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Jørn Utzon’s use of

daylight in architecture

Inaugurated in 1972 after a building period of 16 years, the Sydney Opera is one of the world’s most original and
spectacular buildings. The Opera is also a landmark for Sydney and an icon for the whole twentieth century.

J ø r n U t z o n ’s u s e o f d a y l i g h t i n a r c h i t e c t u r e

I n ha biti n g L ig ht
For Jørn Utzon, light has been the enduring thread that binds his
interest in nature to his interest in architecture and to his world
view. Throughout his career, his passion for the natural world has
led him to seek more from daylight than adequate illumination or
sensual delight. Natural processes were models for numerous as-
pects of his work and they have inspired him to take that which is
essential to daylight, because it is essential to human existence,
BY Richard Weston
and use it to generate architecture. and Martin Schwartz

Through studies of the most impor- ten, “depend more heavily on small interiors to be illuminated by daylight.
tant projects created by Jørn Utzon, thoughts than you might think.”2 Baker Nevertheless, Utzon paid extraordinary
Professor Richard Weston and archi- might well have had Jørn Utzon in mind attention to the roof shells and their
tect Martin Schwartz analyse how when he wrote this. potential to capture and hold light on
one of the most original architects their surfaces. The weather in Sydney is
conceives of architecture as a func- Several of the most interesting ex- by no means as consistently sunny as
tion of daylight. amples of this process can be found in the city’s tourist promotions would
Utzon’s use of light and in his increas- have us believe, and the Harbor itself –
Like many true innovators, Jørn Utzon ing reliance on light, throughout his ca- as Eero Saarinen (the most distin-
is an observer with unusual acuity. His reer, to help generate space and form. guished member of the original com-
works are frequently founded in in- His use of light centers on three obser- petition jury) pointed out to Utzon – could
sights that initially appear quite small, vations that, although small in them- be surprisingly dark at times. In re-
but turn out to be so profound that they selves, have great power as generative sponse, Utzon decided to cover the
drive his architecture to a level of mas- principles: firstly, the understanding shells with ceramic tiles, developing a
tery with what seems like inevitable that reflected or diffused light is usually combination of glazed (highly reflec-
force. Many of these insights arise from preferable to a direct view of a light tive) and unglazed (matte finish) tiles
observations taken from nature, but source; secondly, sensitivity to the sun’s
unlike the flowing, biomorphic shapes daily and annual paths through the sky
of much so-called “organic” architec- with reference to particular places; and Jørn Utzon. Photo: Ole Haupt©

ture, the resulting forms do not resem- thirdly, the realization that light-receiv-
ble nature in any obvious way. Instead ing devices could be made into inhabit-
the projects derive from principles dis- able spaces.
covered in trees and leaves, fish,1 sand,
snow, sky, and of course, light. Through- Light and form:
out his career, Utzon has sought to Sydney Opera House
make buildings that have the kind of One cannot help but notice that by ro-
balance and order found in biology and tating the early PH lamps 90 degrees,
physics as much as in architectural clas- so that the central axis through the
Photo: David Messent/Edition Bløndal ©

sicism. He has translated natural phe- lamp is horizontal, the profile resem-
nomena, light in particular, as well as bles the silhouette of the nested shells
principles from the natural world, into of the Sydney Opera House (1957-73).
ideas about structure, enclosure, repe- However, the translation of a formal
tition, order and disorder, change and idea into architecture is not so simple.
stability; and he linked them in his As it is difficult to meet normal acoustic
mind and works in order to establish and theatrical demands of the theater
his own basis for the composition of ar- or music hall with openings to the out-
chitectural form and space. “Large side world, the opera house offered
thoughts,” as Nicholson Baker has writ- limited opportunities (the lobbies) for

Photo: David Messent/Edition Bløndal©
The Opera is placed on a projected piece of land
in Sydney Bay. The building looks like an al-
most hovering, moving formation of gigantic,
white shells of various sizes, lifted above a ter-
raced bastion, towering on the background of
the sky, the sea and the horizon.

Sketches of plateaus and hovering forms, real

and abstract clouds and a Chinese roof, associ-
ated by Utzon with the Sydney Opera.

