Jørn Utzon's Maritime Origins

written by Thomas Arvid Jaeger

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Jørn Utzon is internationally the most recognized Danish architect. As is the case with all great architects, his work is characterized by different points of view and sources of inspiration, whose aspects are difficult to describe: they are very modern, and yet very traditional; very local, and yet very international. They can be traced back to 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 New Zealand, Sydney Bay, Australia, Hawaii and Majorca. He would always settle near the coast, and preferably in a place overlooking the water. Everybody loves a sea view, but Jørn Utzon’s connection with the sea ran deeper, as he grew up in a family with a strong tradition of sailing. His father was a naval architect, and an avid boat designer.


Jørn Utzon’s description of his father Aage Utzon published in the Book of Spidsgatter[1], reveals a deep and heartfelt connection between father and son. His father was an extraordinarily dynamic person, completely devoted to his profession. He was a central figure in establishing the Spidsgatter Class as a racing class, and this boat influenced an entire era of Danish water sports. The boats were exported to all of the Nordic countries, to Europe and to the usa. Simultaneously, he held leading positions in the Aalborg shipyards, and later in Elsinore shipyards, and was a leader with a clear and simple attitude.


Aage Utzon influenced his surroundings at home as well. In order 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 easily grasp how the man’s attitude to nature and boat design became a fertile ground for his son’s architecture. In a personal interview Jørn Utzon described his father’s skills by saying that He was a specialist. He concentrated his efforts on very few things – and developed them intensely[2].


Aage Utzon was a trained shipbuilder in 1905. Afterwards he studied naval engineering in Newcastle. For a number of years Aage Utzon worked as a manager 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. A ship is a tool for earning money. Functionality and rational solutions in ship optimization with regard to seaworthiness and use, and, simultaneously, withstanding of daily wear and tear, are paramount. When building ships, everything needs to be made to withstand extreme stresses coming from wind and weather–with minimum material consumption. Shipbuilding is not only a practical matter. It is a passion for many, rooted in the fascination with the beauty of the hull, and with 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


Jorn Utzon grew up in a creative environment when yachting and regattas were discovered as a leisure activity and a sport. This propelled the need for touring and racing yachts. With his maritime engagement Aage Utzon had discovered the importance of sailing as a healthy and challenging playground for both, the youth and the adults. 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 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 boat, the 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 600–700 dinghies were built. Thus he contributed to the youth program which was in line with his own values and attitudes.


Aage Utzon was a man acutely aware of tradition, and the Spidsgatter was the focal point of his large production – he was an uncompromising perfectionist, as well, and he personally supervised all his constructions. He would not risk the boat to differ from his designs.


Jørn Utzon accompanied his father on his visits to the local boat builders, who had received orders to build his boats. At the time boat building was a craft of producing custom-made racing class boats. Aage always delivered very detailed drawings. He used full-scale drawings for the ribs and fittings – just as Jørn later – to determine the aesthetics and the constructive issues.


Planked ribs designed and made with precision determine the shape of the boat. The ribs are set up in an accurate system, at equal distance, but the cross-section is gradually transformed from fore to aft. The shape changes step by step by the transformation of the same element – much like a plant, or a skeleton. Although the hull of the 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 as follows: 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]. It was about as simple as it gets, which also explains why his boats from this period are the most elegant, because everything is connected with its main form. When you construct boats for competition, things are pushed to their limits[4]. A similar attitude is revealed in Jørn’s 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 of 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 or sports cars. Therefore, the joy of ship design is often passionate. One senses that the 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 later remembered how his father had often 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 flow of the water currents along the sides of the hull. According to Jørn, the local harbor master with whom he sailed, commented on this strange behavior with the remark: Now Aage is up vomiting again. Aage Utzon focused particularly on optimization by studying the flow of the sea current 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 Jørn’s 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 Jorn Utzon, his interest in clouds and the skylight became a lifelong passion that we can observe in almost all of his buildings. Throughout 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. In 1932, in a Danish sailing magazine he wrote the following: Spidsgatter is the oldest type of boat there is here, it dates back to the Vikings[6]. It is understandable that Aage Utzon’s eyes would have fallen on the Spidsgatter: the boat was both, safe and 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 he was 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 was 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 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 paints a picture of a close spiritual father-and-son relationship, and is an important contribution to the understanding of Jørn Utzon’s maritime roots.

[1] Bent Aare, ed. Bogen om spidsgatteren, Kopenhagen, 1983

[2] Telephone talk with Jørn Utzon 2007

[3] Bogen om spidsgatteren p. 102

[4] Bogen om spidsgatteren p. 106

[5] Ganske: The architecture of Jørn Utzon has always been deeply rooted in the local tradition

[6] Dansk sejlerblad no. 10 March 1932

[7] The supporting beams below the deck of the Sydney Opera House were also named Sisu, meaning strength in Finnish