Saturday, November 29, 2008

This Day in History: Remembering Jørn Utzon

"I like to be on the edge of the possible." (Jørn Utzon)
Danish architect Jørn Utzon (b. 19 April 1918) died today at the age of 90.  Utzon, who is most famous for his design for the Sydney Opera House, won the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2003.  In their award citation, the Pritzker jury commented that Utzon "proves that the marvelous and seemingly impossible in architecture can be achieved.  He has always been ahead of his time.  He rightly joins the handful of Modernists who have shaped the past century with buildings of timeless and enduring quality."

Although I have not visited his Opera House in person, I did have the opportunity to visit Utzon's Bagsvaerd Kirke (c. 1976) back in the summer of 2006 when I was in Copenhagen for a few days on business.  I really love sacred spaces and I have a soft heart for well-designed, beautiful, and inspiring religions architecture, so I was not disappointment with my visit to this wonderful church.

In spite of the fact that the Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable and iconic buildings in the entire world for both architects and non-architects alike, Utzon is not a designer who is studied much in school or talked about often in the profession.  Before my trip to Denmark, I was only vaguely familiar with the Bagsvaerd Church.  I had seen in passing the plan and section of the building.  These drawings illustrate the basic concept of the free-flowing, lyrical ceiling floating within a fairly straight-forward, boxy shell.

The exterior of the building is very simple with an almost industrial in feeling.  The walls are made up of white concrete and white glazed tiles; the roof is corrugated aluminum.  Though austere, the building possesses that simple and elegant warmth prevalent in so much Scandinavian architecture.

The building comprises a number of courtyards, classrooms, offices, a chapel, and a soaring sanctuary space.  The sanctuary is by far the real jewel of the building.  Though relatively small and compact in plan, the ceiling of the sanctuary is quite high, with clerestory lighting along the rear of the vault.  In a design sketch of the ceiling, Utzon showed his inspiration as coming from the clouds.  The board-forming of the white concrete vaulting give the ceiling a natural feeling consummate with this inspiration.  The simple pine furniture in the sanctuary was designed by Utzon's son Jan and the colorful textiles were designed by his daughter Lin.  Behind the white terrazzo altar, a triangular masonry screen separates the main sanctuary from a small prayer chapel, while extensive sky lighting in the corridors adjacent to the sanctuary and from the vault above fill the building with abundant natural light.

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