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Mary Duggan visits Utzon's Majorcan summer house

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Last days of summer: Mary Duggan immerses herself in Jørn Utzon’s legendary Can Lis summer home in Majorca and looks at the effects a house can have on lifestyle

Most architects will have studied Jørn Utzon’s Can Lis at some point in their architectural career and will have referenced the details, the material simplicity and the volumetric arrangement. It is an architectural masterpiece with many since stolen features.

My partner and I were gifted a week’s stay in the property this August. We invited my mother and sister, and arrived with our daughter at midday on 7 August to temperatures of more than 35 degrees.

Can Lis by Jorn Utzon. Image: Mary Duggan

Can Lis by Jorn Utzon. Image: Mary Duggan

As architects, we visit such renowned buildings compelled to analyse details, assess plan arrangements, adjacencies, thresholds, light levels and material choices. We try to unravel the construction sequence, to find the logic in the process. We are highly critical. In fact it is a hindrance and often to the detriment of an emotional attitude or response. I wondered if I could resist the quest to deconstruct the house and remain passive to its invitation.

As with any holiday accommodation, the initial hour involved working out how to get into the property and to deactivate the alarms. Then the essentials. Where is the fridge? No kettle? No toaster? So British.

We opened all of the doors very quickly - front doors, back doors, secondary louvered doors and rebated ventilation doors. It was initially very disorientating. Indoor rooms lead to outdoor rooms in very quick sequence. We are preconditioned to weather-tight buildings. We thought the toilet was very far away from the kitchen and front door. We are also preconditioned to hurry.

Can Lis by Jorn Utzon. Image: Mary Duggan

Can Lis by Jorn Utzon. Image: Mary Duggan

The rooms are both internal and external, outside and inside. The weather permits this and is one reason why it is so successful, permitting movement from one space to the next with ease and without the need to close doors.

During the day the combination of canopy, courtyards and sun position created many opportunities. We four adults moved around independently, reading in the shade, benefitting from the breeze, drinking wine at the external dining table and staring into space. We were barely together except when eating. The house effortlessly created conditions for contemplation without prescription.

For my daughter, the house was a playground. While we were slow paced, she found much entertainment. She skipped up and down the stepped terraces from one end of the house to the other. She ran loops around the internal dining room and terrace. She hid behind columns. She played an invented version of hopscotch on the stone tiles.

And so I began breaking down the plan, honing in on details to interrogate the rules behind the construction. The homogeneous stonework is used for structure, walls and floors, but the build strategy is very clearly expressed through the joints and modules. The smaller stones build columns, and the larger forming partition walls. The stone floor tiling tracks the main grid per block stitching the columns together. In between the grid lines the tiles mimic the ceiling plan of precast arched panels.

The doorsets are positioned on one side of the stone structural openings, so appear clear of extraneous detail when viewed from one side with the same logic applied to the bay window glazing. Sitting in a bay window or on the fixed furniture pieces, the reason is obvious. It is important that the views are uncluttered and that the purity of the structure is retained. To use the lever handles with ease, a scoop of stone is removed. The ironmongery on the secondary louvre doors to the sleeping areas is let into the stone to avoid duplicating door frames.

Volumetrically, the collection of building blocks have found an effortless position relating to aspect, road, cliff face and sea. The main shift in the grid occurs at the entrance between the kitchen/dining and living block mitigating between the formalities of arrival and the twist in the site. The stepped floor levels coinciding precisely with block thresholds further reinforce the volumetric expression. The tiles always relate to and sit square to each block.

Can Lis by Jorn Utzon. Image: Mary Duggan

Can Lis by Jorn Utzon. Image: Mary Duggan

My daughter collected pine cones and laid them out in lines. She collected bundles of petals and sprinkled them like confetti. The natural landscape creeps through the house. Pines are interspersed with blossom.

There is a strong scent. And a sense that the buildings have been designed to retain as much as possible by weaving the structures between the trees. The interstitial spaces between the blocks are filled with fallen foliage which gradually bleed into the rooms under foot. And then there is the cliff face and the marriage of rock and house. The house both extrudes from and binds to the rock reaching a natural equilibrium between man-made and natural inhabitation, beginning with the raw cliff rock, to rough perimeter stonework, and then onto smooth modulated interior.

Design can be wilful, forced, and unnecessary; executed purely for the possibility of achieving rather than needing. This house is so restrained in its construction. It is obvious that the materials are locally sourced and handmade. It doesn’t try too hard to include or exclude man or nature. Every decision and detail has a reason for being based on achieving a very particular living experience.

This is a house typology that can only possibly work in warm climates as it has divorced the primary functions of eating, living and sleeping with exterior space. It couldn’t be more removed from London housing, constrained by minimum standards and packed into big organised boxes flirting balconies.

Can Lis is not really a house, it’s an inhabited landscape. It encourages a different type of occupation, each activity conscious, slow paced and meandering. There are no short cuts driven by efficiency, but rather a celebration of time, of sleeping, eating and breathing in nature expanding the programme of living.

So what is London living? We are obsessed with time and efficiency. Our houses serve the city as places to go when the lights go out. There is no slack. We compress recreation to pocket parks and licensing hours usually indoors. We plan our journeys with desperation to save seconds. I have returned home with a feeling that I’ve fallen out of a time warp, my foot tied to the accelerator and I’m desperately trying to remain upbeat.

Mary Duggan, Duggan Morris Architects

19 August 2014

Read the AJ’s revisit from 2013 featuring photography by Anthony Coleman

Jørn again: The best summer house in the world?


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