Arquitectura Viva
Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Great Centennial Dane

Luis Fernández-Galiano

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Pritzker Prize of 2003 went to a great Dane who a quarter-century before had already made history. In 1978 Jørn Utzon received the Gold Medal of the RIBA, and by then his creative life was substantially completed. Five years before, the windfilled crustacean shells of the Sydney Opera had begun a bittersweet sail after a long process full of discrepancies that in 1966 had finally drawn the architect away from the country and the work; and while the already symbol of Australia opened without its author, Utzon designed what was to be his last capolavoro, the church of Bagsværd, an exquisite cloistral shed with sheet roofs and undulating ceilings of concrete outside his native Copenhagen, which on completion in 1976 wrapped up a career marked by a dazzling formal inventiveness.

Behind was the vernacular topography of the Kingo Houses, with their landscape of courtyards and the tactile sensibility of their brick masonry, designed shortly before the Opera House competition that in 1957 gave Utzon the equivocal prize of fame, and extended soon after in another model residential development, the Fredensborg complex. Behind, too, was the project of a museum for Asger Jorn, a cluster of jars or buried coconuts tangled in ramps that joins the Einsteinturm, New York’s Guggenheim, Kiesler and Ronchamp. Behind was his first Mallorca house, a severe and archaic work of stone, geometry and light where he would become a recluse since 1973. And behind was also Kuwait’s National Assembly, a labyrinthian bazaar in penumbra with solemn arcades under concrete canopies which echoes Chandigarh.

When Utzon became an honorary, secretive Majorcan, he was already recognized as one of the great masters of the century: a disciple of the Aalto whose traces were everywhere in his work, from the fans of the Birkehøj houses to the waves of Bagsværd, but also an independent talent who engaged in dialogue as much with the late work of Wright and Le Corbusier as with the contemporary projects of Kahn, Tange or Niemeyer; a laconic humanist who reconciled tectonic industrialization with pre-industrial archetypes, and the construction by elements of modernity with the timeless eloquence of the anonymous or historic architectures learned in his travels; and an innovator of form who materialized the lyrical essence of his built architectural research in feats like the platform crowned by a canopy of lightweight roofs.

Until his death in 2008, this strayed heroe in his island refuge was the object of many critical attempts to make his figure resurface. Some pointed him out as the expressionist visionary who in Sydney spawned the genre of mediatic constructions of the society of spectacle; others praised the organic wisdom of his residential works, emphasizing the silent elegance of his Danish developments and Majorcan houses; and still others retraced his career from the angle of the situationist aesthetics of the formless, placing the project for Jorn and the CoBrA connection as the core of his artistic experience. On this centenary, I dare highlight the Kuwait Assembly, which I only had the chance to visit after it had been damaged during the Gulf War, but whose monumental architrave prefabrication continues to be a rich source of geometric intelligence and poetic emotion.

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