The first thing you find when you google Jørn Utzon is the Sydney Opera House. With little to no information available online about his other works, his entire architectural career seems to be reduced to just one building. So, who is Jørn Utzon? What was his philosophy, what inspired him? If one structure could answer all these questions, it would be Skagen Odde Nature Center—an ode to the intimacy between architecture and nature. 

Skagen Odde Nature Centre by Jørn Utzon: Desert Fortress - Sheet1
Jørn Utzon’s Skagen Odde Nature Center  ©Skagen Odde Nature Center

Overall Design Philosophy

“A building must have a soul that corresponds to the mood you are in; be in tune with what you are doing.” (DAC., 2021) This quote from the Danish architect perfectly depicts his conception of design and architecture. Indeed, for Jørn Utzon, architecture is more than just a structure. Architecture is a reflection of our own being, our philosophy. 

So, who was he? What shaped him as an architect? Briefly said, Jørn Utzon was a travel and nature lover. His architectural career matured alongside his discovery of new cultures, especially Chinese culture, and reinforced his relationship with nature. (Chiu, C. et al., 2020) So, it is no wonder that the Skagen Odde Nature Center, a museum for the wind, the water, the light, and the sand, in the heart of nature, was the art of no other but Jørn Utzon. (DAC., 2021)

Skagen Odde Nature Centre by Jørn Utzon: Desert Fortress - Sheet2
Skagen Odde Nature Center: concept sketch ©archiweb

Location And Concept

Northern lights hugging the sky. Undulating dunes. Seas and dreamy sand beaches. With a site located in such an enchanting setting, Jørn Utzon’s challenge was to build without disturbing its inherent serenity. A place where you can “see, hear and understand more about sand, water, wind, and light.” (DAC., 2021)

Planned from 1989, the centre is a collaboration between Jørn Utzon and his son, Jan Utzon. The initial vision was an embrace between the surrounding nature and the architecture. Creating an enclaved, small haven clashing with, yet respecting and delving in the vast, beautifully harsh nature. That was Jørn Utzon’s vision, and this was what he had achieved. (DAC., 2021)

Skagen Odde Nature Centre by Jørn Utzon: Desert Fortress - Sheet3
Skagen Odde Nature Center: open view ©Skagen Odde Nature Center


Nicknamed the “Desert Fortress”, the first thing you see when you visit the centre is a four-meter-high brick wall rooted in the serene dune landscape. Apart from protecting from Odde’s harsh weather, Jørn Utzon designed this wall as a quintessential element in the character of the building. Indeed, for Jørn Utzon, the uniformity and monumentality of walls generated a sense of strength that consolidated the expressivity of the proposed building and its site. (Chiu, C. et al., 2020)

A puncture in the wall funnels you into the arrival area, from which you access the themed exhibition pavilions, each revolving around one category: wind, sand, light, and water. Pyramidal roofs adorn these pavilions that Utzon had carefully paired with north-oriented skylights that protrude from behind the surrounding wall. (DAC., 2021)

 wouldn’t have been a Jørn Utzon design without his signature courtyards that, along with reflecting pools, walkways, balconies, look-over areas, and an atrium court opening up to the landscape, immersing the user in the surrounding nature’s magic. 

Skagen Odde Nature Centre by Jørn Utzon: Desert Fortress - Sheet4
Skagen Odde Nature Center: walled complex ©Skagen Odde Nature Center
Skagen Odde Nature Centre by Jørn Utzon: Desert Fortress - Sheet5
Skagen Odde Nature Center: Plan and section ©archiweb


Grey concrete, grey plastered walls, and black roofing felt. Restrained, yet purposefully chosen. Jørn Utzon’s interests guided his visions of materiality and architectural expressivity. Indeed, vernacular architecture inspired the “uniformity of the architectonic forms” created by the plain and cohesive overall aspect emphasized the housing unit as a synthetic whole as in traditional earthworks. But also, the Chinese principle of duality, yin-yang, was very influential in the contrast of colour between the main structures and the roof elements. (Chiu, C. et al., 2020)

Skagen Odde Nature Centre by Jørn Utzon: Desert Fortress - Sheet6
Skagen Odde Nature Center: materials  ©Andreas Trier Mørch


Roofs had uppermost significance in Jørn Utzon’s designs. They were architectural statements that manifested themselves in distinct colours, but also varying shapes. Indeed, Utzon followed the following philosophy: “Bigger room equalled bigger and more expressive roof”. (Chiu, C. et al., 2020) 

Jørn Utzon’s playful roofs are not only functional, but they are a driving element in the atmosphere that oozes from this architectural haven. Quoting the Danish architect himself: “It is exciting and alluring to see the closed walls with the small roofs and skylights, which protrude above and suggest that a lot of interesting things are happening inside.” (Udstillingen, 2021)

Roof view of Skagen Odde Nature Center ©Utzon Architects


If Jørn Utzon had an architectural typology, it would be the courtyard typology. Indeed, courtyards were a way for him to react to modern civilization and life in an apartment. He believes there should be a certain balance between built and open space covering an area. People shouldn’t feel restrained by architecture. (Chiu, C. et al., 2020) 

For that, Jørn Utzon strives to bring nature in whenever he can, opening spaces more, inviting the surrounding light, air, views. But also, the architecture’s symbiosis with its surroundings allows you to connect with the fauna, observing migrating birds, spotting a hare or a fox. 

Image Sources: Image 8_Courtyard in Skagen Odde Nature Center  © Utzon Architects 

All in all, Jørn Utzon is much more than the architect of Sydney’s Opera House. As the Skagen Odde Nature Center has shown us, Jørn Utzon is the architect of balance. He is the architect of tradition in modernity. His architecture celebrates and merges cultural diversities. He is the architect that reconciled with nature at a time when technology encouraged its destruction. That is Jørn Utzon.  


Chiu, C. et al. 2020, “Ideas and ideals in Jørn Utzon’s courtyard houses: dwelling, nature, and Chinese architecture”, Journal of architecture (London, England), vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 513-557.

Danish Architecture Center – DAC. 2021. Skagen Odde Nature Center. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 4 July 2021]. 2021. Udstillingen. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 July 2021].

Wikizero. 2021. Skagen Odde Nature Center. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 July 2021].


Myriam Soubra is an architecture student at the American University of Beirut. She is minoring in urban studies and art history. She loves the multidisciplinary aspect of architecture and is interested in how different fields could enhance the design process and the design outcome.

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