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Jørn Utzon’s Maritime Origins Aage and Jørn Utzon

By Thomas Arvid Jaeger, architect, Associate Professor at Aalborg University, Department of Architecture & Design and Utzon Center.

Utzon-sailboatJørn Utzon was Danish architecture’s most international architect. Like all great architects his works contain many facets and inspirations. They are hard to describe in all aspects. At one time very modern and traditional, local and international.

However, there are some methods, values and attitudes that permeate his entire architectural production. They have to do with his father Aage Utzon and his attachment to the sea and to sailing during his upbringing in Aalborg.

Jørn Utzon grew up by the Limfjord and lived in North Zealand, Sydney Bay, Australia, Hawaii and Mallorca. He would always settle near the coast and preferably overlooking the water. Everybody loves the sea view, but Jørn Utzon’s link to the sea was deeper as he grew up in a family with a strong tradition of sailing, as his father was a naval architect and avid sailing and boat designer.

Jørn Utzon’s little feature about the father Aage Utzon reproduced in the “Book of Spidsgatter”[1] reveals a deep and heartfelt connection between father and son. His father was an extraordinarily dynamic person, mostly dedicated to his work. He was a central figure in establishing the Spidsgatter Class as a racing class and this boat influenced a complete era in Danish water sports. They were exported to the Nordic countries, Europe and the USA. Simultaneously, he held demanding leading jobs in the shipyards in Aalborg and later in Elsinore, and was a leader with a plain and very direct attitude.

Aage Utzon also influenced his surroundings at home. To understand Jørn Utzon’s unique approach to architecture, it is necessary to see it in the context of his father’s beliefs, his boat design and his unique approach to design and aesthetics. Against this background, one can form an understanding of how this man’s attitude to nature and boat design became a fertile ground for his son’s architecture. In a personal interview Jørn Utzon explained his father’s skills by saying that “He was a specialist. He concentrated his efforts on few things – and developed them intensely.”[2]

Aage Utzon was a trained shipbuilder in 1905. Afterwards he studied naval engineering in Newcastle. Aage Utzon worked for years as a leader of the Repair Department at the Aalborg Yard, focusing on many aspects and various purposes of ship construction.

Ship design and shipbuilding is very user oriented. The ship is a tool to make money. Functionality and rational solutions to optimize the ship in relation to seaworthiness, use and simultaneously withstanding of daily wear and tear are paramount. When you build ships, things are made to cope with the extreme stresses which at sea come from wind and weather – with minimum material consumption.

Shipbuilding is not only a practical matter. Moreover, for many it is a passion, rooted in the fascination of the hull’s beauty and the unique relationship between form, design, speed and seaworthiness. It was like that for Aage. Therefore, he began to draw sailing boats in his spare time.

Boat design and optimizing form

Jørn Utzon grew up in a creative environment when yachting and regattas were discovered as a leisure time activity and a sport. This propelled the need for yachts for touring and racing.

With his maritime engagement Aage Utzon had discovered the importance of sailing as a healthy and challenging playground for both young and adult people. He was very active in the Aalborg Yacht Club, for which he sponsored a new clubhouse developed from a scrapped steamers steering house.

His enthusiasm for the hunting sports, hiking and boating led to his involvement in the Sea Scout Association in Aalborg. His two boys naturally joined the Sea Scout´s, Jørn at the age of 8. The boys complained however that the Sea Scouts had some wretched boats. Naturally Aage took up this challenge and the Aalborg dinghy was designed in 1929 in the spirit of the traditional Danish fishing boats, Sjaegte, as they were called in the Limfjord area. The Sjaegte is a simple dinghy, which has been used for centuries for inshore fishing, transport and pilot operations in Denmark. Those were clinker built, sharp-stern Spidsgatters, with a simple rigging and a rectangular staysail without the boom, easy to handle, and safe. This boat was used for developing the Aalborg Sea Scouts dinghy. He found a sponsor and gave the drawings for free use and eventually about 6-700 dinghies were built. In this way he contributed to the youth program which was in line with his own values and attitudes.

Aage Utzon was a man very aware of tradition and the Spidsgatter was the focal point of his big production – also he was an uncompromising perfectionist, and he personally supervised all his constructions. He would not risk the boat to be different from his designs. Jørn Utzon followed his father around to the local boat builders, who had received orders to build his boats. At that time boat building was a craft for producing custom-made racing class boats. Aage always delivered very detailed drawings. He used full-scale drawings for the ribs and fittings – just like Jørn later – to determine the aesthetic and constructive questions.

Planked ribs designed and made with precision determine the shape of the boat. The ribs are being set up in an accurate system, within the same distance, but the sections transforms itself gradually from fore to aft. The shape changes step by step by the transformation of the same element – like a plant or a skeleton. Although the hull of a wooden Spidsgatter appears with a smooth and double curved body on the exterior side, the frame structure is visible on the inside. The coherence between form and design are unique and subject to a strict order and inexorable logic.

Jørn described his father’s design process like this: “He was never hesitant when he worked, he knew what he wanted. … He said that the construction of boats was an art in which you can use your intuition.”[3] He could not get it simple enough, which also explains why his boats from this good period are the most elegant, because everything is connected with its main form.[4] Things are being brought to the limit, when you construct boats for competition. A similar attitude you find in Jørns well known statement: “I like to be on The Edge of the possible.”

