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Ripe for rediscovery

RICHARD WESTON Jorn Utzon: The Sydney Opera House by Francoise Fromonot. Electa/Ginko, 1998. 236pp. £29.95. (Distributor Art Books International 0171 720 1503)

It is over 40 years since Jorn Utzon won the Sydney Opera House competition, and we still have no comprehensive book on his work. He supervised two extensive - and very beautiful - presentations in the Italian periodical Zodiac, and has recently broken his silence with occasional interviews for magazines and television programmes. But 'The Book' remains as elusive as ever.

Francoise Fromonot's account, originally published in Italian, is no exception to this pattern. It is, as she remarks in the introduction, 'a strange task to undertake an inquiry on a still living but absent figure, a contemporary already assigned to history'. Despite the obstacles, she has managed to present the fullest record to date: hitherto unpublished drawings and photographs from archives in Sydney and the reminiscences, views and private papers of several of Utzon's key associates supplement material drawn from magazines.

The book began as a study of the Opera House, and this remains the core around which its chronological narrative unfolds. The account of the architectural/constructional development of Utzon's magnum opus, from the elation of winning the competition from his forest hideaway in North Zealand to the fiasco surrounding his 'resignation' almost ten years later, is unlikely to be bettered, or more copiously illustrated. The magnificent construction photographs of the late Max Dupain carry the narrative almost as effectively as the text; they are complemented by fascinating images of the models which were central to Utzon's design process, and by a host of hitherto unpublished drawings for the glass walls and interior 'acoustic shells' - which Arup's infamously declared 'unrealistic'.

The cumulative effect is overwhelming: the most memorable exterior in twentieth-century architecture would clearly have been matched by an interior every bit as magisterial. The loss is irretrievable: whatever Utzon's re-engagement with Sydney may mean, it will not yield a 'historical reconstruction' based on these breathtaking studies.

The in-depth presentation and analysis of Sydney is interspersed with the other work. The treatment is necessarily brief: Bagsvaerd and Kuwait get little more than a page of text each, 'Additive Architecture' and the related furniture, a couple - plus drastic reductions of the original articles published in Arkitektur. These are useful, but like many pages in the book, rather busy: visual busy-ness jars with Utzon's calm, expansive forms, and had no place in the layouts he supervised (having worked briefly as a graphic designer, he was unusually fastidious about presentation).

Utzon's corpus is not large and, with the exception of a few private houses, including one or two of genuine interest, Fromonot presents almost all that matters - presents, but does not fully analyse. To anyone unfamiliar with the work, it must appear extraordinarily disparate, by turns 'organic' and 'rational', traditional and radical - and often all at the same time. Fromonot identifies these themes at the outset but, tied to an episodic, chronological structure, does not trace the threads which link, for example, the Melli Bank in Iran, the Bayview House projects in Sydney, and Bagsvaerd Church.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to sense intimations of almost the entire Utzon oeuvre in the images which accompanied a 1947 manifesto - close-ups of plants and minerals; Fallingwater; Aalto vases and the inclined columns and mushroom capitals of the Turun Sanomat print- room; a Chinese pagoda and courtyard house; Italian and Spanish villages. The Langelinie Pavilion competition project - which melded pagoda and Johnson Wax laboratory tower with a plan evocative of a plant stem - is there; so, in the Aalto columns, is the expressive truth-to-forces structure which nearly drove Arup's to distraction in Sydney; so too are the Kingo housing clusters.

Fromonot concludes incisively and provocatively, describing Utzon as the 'guardian of fugitive ideals . . . too idiosyncratic to be exemplary, too radical to be followed'. Seen from this side of the fin de siecle, she is surely right: his stylistic influence has been all but negligible. But history has a way of surprising us, and I suspect Utzon's work is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation, just as Sydney is poised to be the representative building for the new Millennium.

Richard Weston teaches at De Montfort University, Leicester

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