Sketches: Jørn Utzon

Utzon decided to cover the Opera with ceramic tiles in a com-
bined pattern of glazed and unglazed tiles, intended to produce a
shimmer rather than a mirror effect. In his description of the sur-
face Utzon used a natural analogy to the glow of snow-covered
Photo: David Messent/Edition Bløndal©

mountain landscapes and the contrast between soft, newly fallen

snow and the glisten of frozen snow.
Photo: Richard Weston/Edition Bløndal©

All the shells of the Sydney Opera are different sections of the
same, large sphere. They are formed by a gigantic, ribbed con-
crete structure, mounted in symmetrical pairs on their terraced

inspired, in part, by his admiration for also lend proportion and scale to the dictable but ever-changing path of the
the tiled domes and minarets of tradi- roof shells, making the construction sun. After the tribulations of Sydney,
tional Islamic cities. The character of process explicit. These several qualities Utzon must have realized that instead
light he sought for the shell surfaces lend meaning to the overall form of the of a producing a complicated object, he
was a shimmer that is not quite specu- roof shells, tying the architecture to its could plan simple buildings and let the
lar3 – or as Utzon described it, a “sur- place in the world. The play of light on sun and sky do the hard work of gener-
face which…would show the texture the surface of the Sydney Opera House ating a feeling of mutability.
through the glaze”4 – and characteristi- is evidence of the tension between sta-
cally he offered natural analogies, in bility and change that characterizes Inhabited caves:
the light-reflecting qualities of snow Utzon’s architecture and all of nature. Silkeborg Museum of Fine Arts
that give rise to the phenomenon of The building, with all of its shells curved and Jeita Theatre
Alpengluhen (the coloured glow of in correspondence with the same di- With the Sydney Opera House, Jørn
snow-covered mountain landscapes), ameter, the finite number of tile lid siz- Utzon established himself as one of the
and in the contrast between soft, new- es, the constant 5-inch-square tiles and great form-givers of twentieth century
ly fallen snow and the glisten and ir- resulting grid of joints, is quite obvious- architecture. So it is noteworthy that he
regular surface of its frozen form. ly stable. But the ever-changing play of never again saw the need to make ex-
daylight on the varied shell sizes, the traordinary form, and certainly not for
The resulting surfaces are among the two tile finishes and lid arrangements, its own sake. In his subsequent projects,
most expressive in modern architec- and the curves themselves, create an form was devised to capture light, and
ture. As passing clouds, the sun or you illusion in which the architecture ap- directed toward the creation of the
the viewer move by, the shells various- pears to change and even move in re- character of interior space. Form be-
ly glow, gleam or flash with light. Stand sponse to its environment. came a function of performance. By
closer and the tiles scintillate, as if stud- building underground, he quite literally
ded with stars. Closer still, and tiny con- Here we find the emergence of suppressed extraordinary external
stellations appear and disappear below Utzon’s second insight in regard to forms in the first of two projects for the
the bubbly surface of each tile. Walking daylight. He understood the geometri- unbuilt Silkeborg Museum of Fine Arts
down the narrow ’street’ between the cal relationship between the sun and a (1963-1964). Designed to house the
performance halls one moves between particular place on the earth and saw works of the leading Danish artist
soft blue shade and glistening ice. In its architectural significance. Utzon was Asger Jorn, Utzon proposed a building
the shadows mysterious pools of glow- clearly aware of the changing but pre- that resembled an artificial cave sys-
ing light are reflected from the neigh- dictable path of the sun as it appears to tem, with a pair of bottle-shaped gal-
boring hall. And as the sun sets, the travel through the sky, daily and annu- leries accessed by a roller-coaster net-
light lingers, caressing and coloring the ally. He knew how the sun’s path varies work of ramps, all of which are contain­­ed
tiles: cream and ochre, then salmon by latitude and the effects of local cli- in a three-storey-tall underground cham­
pink and the palest of violets, until the mate. With his preference for diffused ber in which paintings were intended to
voluptuous geometry is reduced to a light, he realized that to provide the be hung free in space.
ghostly silhouette. The seams between most comfortable light to a space and
tile-surfaced concrete “lids”, the joints to animate a structure visually, it would Utzon intended that the large chamber
between tiles, and the subtle variation be sufficient to configure and locate an be bathed in light reflected off the
between matte and glazed tile surfaces immobile structure correctly in the pre- northern sky from a completely glazed

In 1970 Jørn Utzon was commissioned to design a theatre in a large, underground cave at Jeita in Lebanon. The cave is almost
completely devoid of natural light, and so Utzon decided to use artificial light as the primary means of creating space. The audi-
torium should be surrounded by a skeletal steel structure, lit with flickering yellow, orange and red lights, suggesting fire in the
depth of the cave. Unfortunately, the project was never realized.
Sketch: Jørn Utzon
Photo: Jan Utzon

Silkeborg Museum, north facade

Utzon submitted two proposals

for the Silkeborg Museum of
Fine Arts – which was never
built – designed to house the
works of the Danish artist As-
ger Jorn. One of the proposals
was a building that resembled
Silkeborg Museum, section artificial caves with a pair of
bottle-shaped galleries. They
were accessed by a roller-coast-
er network of ramps, all of
which contained in a three-sto-
rey tall underground gallery.

