an eye for excellence
Next time you are in an architectural bookshop, try this little test. Watch anyone who looks at Richard Weston's splendid monograph on Jørn Utzon, just published by Edition Bløndal, and they will not simply scan it, as they would most books, but examine it carefully, page by page. Like the work it features, its production is in every way far from the norm; you acknowledge that at once. Its distinction must owe much to the vision and persistence of its publisher, Utzon's compatriot, Torsten Bløndal.
In London briefly for the book's launch at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Bløndal describes his roundabout route into publishing. At first he had wanted to become a pilot in the Danish Air Force but a minor medical defect disqualified him.
'So I decided to study architecture instead, ' he says. 'I went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and attended Henning Larsen's class. But you had to study Karl Marx to graduate! I couldn't stand this way of teaching, this approach to reality - so I left.'
After a further course in Paris where the cultural climate, if not the teaching, was congenial - this was the early 1970s - Bløndal returned to Copenhagen and joined a small firm of civil engineers that was trying to get work in the Lebanon. 'I spent two beautiful years there - it was a kind of discovery for me. Not that we ever got a contract!'
Back once more in Denmark, he began doing some freelance writing and found employment with a publisher. 'I became more and more curious about publishing, but I wanted to be independent. I wanted to do what I really had a feeling for, and in my own way.' Already one can sense Bløndal's temperamental affinity with Utzon, though the present monograph was then far in the future.
In fact the very first Edition Bløndal titles were travel books, narratives not translated into Danish before, like Mungo Park's Travels into the Interior of Africa and Stendhal's Promenades dans Rome. 'I have always liked the idea of travelling, ' says Bløndal, 'but first class if possible!' A later undertaking was a 19-volume series on Scandinavian artists, where current practitioners discussed their predecessors;
the distinguished Danish painter/sculptor Per Kirkeby, a friend of Bløndal's, wrote several of these. 'I didn't want boring art history, I wanted essays that got under the artist's skin, ' says Bløndal. Some forgotten names were re-evaluated, and received opinions challenged. Bløndal does not like to follow a well-worn path.
But the Utzon project was beginning to take hold. Bløndal was an enthusiast: he loved the courtyard housing schemes (Kingo, Fredensborg); the Espansiva system;
Sydney Opera House, of course. 'I knew what had been published, but there was nothing like the book I wanted to do. I knew too that Utzon had never cooperated when people wanted to write about him. Famous authors had tried and failed. The way that his work was presented was the key factor for him - he didn't want an academic, theoretical text. But nor did I. That system doesn't suit me either.'
Nonetheless, Bløndal's first approach to Utzon, in 1997, was politely rebuffed. He proceeded undeterred, however, contacting Utzon's old employees, discovering longlost drawings, and - thanks to a recommendation from Architectural Review editor Peter Davey - finding a possible author in Richard Weston, whose book on Alvar Aalto had won the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize. 'I wanted a practitioner who was also a good writer - someone who was inspired by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, and could write with the economy of Hans Christian Andersen, ' says Bløndal.
Invited to Copenhagen to lecture to an audience that included former colleagues of Utzon, Weston clearly passed his audition - and, still at a remove, Utzon's confidence in the enterprise must have grown. So much so that, one day in 1999, he telephoned Bløndal to find when the monograph would appear.
A few months later the phone calls became daily, and Utzon's involvement in the book's design and content was complete.
'Utzon will speak to us. My quality will win him over, ' Bløndal had assured Weston from the start - and that proved to be the case. 'Torsten has a passion for extracting the best from every part of the the publishing process, ' says Weston. During much of the 1990s, Bløndal was involved in a protracted law case against a Danish printer, because of unacceptable blemishes in one of his books.
His search for quality - 'I test paper samples, everything, ' he says - eventually led to Germany, where the Utzon monograph has been scanned, printed and bound.
Add to this eye for excellence, Bløndal's charm and huge enthusiasm - he would happily have talked all morning when we met - and you can understand why he succeeds in securing the loyal sponsors that a book of this magnitude demands. No doubt a well-chosen bottle of wine, or plate of pastries, at a strategic moment plays its part; but, as John Pardey, who has made new drawings for the monograph, puts it: 'You just know you can trust him - he has total commitment and belief. He's obdurate.'
The whole undertaking has no doubt been eased by the fact that Bløndal, Weston, Pardey - and Utzon, too - are all fans of John Cleese. I cannot say it had occurred to me before that Utzon might relax in his Majorcan hillside home watching re-runs of Fawlty Towers - but the image is endearing.
Utzon, I understand, is thrilled with this new monograph. Certainly it secures his place among the 'greats' of the 20th century, and should attract a new generation of admirers, but it does more - it celebrates something timeless and fundamental in architecture, its capacity to enrich both public and private realms and give greater resonance to life. Bløndal, too, must be delighted, and why not? It is what can happen when you insist on excellence.