The ideal of beauty of the hull is in many ways stricter than that for a building, since it is a product of a complete and optimal fusion, where nothing can be added or removed without consequences. A ship represents both a perfect beauty of the body and the optimal machine – like galloping horses, birds and sports car. Therefore, the joy of ship design is often passionate. One senses that that passion for the ideal of the curved organic beauty has always been present in Utzon’s architecture.

Jørn Utzon’s keen interest to develop an additive architecture based on the rational and precise repetition of single elements assembled into an organic whole reflects the dualism between the additive system of the well-defined ribs and the organic hull of a boat.


Nature observation and optimization

Aage had an unusually well-developed ability to observe and optimize. Perhaps it was the hunter’s life which developed his skills of a close observer.  Jørn Utzon told later that he remembered how his father often had laid on his stomach on the deck of his boats, when they were out at sea, with his head out over the side of the ship to observe the water´s current flow along the sides of the hull. According to Jørn, the local harbor master with whom he sailed commented this strange behavior with the remark: “Now Aage is up vomiting again.”

Aage Utzon focused particularly on optimization by studying the sea current flow around the hull, which was crucial for speed and sailing characteristics. The next boat could always be a little better. It was a part of Jørns upbringing to observe, to experiment and to improve.[5]

At sea you are always subject to nature. It sharpens your attention and increases the ability to read the sky and the sea – out on the sea it is all you need to think about. This goes fine with Aage Utzon’s upbringing and life philosophy, and as regards Jørn Utzon, his interest in clouds and the skylight became a lifelong passion that we can observe in almost all of his buildings.

During his many years as a boat designer Aage developed his own method, which was largely based on a creative observation of nature. For instance, the distinctive feature of Spidsgatter, i. e. its broad round bow, was, for one thing, based on the observation of swimming ducks. Jørn inherited the ability to seek solutions to complex design issues by using his imagination and making experiments. While working with acoustics in the Sydney Opera House, he dripped water into an Aalto-vase to simulate the reflection of sound waves in a concave and convex form. This simple experience was transformed into the magnificent concept for the interior acoustic design.


Tradition and new design

Aage Utzon´s point of reference was the Danish Spidsgatter tradition and he was most keen to develop a special Danish yacht. He wrote in the Danish Sailing magazine in 1932: “Spidsgatter is the oldest type of boat existing here at home, it dates back to the Vikings”.[6] It is understandable that Aage Utzon’s eyes might have fallen on the Spidsgatter: the boat was both safe, capacious and of fine seaworthiness – as testified by its long use as a pilot and fishing boat. His philosophy of ship design was clear: A boat must be simple and functional without superfluous ornamentation – but with beautiful lines and design, and craftsmanship visible in every detail. This design philosophy is visible in all of his son’s works and in combination with his unusual sense for the rational system and poetic form, we come to understand why Jørn Utzon’s architecture differs from most contemporary architecture. Utzon’s buildings are simple and poetic, because he always wanted a visible-bearing structure which can be experienced in the spaces within. It explains the architecture and describes the space and its dimensions. His private house in Majorca, for example, is a further development of the traditional local building techniques, with walls of local stone and the arched brick shell ceiling supported by concrete bearers. Shapes and materials have always been explored to create a synthesis of architecture and construction. He is one of the few architects, who have been innovative in relation to special design of the supporting structures of buildings.

His ideas revealing a complex link between form and structure of double curved design, between a section and a gently curved surface were developed with reference to the scale of the boat even before his years at the Academy in Copenhagen. He was just as experienced with the French curve rulers as with a triangle and the main ruler, and his father´s rulers were kept at the studio in a special box. Therefore, it was natural for Jørn Utzon to use a soft organic curve because contrary to most architects he did not see this shape as problematic or geometrically challenging.

Jørn Utzon’s last work was developed together with his son Kim. The Utzon Center in Aalborg came to be inaugurated before his death and he was keen about the building and its educational purpose. When he could no longer travel from Elsinore, he would receive descriptions of the interior over the phone and would ask for further details about the space. He also selected the boat which was to be exhibited. It would be his father’s last and fastest – the Spidsgatter: A Naval 30m2 – also called Sisu.[7] Jørn Utzon would have preferred the boat to be built from the scratch, which would allow students to follow the process. It was not economically feasible. Instead a well-preserved specimen was exhibited.

The Spidsgatter can be seen with sails set inside the 18m-high building with a curved roof. The boat represents a picture of a close spiritual father-and-son relationship between and an important contribution to the understanding of Jørn Utzon’s maritime roots.


[1] Bent Aare: Bogen om spidsgatteren, Kopenhagen, 1983.
[2] Telephone talk with Jørn Utzon in 2007.
[3] Bogen om spidsgatteren p. 102.
[4] Bogen om spidsgatteren p. 106.
[5] Ganske. The architecture of Jørn Utzon is deeply rooted in local traditions.
[6] Dansk sejlerblad No. 10 March 1932.
[7] The supporting beams below the deck of the Sydney Opera House were also named sisu, which is a Finnish word for resilience.

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