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Essay

The Architecture of Jørn Utzon
By Kenneth Frampton
Ware Professor of Architecture
The Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation
Columbia University, New York

It seems to me that past, present and future must be active in the mind’s interior as a continuum. If they are not, the artifacts we make will be without temporal depth or associative perspective ... Man after all has been accommodating himself physically in this world for thousands of years. His natural genius has neither increased nor decreased during that time. It is obvious that the full scope of this enormous environmental experience cannot be combined unless we telescope the past ... Architects nowadays are pathologically addicted to change, regarding it as something one either hinders, runs after, or at best keeps up with. This, I suggest, is why they tend to sever the past from the future, with the result that the present is rendered emotionally inaccessible, without temporal dimension. I dislike a sentimental antiquarian attitude toward the past as much as I dislike a sentimental technocratic one toward the future. Both are founded on a static, clockwork notion of time (what antiquarians and technocrats have in common), so let’s start with the past for a change and discover the unchanging condition of man.

—Aldo Van Eyck

It is an embarrassment that the first edition of my Modern Architecture: A Critical History (1980), made no reference to the work of Jørn Utzon. Even within the constraints of a concise history such an omission now seems inexcusable and in subsequent editions I have attempted to redress this. Over the past decade the canonical importance of Utzon has become increasingly evident, not only because of his authorship of one of the most significant monuments of the twentieth century but also because both before and after the realization of the Sydney Opera House he would project a wide range of equally seminal works, together with a number of compelling realizations. Given the exceptionally fertile character of his career, he is, in his eighty-fifth year, a fitting recipient of the Pritzker Prize.

Comparable in subtle ways to the protean achievements of Le Corbusier, Utzon’s architecture emerges today as paradigmatic at many levels not least of which is the manner in which, from the beginning of his career, he would challenge the assumed superiority of Eurocentric culture.

The other equally basic postulate of his architecture, which remains as challenging now as when it first appeared around 1947 turns on its irreducible grounding in the opposition of earthwork versus roof-work. Two seminal preconditions attend this principle; first, the recovery of the roof-form, hitherto largely repressed in the Modern Movement with its fixation on the flat roof, and, second, the equally intrinsic import of the earthwork as a necessary landform capable of integrating a structure into the surface of the earth.

Aside from their mutual preoccupation with the inherently topographic aspect of architecture, Utzon came to share with Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he met in 1949, a common drive to project a global building culture which, while equally inspired by both occidental and oriental paradigms, would nonetheless exploit the technological capacity of the epoch while simultaneously responding to the contours of a particular site and the latent expressivity of a specific program. In the last analysis we can say that the tectonic potential of advanced engineering form perhaps played a more decisive role in the evolution of Utzon’s architecture than it did in the case of Wright, so that shell concrete construction, after the exemplary work of Maillart, Candela and Torroja, and folded plate construction in post-tensioned reinforced concrete, after the inventions of Pier Luigi Nervi, patently informed the earliest flights of his imagination, not only in his remarkable proposal for the Crystal Palace site in London, designed with Tobias Faber in 1947, but also in his equally epic studies of the time for a permanent world exhibition site in Copenhagen (1959) and for a utopian settlement in the turbulent mountain landscape around Elvira in Spain (1960). Apart from the shell concrete roofs that became the touchstone of his early style, the Elvira project was also directly inspired by experiencing the Mayan ruins in Chicen Itzá, Monte Alban and Uxmal; a civilization that provided him with the essential format of the stepped platform or podium to which he would return repeatedly throughout his career.

For Utzon, as for Wright and Aalto, there would be no necessary contradiction between an unequivocally modern architecture and a building culture that hypothetically would be more generally accessible to the society at large, just as for him there was no inherent rupture between modernity as such and the more enduring and inspiring continuity of universal civilization, seen as a differentiated whole. The subtlety of this position is brilliantly exemplified by Utzon’s 1953 project for a restaurant tower which was envisaged as being built on the Langelinie promontory in Copenhagen; a proposal as much inspired by the antique form of the Chinese pagoda as by Wright’s S.C. Johnson laboratory tower built at Racine, Wisconsin in 1947. Utzon aimed at realizing a popularly accessible work in much the same sense as Wright’s Guggenheim Museum would be well received by the general public a few years later.

The validity of this subtle approach would never be more convincingly demonstrated than by the two low-rise, medium density housing schemes that Utzon built in North Zealand, Denmark between 1956 and 1963, the first at King near Helsingør and the second at Fredensborg. Both of these single-story residential communities were based on an atrium typology comprising an L-shaped dwelling in plan, set within a square court and enclosed on all sides by brick walls. Featuring mono-pitched roofs capped by Roman tiles and draining into the private courtyards, these standard dwellings, virtually square in plan, were assembled into continuous chevron formations and fed by automobiles in such a way as to conform to the American Radburn principle of separating vehicular and pedestrian movement. In both settlements each house, attached to its neighbor, is accessed in two ways; first from the relatively blank, brick-faced exteriors fronting onto streets feeding into the fabric and second from an interstitial greensward permeating the settlement, exclusively restricted to pedestrian use. What Utzon was able to postulate with these two interrelated schemes was an alternative suburban land settlement pattern for a megapolitan, ex-urban world, one that has never been equaled, neither culturally in terms of accessible imagery nor environmentally from an ecological standpoint. He would proceed to show in a remarkable proposal for Odense University, dating from 1967, how this same typology could be deployed to achieve a city-in-miniature by replacing the interstitial greensward with public courts and vehicular-free pathways leading into the res publica of a civic center, flanked by civic facilities and crowned by a shell concrete assembly hall ...

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