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Numinous Utzon.


By Torsten Blondal & Jorn Utzon. Hellerup: Edition Blondal. 2005. DKK350

Jorn Utzon's buildings are at last getting the kind of publication they deserve. Bagsvzaerd is the second volume in the Jorn Utzon Logbook series published by Edition Blondal and, with great finesse, it analyses the architect's most moving fully completed building (Sydney's interiors never having been executed, though that may at last be in the process of correction).

Bagsvaerd church is very strange indeed. It sits in the middle of the belt of high quality suburbia that stretches north along the Sound from Copenhagen. Its unremarkable site next to the main street is modified by a birch grove, so you first see it from the car park through trees, when its impervious strange shape and expressed precast concrete structure make it almost seem like an agricultural building marooned amid new development. Closer examination reveals that architectural talent of high order has been at work: there is a strong flavour of Japan in the careful ordering of the courts and flank walls, and a Nordic sensibility in use of materials. Inside, light from the sky, reflected and transmuted by the famous ceiling, emphasises the altar while the wide volume is gently filled with luminance from Soanian chutes that make north and south walls bright without detracting from gentle stress on the sacred table. All is white, grey or pale wood. It is a northern, democratic, twentieth-century interpretation of the Baroque spirit, and one of the very finest numinous spaces created in the last 100 years.

Utzon's inspirations are multifarious. Helge Hjertholm, one of his assistants, called Bagsvaerd 'a hamlet of courtyard houses' which draws on his experiences of North Africa, and perhaps the complicated yard-like spaces of northern Scandinavian farms. Japanese, specifically Shinto, echoes are to be found in the handling of the structure with its repetitive use of portals to celebrate routes. In a most perceptive essay, Richard Weston sees reflections on Chinese and Hanseatic traditions in the stepped gables of the exterior. But the biggest surprise is Utzon's admission that the ceiling, with its billowing curves and great slot of light was inspired by seeing light fall between huge rolls of clouds over a Hawaiian beach. Utzon is one of the very few architects with sufficient sense of abstraction and judgment to be able to translate the power of natural phenomena almost direct into buildings (others' attempts to do so usually end up in kitsch fiasco).

But, as Weston points out, what separates Utzon from architects 'who deploy references in a manner deliberately intended to recall their putative sources is that [he] is pre-eminently a builder, not a designer'. Though he does not spell it out, Utzon is as clearly devoted as Pugin was to the notion that if architecture is to celebrate spirituality, it must be honest in itself (though the modern Dane is to our eyes more successful in this than the nineteenth-century neo-Goth).

Weston's is one of three excellent analytical essays in the book; Martin Schwartz's contribution on light is memorably thoughtful, and Bo Mortensen's description of the acoustics is essential for a proper understanding of the church. Other short texts are by the architect and his colleagues.

The format of the book makes you work hard. There are no captions to the evocative photographs (except where another building is being discussed). Drawings are unlabelled, except for a note of scale; it took me ages to find a north point (which seems to have been included by accident); a site plan would have been helpful.

But after much turning from text to drawings to images and back again, the building takes form in your mind. If only more architectural book-making in which the architect is involved with production could be like this--clear, unaggressive, evocative, perceptive--we might start to make a much more civilised world than that encouraged by the simplistic, flashy handling of the work of contemporary super-stars in most contemporary publication.
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Title Annotation:Jorn Utzon's buildings; Bagsvzaerd church; Bagsvaerd Church, Jorn Utzon Logbook Vol II
Author:Blondal, Torsten
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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