Silkeborg Museum, section

Silkeborg Museum, plan

roof, and the galleries project above sion from bright exterior to dim inner- at Jeita Grotto, north of Beirut, Leba-
ground with glazed openings. The re- most chamber would have eased the non. The cave, a celebrated tourist at-
sult would have provided even, glare- adaptation of our eyes to lower light traction, was intimidatingly vast and
free illumination for the display of art- levels as visitors entered galleries de- almost completely devoid of natural
works and for circulation in the museum signed to exhibit the most delicate art- light, and so Utzon determined to use
– some sun would have entered the works, while also reflecting Asger artificial light as the primary means of
museum, but only during very early Jorn’s wish that the encounter with his creating space. To enclose the seating
and late hours during the long Nordic sculptures should be as much tactile as and support the stagelighting rigs, he
summer days. Every wall surface would visual. proposed a skeletal steel structure. As
have been bathed in reflected light, so visitors entered the cave, the steel
that the composition is likely to have Six years after projecting the cave- structure was to be lit with flickering
been one of illuminated spaces within like system of spaces at Silkeborg, Ut- yellow, orange and red lights, suggest-
illuminated spaces, in a progression of zon was presented with the challenge ing the welcoming warmth of a fire
gradually dimmer rooms. This proces- of creating a theatre in an actual cave burning deep in the cave. Before and

during the performance, visitors would The sun travels low in the Scandinavi- cles7 of varying diameters or, at the
be aware only of the skeletal enclosure an sky, often grazing the horizon and corridors, completely glazed. The corri-
and the stage, but then, following a frequently presenting the problem of dors receive skylight and sun on tall,
moment of total darkness, the ‘house glare.5 Utzon realized that the geometry matte white walls, high enough to re-
lights’ – powerful floodlights directed of that sun-earth relationship contained flect and re-reflect light. The corridors
at the natural vault above – were to be a solution to the problem. As invigorat- are saturated with illumination and, as
turned on to reveal for the first time the ing as sunlight sometimes can be, the a result, noticeably brighter than the
vastness of the cave. Unfortunately the best reading, working, and living light streetscape of darker houses and veg-
project was never realised. should be light reflected from the por- etation, just outside the building. “The
tion of the sky without the sun. In Scan- light in the corridors,” Jørn Utzon wrote,
Light and space: dinavia, this is the top of the sky. Bag­ “provides almost the same feel as the
Bagsværd Church sværd Church’s almost distinct zones of light experienced in the mountains dur-
Bagsværd Church (1968-76) north of Co- direct and reflected light result from ing a sunny day in winter, making these
penhagen fully orchestrates the inter- Utzon’s orientation of building openings elongated spaces happy places in which
play of all three of Utzon’s daylighting primarily in one direction – in this case, to walk8.” Like the corridors, the court-
themes. (Firstly, the understanding that upward. The light in Bagsværd Church is yards also take light, receiving it on
reflected or diffused light is usually pref- either skylight (containing little or no their ground and wall surfaces, where
erable to a direct view of a light source; direct sun) from the top of the sky, or it is reflected through screens of wood
secondly, sensitivity to the sun’s daily direct sun reflected from building sur- and glass and into offices and meeting
and annual paths through the sky with faces before it reaches our eyes. rooms. Almost every room in the church
reference to particular places; and third- is situated between, and brightened
ly, the realization that light-receiving This idea, the separation of sky and by, two light sources: corridor and
devices could be made into inhabitable sun, generated floor plans and sections courtyard.
spaces.) The church was conceived from with distinct qualities. The plans are or-
its inception as a spatial response to thogonal, constituted by squares6 of The sanctuary of Bagsværd Church is
daylight and the path of the sun in this varying sizes, and with an armature of one of the most extraordinary ecclesi-
part of the world. The approach is so flu- corridors, entirely skylit, that structure astical spaces in twentieth-century ar-
ent that it is fair to say that the church is movement, receive direct light and de- chitecture, and is a technical as well as
organized in light; however, confronted lineate residual space for rooms and a psychological achievement. The sanc-
by the opaque, virtually windowless courtyards. The plan depicts a clear tuary uses the Nordic sky as the source
enclosing walls, the first-time visitor structural grid capable of supporting of light and also as a working model for
may be confounded by this claim. But ambitious sectional qualities. And it is the illumination of the room. The forms
upon entering, even after many visits, in section, the vertical dimension, that of the vault are not only inspired by
one is astonished by the interior spaces a building is enabled to gather light. clouds, but also work much like clouds
suffused with illumination. Here, the ceilings are generated by cir- as a sheltering canopy and a reflector

The plan of Bagsværd Church is

a clear structural grid, consist-
ing of squares of various sizes
connected by corridors receiv-
ing only daylight. In section,
the ceilings are a combination
of circles of varying diameter.

