From the publisher of Richard Weston's majestic monograph on Jørn Utzon (AJ 4.4.02) come two slimmer volumes, both belonging to a series of Utzon 'logbooks', dealing with groups of related buildings, with Weston as one of the editors. Volume I, by a former Utzon assistant, Mogens Prip-Buus, covers three schemes for courtyard houses, and Volume III, by John Pardey, is devoted to the two houses built successively by Utzon for his own occupation on Majorca.
The term 'logbook' suggests a detailed documentary study of the genesis of each project, and perhaps, like a car logbook, a record of performance in use. Neither of these aspects is absent, but these are in fact building monographs not unlike Phaidon's Buildings in Detail series, in their mixture of project history, analysis and appreciation, illustrated with design drawings and record drawings of the project as built, together with copious colour photos.
The latter are not quite as glossy as the Phaidon equivalents, but they do very well for taking the reader on a desktop tour of each of the projects.
In his winning design for the Swedish Skåne competition in 1954, Utzon adopted a courtyard plan as a way of humanising standard dimensions and details, and providing adequate privacy and flexibility. This was the springboard for two subsequent projects.
Generous government subsidies for low earners with families in Denmark allowed for the realisation of a low-budget scheme at Kingo, near Helsingør, known as 'The Roman Houses', each based on a square walled plot, with two ranges of lean-to, single-storey accommodation. By 1959, 63 houses were completed. Photographs of children playing bring to life the early years of the scheme, which in 1987 became protected.
The houses at Fredensborg, 1962-65, another suburban small town north of the capital, were commissioned as retirement homes for Danes who had worked overseas. Children under 16 were excluded, and the result is formally more perfect, if less lively. The built forms are similar to those at Kingo, with garden walls individually shaped to suit the view, using dimensions from the Modulor. One can find echoes of both schemes in British housing of the 1960s, especially schemes such as The Ryde, Hatfield, by Phippen Randall & Parkes, 1964-66, and Peter Aldington's Turn End, Haddenham, with their concealed courtyards and unified materials.
Utzon's own Mediterranean houses were built later, after the Sydney Opera House lifted him to world fame and then dropped him as suddenly. Can Lis, designed in 1972, stands in succession to the Danish courtyard houses, in its rigorous use of materials (the house was modelled by Utzon using sugar cubes, but is built of local sandstone blocks) and interplay of indoor and outdoor space. Here the view is directly across the ocean and the climate allows for generous shaded courtyards. Pardey takes the reader through the levels of detail, down to the positioning of the furniture, with infectious enthusiasm.
Can Feliz, the second house, was planned in 1989, when Can Lis became too noisy and public (Utzon's son lives there and so nothing is altered). The later house, also facing the ocean but from a higher vantage point, is a tighter design on plan, with projecting porches and verandas that give a primitive Classical flavour in tune with the landscape.
'It is like standing in the temple of Apollo above Delphi, ' writes Pardey.
Both books put their projects in context, positioning them in the wider oeuvre and throwing light on Utzon's design philosophy. They are easier to chew on than the full Weston, even if Utzon's career resists separation into bite-size pieces. Cumulatively, all these books will help to build the reputation of an architect who seems to have much to offer as a correction to our image-driven architectural culture.
Alan Powers is an architectural historian