Architecture as Contemplation

Jørn Utzon

By Poul Erik Tøjner

Buildings designed by Jørn Utzon are a rare sight. A few houses in northern Zealand, a church here and an opera house there. But what a church, and what an opera house!  

In a time where Europe is preoccupied with nurturing parochial values, it is remarkable to observe how the great 20th century architects – such as Jørn Utzon – consistently draw inspiration from cultures beyond Western Europe. In the case of Utzon, the Japanese and Byzantine-Islamic cultures in addition to the Mexican Mayan culture all play a major role. It is from these cultures Utzon’s humane architecture draws its social calling: Always to regard space as the realisation of social interaction, always to relate the building to its surroundings, and always to maintain architecture as something non-ideological and non-theoretical. Utzon’s ideal was to retreat and let the building erect itself almost as an independent entity liberated from its architect. However, even this approach fails to define itself as method or theoretical credo; rather, it is just the way things turn out for a man who emphasises work as a road to insight and not simply an act of problem solving. When Utzon describes his method as unmethodical or his theory as non-theoretical he draws on early Greek thinking where theory was not opposed to practise but an almost playful contemplation that is openly susceptible and treats observation as its Archimedean point. These are the values behind Utzon’s architecture – Byzantine in its lack of towering aspiration and its emphasis on concrete space, Japanese in its intimacy and delicate elegance, Mayan in its accessible yet defined organisation of social public space. After all, the Sydney Opera House – in apparent contrast to Utzon’s earlier, more humane scale – does not resort to the rhetorical trope of the cathedral: An extended shape that terminates in a tower. The whole point of the sails or shells – or whatever we should call this floating roof construction – is that they refer to the geometry of the circle. Each shell rises from the ground with resilient poise but returns just as naturally again – for if you extend the line of each pointed arch, they curve inwards in an embrace rather than lift themselves towards the skies. The vision embraces the location – here meaning Sydney. It is almost symbolic of nature, the salt of Utzon’s universe: Growth as the expansion of matter rather than a distancing from it.

The ill-fated architect 

There is a melancholic air to Utzon’s fate – he was certainly no walkabout bouncing bean. Utzon has given the 20th century its most famous building – the Sydney Opera House – but the ill-famed story became his personal nightmare. When he returned from his downfall he was told that an architect who broke off from an assignment would never get a second chance. On the whole that was the case. He – or rather Denmark – was given the Bagsværd Church and housing estates in Fredensborg and Elsinore. On the international scene, his work – apart from the salvaged Sydney Opera House – includes a bank in Teheran and the Kuwaiti Parliament Building. And the architect granted himself his presumably beloved homes, first in Hellebæk and later on Majorca. But without belittling the existing Asger Jorn Museum in Silkeborg, the fact that Utzon’s proposed design was never realised is a crying shame. But despite the melancholy and prodigal son analogy, there is a strange solace – a marked resistance – to be found. It is remarkably indicative of the greatness of this architect that so few of his designs were realised, yet he has etched his way onto our retina and come to embody the values that guide most artists: That play takes precedence over thought; that work process reflects not a dead technique but a living, metabolic exchange of materials ongoing until the job is done; that curiosity legitimately motivates understanding – and finally that form is no mere sign on a piece of paper but relates to expanse. Whether the intangible light of a room or the almost tactile beauty of structural pillars, Utzon’s architecture is about corporality. Architecture is committed to corporality, which renders it an ethical rather than aesthetic art. And this understanding is reflected in Utzon’s aesthetic choice of grouped houses that combine the individual and serial. Here nature repeats itself with variation – and for the architect, variation signifies respect for the perspective of the individual human.