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Jorn Utzon 1918-2008.

Jorn Utzon, who has died aged 90, was almost the last of the giants of the north whose sensibility was largely formed in the 1930s, when Scandinavian idealism shone bright against the dark clouds of the great depression further south. The tragic drama of the Sydney Opera House overshadowed his whole career, but, by 1956 when Utzon won the competition, he had already started to create a successful practice.


Like most Danish architects of his generation, Utzon trained at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. In 1940, Denmark was invaded by the Nazis and, in 1942, he graduated, then escaped to neutral Sweden, where he married Lis Fenger: they remained together for the rest of his life. In Sweden, he began to become part of the Nordic Modernist scene, spending time in Alvar Aalto's office in 1945. Several years of entering competitions and building private houses followed, but the first important breakthrough came in 1956 with the brick and tile Kingo housing development at Helsingor. It became well known throughout Europe as a model for subsidised housing, with its single-storey repetitive courts arranged freely on a grassy site and each unit carefully adjusted to respond to light, views and privacy. The scheme was followed by the tighter but equally successful Fredensborg development; there Utzon despatched one of his assistants to carefully note the passage of the sun on each courtyard and adjust the boundary wall heights to maximise its impact. Both schemes are still highly regarded by their occupants, and doubtless Utzon would have built up a brilliant domestic practice had it not been for the Opera House.


From the moment Eero Saarinen (who was then working on the TWA terminal) arrived late at the jury and rescued Utzon's scheme from the rejects pile, the history of the Opera House was as dramatic as its skyline. Its parti, with white tiled roofs floating over a heavy podium containing most of the mechanical and services elements, was derived from several of Utzon's preoccupations, notably with clouds, and with stepped platforms, which he had deeply admired on a 1949 study trip to Yucatan in Mexico. The roofs have made Bennelong Point world famous and have become an icon (in the best sense) of the city and its harbour.

But, though Utzon thought that his roofs of tile-covered precast concrete elements would not be hard to build, as they could be represented as segments of the surface of a sphere, they proved difficult to realise in practice; Ove Arup's structural team had to devote thousands of design hours to sorting out the shells. Then Bennelong Point's bed-rock was found to be too friable to support the imposed loads, so a huge concrete basement had to be constructed. Other problems accrued, principally a change in the government of New South Wales from left to right in 1965. The incoming Liberal party (which was never enthusiastic about the project) was highly critical of delays and cost overruns, and inserted a project manager between architect and contractors. Political rumours were spread that Utzon did not know how to finish his own building.

Effectively sidelined, the architect left Australia after living there for three years. He never returned. Local builders produced second-rate interiors; the world's architects protested in vain. Gradually the immense importance of the building for Australia was realised, and though official conciliatory advances were made over the years, Utzon remained distant. Only in 2004 did the architect agree to working on the building again. His son Jan effectively represented him as changes were made to the interiors to try to infuse them with Utzon's original intentions, and to allow for changes in the organisation that had taken place in the intervening four decades.

In 1971, he was professor for a year at the University of Hawaii, and during that time, he designed Bagsvaerd Church north of Copenhagen (completed 1976). Here, he again showed how he could mix diverse ideas to create a unique and powerfully numinous synthesis. Shinto, Nordic, Hanseatic and Soanian elements combine with inspiration taken direct from nature, like the forms of the famous light infused ceiling, which Utzon claimed were derived from rolling cloud shapes seen from a Hawaiian beach. Few other twentieth-century architects--except perhaps Le Corbusier and Aalto--could have pulled off that conjunction without descending to mess and kitsch.


Avoiding kitsch must have been even more difficult when Utzon won the competition for the Kuwait National Assembly building in 1972 (finished 1984). Here, overt elements of Arabic architecture were incorporated. The central shaded bazaar street, courtyards, the ruler's meeting hall are all fronted by a huge shaded public piazza that presents a formal front to the sea and has a great white precast concrete roof that assumes a catenary curve between the front and the main building. Offices and other smaller spaces are grouped round courts arranged irregularly along the central spine: memories of Helsingor and Fredensborg are inevitable, and the plan showed the potential of what became known as Utzon's 'additive architecture' in which similar units (often courtyards) are assembled irregularly to respond to site and programme. Utzon used the principle in several brilliant competition entries, but his designs were not built. As if to emphasise his dreadful luck, the Kuwait building was very severely damaged in the first Gulf war.


In later years, his creative and emotional life was largely focused on Majorca, where he built two houses for his family, Can Lis at Porto Petro (1971), then Can Feliz at S'Horta (1994). The first is a few metres from the edge of a cliff, so close that in winter salt spray is thrown up over it. The plan is broken into individual pavilions, each with its sometimes notional platform or terrace. Inside, it seems cave-like, riven from the rock of the place, for Utzon built it of the local limey sandstone, and told the quarry to retain the marks of the circular saw on the blocks to emphasise the nature of the material. In the tall sitting room, four apparently frameless windows are carefully angled to give a panorama of the sea, which as Utzon used to say 'stretches unbroken from here to Africa'.

When his health required retreat from such close contact with the sea, he built Can Feliz on the flank of a mountain. It is brilliantly sited on interlocking platform terraces, and conjures up Delphi, with a steep dark green slope plunging down to a fertile plain that runs uninterrupted to the distant sea. Tiles that recall the Kingo houses cover shallow roofs, and the whole complicated composition sits calmly in the maquis. It has quiet echoes of some of the first private houses, welcoming, open to nature and generous--a fitting swan-song for a master of both the domestic and the monumental who never lost his belief in the power of architecture to serve and enrich humanity.
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Title Annotation:obituary
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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