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Majestic conceptions

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Review

Utzon By Richard Weston. Edition Bløndal, 2002. 432pp. £99.95.

Available from Triangle Bookshop (020 7631 1381) and the RIBA Bookshop (020 7251 0791) On 26 April 1966, shortly after his 48th birthday, Jørn Utzon and his family left Sydney. They travelled under false names and boarded the plane at the last minute to avoid the press. Back in his native Denmark, Utzon was warned that, because he had resigned from the job, he would never be given government work, and this turned out to be true.

This resignation episode, in which Utzon was manipulated by opportunitistic politicians, was a tragedy for the building, since the interiors were completed without reference to Utzon's vision, but as Richard Weston admits in his magnificent monograph (the first that Utzon has sanctioned), it is less amazing that he was caught on a trip wire than that he had been able to have such a clear run until then.

Weston tells the story in a single long chapter, and his combination of narrative and interpretation, backed up by photo essays on the 330mm square pages, is exemplary. The balance between Sydney and the rest of Utzon's career seems correct, and, lest the reader should fear bathos, the next chapter engages with equal intensity in describing an unbuilt scheme for a museum in Denmark, for the painter Asger Jørn, which, despite its relatively small scale, is scarcely less fascinating in its implications.

Luckily, although Utzon cannot fail to have been bruised by the Sydney debacle (he has never returned there), his career was far from over. If at least half his projects were unbuilt, that was not an unusual experience for an international architect of quality in the 1970s and '80s. He now lives in retirement on Majorca in the second of two houses he has built out of simple local materials, whose austere sunlit spaces are generously illustrated at the end of the book.

Weston has the knowledge and understanding necessary for situating Utzon historically, which also means situating him in the contemporary field, for a building like the Guggenheim Bilbao has given the Opera House a renewed relevance. Dismissing the analogies with expressionism that clustered around Sydney's white sails, he finds plenty of grounding in the Scandinavian lineage of Modernism. Utzon spent most of the war years in Sweden, where Asplund's combination of playfulness and integrity was important. Aalto was scarcely less so, but Utzon, the son of a boat designer, had a tougher and more adventurous attitude to structure, and learnt from his teacher Kay Fisker a principle of 'constructive logic'.

Utzon's visits in 1949 to the Mayan temples made him aware of primordial qualities in architecture that find expression in the work of Louis Kahn but, as Weston comments, the results in Utzon have none of the taint of the drawing board and the T-square.

The vast plinth and the ascending steps are seen without compromise at Sydney, but equally in very simple houses. While there is much about Utzon's sensitivity and care that is typically Danish, he has a grandeur of conception that is transnational.

There is one work more or less by Utzon in the British Isles, understandably not mentioned in a book that does not claim completeness, that bears out the claim as well as any other. This is the house for Povl Ahm, an engineer with Arup, at Harpenden, for which Utzon provided a sketch, involving concrete beams spanning longitudinally where common sense would have dictated simple transverse spans. Although the house is not large, the effect is monumental, in contrast to the littleness that tended to afflict most post-war private houses in Britain.

Utzon's strongly intuitive method of designing was based on a genuine appreciation and understanding of nature - reverent, but not sentimental. He avoided the trap of literal transcription, but found generative ideas in plant, wave and cloud forms. Sharing with Frank Lloyd Wright a knowledge of Goethe's scientific works, Utzon states that 'the inevitability of nature's principle of growth ought to be a fundamental concept in architecture'.

Utzon was struck by a saying of Aalto's, that on a branch of cherry blossom, each flower has the same form but is subtly different, and tried to exemplify this in a number of low-rise housing projects.Weston gives these issues due consideration, and also explores Utzon's related interest in prefabrication and the design of components;

seen in this context, not as a denial of the organic, but as an affirmation of nature's mode of operation with standardised parts.

The other major theme to emerge from the book is the influence of Islamic architecture and urban design. This was manifested in Utzon's Parliament Building in Kuwait, his last major work, on a scale to rival Sydney, but almost unknown in the canon of Modern architecture. It is far from the superficial embellishment of standard building types with Islamic motifs that many Arab clients found acceptable.

Instead, it has a magnificent portico roofed with channelled concrete like draped fabric, while the interior is organised on the cellular principle of an Islamic city.

Utzon's flights from Denmark to Australia gave him opportunities to stop off at Isfahan and elsewhere en route, and he put the knowledge to good use. The profound influence of Islam and other non-Western cultures (China and Japan in particular) on Utzon's work forms a theme running through the book, that relates broadly to the movement away from rationalisation in post-war Modern architecture. With Weston's book in our laps (it is almost too heavy to hold in hands alone), we can reconsider the whole history of the past 50 years as never before.

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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