The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
Bagsvaerd Church in Copenhagen is one of the few buildings I dream about. I read little about it before going. I wanted a visceral experience.
The parish pamphlet tells the story. In it, architect Jorn Utzon describes its design and creation in a simple way, as if it was inevitable. However, like most architects, he doesn’t tell the truth about everything. Many critics have since revealed its true complexity and richly allusive character.
It is not the easiest of buildings to like immediately. When you first see it, it does not seem much like a church. It feels like an agricultural or industrial building on the edge of suburbia. Factory roof sheeting, standard roof glazing, galvanised rainwater pipes with gutters you could stand on.
The difference is its whiteness. This ghostly building occupies its site like fog. The silver birches that surround it cast their shadows on to the raw concrete cladding panels and the gloss white ceramic tiles of its skin. There don’t seem to be any windows. No blackened stone tower, no churchyard or gravestones - just sepulchral whiteness behind white trees under an off- white Danish sky.
A Chinese puzzle.
The ambiguity continues as you enter the church porch from its western forecourt. The eaves are low, the entrance doors undefined. Entering just off axis through a blonde timber and glass screen, it all feels carefully understated, like a new community building. Moving into the church interior, the shock is correspondingly greater, as here is Utzon’s sacred space in the forest clearing, fading upward to the clouds above.
The first impression is wonder - have I just come from the outside in or from the inside out? Why is it so much brighter in here than it is outside? Along with this, the sense of inversion; what you expect to see and to feel in a church is darkness punctured by light, soaring verticality, reverence, shock and awe, heaven and hell. None of that here; no heart of darkness, no guilt - just brightness, shafts of sunlight, horizontality, a shared community, a heaven of sorts.
Daylight from the high-level clerestory window above is soft and washes across the concrete clouds. At the edges the daylight from the roof-lights is magnified by internal reflection between the lime whitewashed concrete surfaces, over- lit to euphoria inducing levels. Multiple golden filament bulbs add ecclesiastical candlelight.
The concrete vaults appear weightless - the shells span 17m between the tall pre-cast concrete frames which form the enveloping circulation route ; narrow aisles enclosing a broad and spacious nave. You can run your hand under the board marked concrete curves of the vaults from the first floor, your other hand gliding over the white ceramic tiles along the balcony edge.
Gabled pine benches are spread across the polished white cement floor of the church - closely grouped around the font, pulpit, and communion table. The altar screen is a lacy almost-kitsch assemblage of white painted blocks. The shuttered timber housing of the church organ is pushed into the space from the south wall - laddered packing cases from the Elsinore shipyard. If I had arrived an hour earlier I would have heard bells and singing and the sound of the organ during the morning service. The acoustic character must be magical, the shape and materials of the interior acting as a giant instrument with sound as rich as a Welsh Chapel.
Colour is used sparingly in the building ; half-round ultramarine blue ceramic tiles are used along the top edges of the inner walls of the staircase balustrades. A cream and green carpet sprinkled with red lilies describes the forest path from entry to altar. The building comes alive during service when the vicar and the choir don the flamboyant coloured vestments designed by Lin Utzon, which are startlingly Japanese in character. One memory of my visit was of a young man of the choir, dressed in a blue and white kimono, reclining after communion on the bench in front of the altar, his longish dark hair stretched out across the pale grey suede. Architecture and Religion, Birth and Sex and Death.
The remainder of the building houses the confirmation rooms, meeting hall, and back of house facilities for the church. A youth centre concludes the grouping along the eastern wall. All are connected by the top-lit corridors, and separated by courtyard gardens. Walking along these routes felt like wading through ribbons of light even on the autumn day I was there. Larkin’s High Windows made flesh; the focus up to the tree canopy, the sky overhead.
The doors facing into the corridors are match-boarded with rails and stiles flush, as are the doorframes. Each single door is paired with a matching panel to suit the gap in the structural grid, planted proud on to the face of the columns, and fixed with galvanised steel brackets. The doors and frames are planed pine with a coat or two of clear/white stain. A brass lever handle. No linings, no architraves. Nothing superfluous.
This direct attitude to the detailing epitomises the character of its construction throughout ; nothing about the building seems particularly refined yet everything feels celebrated. The combination of the prefabricated and the bespoke focus attention on the fundamentals of its architecture ; the general and the particular; the everyday and the holy. There is attention not only to the effort of the skilled artisans in the various crafts and trades, but to the factory made components which make up the bulk of its envelope, and therefore to the process of construction itself. Overall, there is that feeling of ‘let us all come together to design and make something wonderful ’ - not design/build and arbitrate. With Utzon as Maestro di Capella. For the love of God.
My visit to Bagsvaerd Church left me with a strong memory of a seminal building, its cool lightness burned white hot into my unconscious, evoking dreamlike recollection ever since.