world."

The prize includes a $100,000 grant, which will be presented to Utzon May 20 in Madrid.

Utzon maintains that his travels had a lot to do with his vision for architecture. In 1949, he went to Mexico and Yucatan, where he was fascinated by the use of an architectonic element, the platform. In this low-lying area, the Mayas constructed the platform on a level with the roof of the jungle. These people had conquered a new dimension that was a worthy place to worship their gods.

This platform idea made its way into many of Utzon's later projects - even the plans of the Sydney Opera House. Utzon explains, "The idea was to let the platform cut through like a knife and separate primary and secondary functions completely. On top of the platform, the spectators receive the completed work of art and beneath the platform, every preparation for it takes place.

"In the schemes for the Sydney Opera House, you see the roofs, curved forms, hanging higher or lower over the plateau. The contrast of forms and the constantly changing heights between these two elements result in spaces of great architectural force."

He also has designed a church in Bagsvaerd, just north of Copenhagen, which is described as having sublime undulations in the ceiling - inspired by the movement of clouds. Among his other works are two courtyard-style housing estates in Denmark, a housing development in Sweden, and the Kuwait National Assembly.

Perhaps Frank Gehry - another Pritzker laureate, whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is regarded as his masterpiece - can best understand Utzon's work. "Without his vision, there would hardly be the Guggenheim in Bilbao today.

"Remember," he says, describing the Sydney Opera House, "Utzon had to fight for that structure, for it was ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology. He had no computers. He persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to create a building that changed the image of an entire country."

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