Jørn Utzon: the education of an architect

Schirmer, Blair
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No one seems to have noticed the profound rootedness of the genius of Jørn Utzon (b. 1918), architect of the magnificent, exuberant, curvilinear sections of the Sydney Opera House, Silkeborg Art Museum, and Bagsvaerd Church, in the work of that most restrained of architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). I trace, through this unlikeliest of confluences, the genesis in Mies's work of Utzon's three most important early, realized works: his first and own house of Hellebæk (Denmark, 1950-52), the House for Svend Middelboe (Holte, Denmark, 1953), and the sixty-three dwelling Kingohusene (Kingo, Denmark, 1956-60). The pedagogical value of this study is, I hope, substantial. Looking at exactly how the perfectly orthogonal Hus Utzon is essential to his great later designs for Sydney, Silkeborg, Bagsvaerd, and Kuwait tells us much about the nature and method of creative work. Utzon never worked for Mies, met him briefly twice, and never admits to other than a very limited presence of Mies in his own architecture. Nonetheless, Utzon's own house at Hellebæk is relentless effort to resurrect and render habitable Mies's Barcelona Pavilion through the obsessive repetition of its proportional scheme, overall form, and consequent shapes, all realized by way of close interpretation of Mies's European villas. Hus Middelboe, by contrast, is a violent opposition to Mies's Farnsworth House, but one so rigorous in its violence that Utzon develops a powerful architectural aesthetic. The Kingohusene's break with Mies is far more radical, involving play and relation. It realizes Mies's discarded early themes for the Weissenhofseidlung housing exhibit, dances with the arrangement of Mies's Lafayette Park housing and, provoked by the exquisitely refined jewel box of Mies's unrealized 1931 Row House, details advances and variations that render this last merely prototype. What Utzon builds through 1956 in response to Mies extends into the designs for the Sydney Opera House, particularly in Utzon's reconception of Alvar Aalto's Library of Viipuri: His approach evolves from a means of generating form to the far more valuable result of generating method. Utzon next applies his method to engage Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier All work becomes fair game for contention and play, and no architect is more bent than Utzon on reconceiving the canon. For balance I include a thorough survey of Utzon's published work, presenting it as I think he would have us understand it, a survey of critics who write on Utzon, and a three hundred entry annotated bibliography detailing these. It is his work in response to Mies that constitutes Utzon's primary education.