THE Danish architect who designed the famous Sydney Opera House but has never seen it, was named on Sunday as the 2003 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the top award in the industry. Joern Utzon, now 84 and a long-time Majorca resident, living in an award-winning property he designed in Petra, fell victim to political intrigue during construction of the white shell-like masterpiece in Sydney and quit the project in 1966, seven years before it was officially opened. He has not returned to Australia, and his fragile health now makes it impossible. Utzon will not turn up to receive his prize -$100'000 and a bronze medallion -- when it is presented by Spain's King Juan Carlos in Madrid on May 20. His elder son, Jan, also an architect, will accept it on his behalf. Jan said his father initially turned down the award because of the stress involved in accepting in person as he suffers from high blood pressure. The Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation, run by the Hyatt hotel chain's Pritzker family, set up the award in 1979 to honor living architects and inspire creativity within the profession. The Pritzker jury hailed the Sydney Opera House as one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century -- an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world, a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.
But not everyone was as enthusiastic during the 16-year process. The saga began in 1957 when Utzon, working in obscurity in Denmark, won an international competition to design an opera house on a site jutting into Sydney Harbor. His plan envisioned a huge platform where preparations for performances would take place and where spectators could walk from the platform into the auditoria under the shells. Construction began in 1959 before working drawings were finalized because the premier of New South Wales worried the lottery-funded project might be derailed by a change of government. Those fears were borne out in 1966 when Utzon was caught up in a feud with a new public works minister. Utzon was asked to accept a reduced role as a design consultant, but he resigned and returned to Denmark. While Utzon designed the platform and the shells, the interiors were completed by local architects. Queen Elizabeth opened the opera house in 1973, and it now averages some 3'000 events a year. It is the first time in our lifetime that an epic piece of architecture gained such universal presence, architect Frank Gehry, a Pritzker laureate and juror, said in his citation. Utzon was said to have been bitter about his departure, but his son said he was happy to have participated in the project. There was some irritation over certain individuals who were instrumental in stopping his work, said Jan Utzon. He's quite fatalistic about it in the way that he says, Some days it's sunshine, some days it rains and you can't do anything about it.*
Father and son have agreed to work on development and renovation of the opera house's interiors.
A cramped orchestra pit will be enlarged and the walls given a more festive look, as Utzon had originally envisaged. While the Sydney Opera House is Utzon's crowning glory, the drama also blighted his career.