A meeting of minds
Utzon Symposium: Nature, Vision and Place
At Aalborg University, 28-30 August
With less than a dozen completed buildings and far fewer published texts, Jørn Utzon might seem an unlikely subject for a twoand-a-half-day symposium. And unlike the well-established Aalto Symposium - to which it is intended, in part, to become a counterpoint - the title was not used as the umbrella for disparate presentations by practising architects. The papers risked becoming repetitive, but in practice the event proved a huge success: far more frequent conferees than me found it as enjoyable an occasion of its kind as they could recall - and not just because of the relaxed but efficient organisation and excellent food.
The focus was entirely on Utzon's work, and Adrian Carter, director of the newly formed Utzon Center at Aalborg University, managed to bring together an impressive range of writers and current and former associates. There was a large Australian contingent, including Brit Andresen of Burrell Gallery fame, Philip Nobis - who first brought Utzon's designs for the interiors of Sydney Opera House to public attention a decade ago - and Richard Johnson, who is working with Utzon and his son Jan on a programme of refurbishment that will soon give people a glimpse of what might have been. The joker in the Oz pack was Peter Myers, who presented a conspiracy theory about the Opera House that was as improbable as it was entertaining.
One of Utzon's earliest collaborators, the 87-year-old Tobias Faber, gave a delightful sketch of decisive early experiences: the discovery of the harmony-through-contrast of Chinese architecture; the importance - learnt from Asplund - of having a 'big, main idea'; a fascination with the meeting of sea and sky (an obsession of the painter Kylberg); the relief of finding shelter in farmers' houses after many hours hunting with his father across the windswept Jutland landscape.
It is, to be sure, a vast leap from such 'influences' to great architecture - but it is difficult not to see their implications rippling through Utzon's entire career, from his horizon-prospecting platforms to the love of protective courtyards and introspective, cave-like spaces.
Faber's knowledge of the young Utzon was perfectly complemented by that of Richard Leplastrier, the most gifted Australian to work in the Sydney office. His insights ranged from the anecdotal - such as the instruction, 'never mitre a corner' because it involved 'cutting a material infinitely thin' - to specific examples of how Utzon drew inspiration from nature.
Having speculated, in my introductory lecture, that the designs for plywood seating at the Opera House seemed to meld an Asplund bench, Classical mouldings, and the eroded profile of a sedimentary cliff, it was gratifying when Leplastrier showed a slide of just such a rock that Utzon had pointed out to him as a model.
But, as William Curtis stressed in a magisterial discussion centred around Bagsværd Church, the complex processes of 'abstraction and transformation' through which profound artistic forms are condensed warn against any too literal interpretation of such putative 'sources'.
Bagsværd, the only public building to be completed entirely to Utzon's designs, appeared in several presentations, and happily each speaker found something new to say about it. Martin Schwartz from Michigan dwelt evocatively on Utzon's use of light, whilst Kenneth Frampton made the telling observation that the one weakness of an otherwise magical interior was the 'missing horizon' - a result, he suggested, of the 'Christianisation' of the essentially pagan proposition of the famous sketch of people assembled on a beach beneath a vault of clouds.
The conference attracted a surprisingly healthy number of contributions by young researchers, which the organisers intend to publish in a set of proceedings. For anyone seriously interested in Utzon this will be essential reading - but also, one is tempted to say, for anyone seriously interested in architecture. For the ultimate satisfaction of this conference was that the close focus on Utzon's work proved to be the stimulus for an unusually searching exploration of the discipline itself.
Richard Weston is the author of Utzon (Edition Bløndal)