Bagsværd Church is design­
ed as a combination of in-
situ cast concrete and con­
crete components. The fa-
cades are faced with light
concrete elements and ce-
ramic tiles of the same col-
Photo: Bent Ryberg/Edition Bløndal©

The church is situated in

an institutional area, but
surrounded on all sides by
green lawns. The limited
area of the site dictated the
narrow volume of the build-
Photo: Arne Magnussen & Vibeke Maj Magnussen/Edition Bløndal©

of light. Utzon is said to have realized plored in Utzon’s most important is, in fact, also the primary roof struc-
the potential of this strategy while ob- published article, “Platforms and Pla- ture – is a curved complex of sprayed
serving cloud formations on the beach teaus: Ideas of a Danish Architect,”10 reinforced concrete vaults. The vaults
in Hawaii,9 but the idea was latent in while the almost calligraphic, “wander- are thin, 8 to 10 centimeters spanning
his earlier work. The idea of the roof as ing” line quality of Bagsværd’s ceiling 17 meters (almost 56 feet). Everchang-
a cloud-like form floating above a plat- can be traced back to an early theoreti- ing daylight and the fluid forms of the
form was posited in sketches associat- cal design for a printing factory made vault transform concrete into a nearly
ed with Sydney Opera House and ex- in Morocco in 1947. The ceiling – which weightless hovering canopy designed

Sketches: Jørn Utzon
Utzon conceived the concept of Bag­
sværd Church in two sketches, show-
ing the transformation of a group of
people on a beach into a congrega-
tion in a church, framed by an ab-
stract landscape of trunk-like col-
umns and cloud vaults.

In Bagsværd Church there is one of

the most unusual architectural naves
in 20th century architecture. The
sanctuary uses the Nordic sky as the
source of light. The vaults – a rein-
forced concrete structure – are not
only inspired by clouds, but also work
like clouds as a sheltering canopy
and a reflector of light.
Photo: Bent Ryberg/Edition Bløndal©

to diffuse light and distribute sound in white so as to take a small amount of ow to suggest that there is a boundary
the space. northern skylight (a very small amount between the real sky and the cloud
in winter months), and occasional vault of the worship space. The light is
The clerestory windows high on the direct sun, and distribute it generously reflected and re-reflected so that it is
west side of the sanctuary vault allow throughout the room. The only shadow further softened, until the brightness of
skylight and warm afternoon and on the vaults is the fine tracery of the the vault is gradually reduced to a dark-
evening sun to break through and play wood formwork, which reveals the true er underside where, like a cloud, it
on the vault. The vaults are painted nature of the material. There is no shad- shades itself. Daylight enters the sanc-

tuary from spaces on its four edges. It courtyard, from the earlier private the “Roman Houses;” begun 1957), and
is filtered through a double layer of houses such as the Villa Banck with its Fredensborg Houses (completed 1965).
glazed screens on the west entry side, two courts (Helsingborg, Sweden; 1958) In these influential and articulate
pours down through the skylighted cor- to the Paustian Furniture Showroom schemes, the private outside spaces –
ridor and balcony system north and (Copenhagen, 1987). Even Sydney’s the courtyards – are oriented southwest
south, and sneaks in from the sacristy platform is such a space: the Opera or southeast for midday and (a choice
behind the altar. The vaults appear to House is not just an isolated sculpture, of) afternoon or morning sun. The units
levitate, like clouds or puffs of smoke, but also a successful public plaza. Ut- are attached, sited with reference to
with no means of support, and certain- zon’s mature works illustrate his suc- the slope of the land, and offset from
ly not as if made from a heavy materi- cess in bringing the character of the each other in plan for advantageous
al. The sanctuary is effectively a court- courtyard, enclosed yet day-lit, to other views, to enhance privacy, and to indi-
yard, where parishioners worship in spaces. vidualize each unit. The resulting hous-
the landscape just as Utzon depicted in ing developments offer open space and
his evocative early sketches. At the same time that Utzon was light at two scales: private and public,
making open spaces on a civic, even with the former dedicated to the family
Light in courtyards geographical scale at Sydney, he was and the latter defined by the aggregat-
Utzon’s architecture is grounded in his exploring the courtyard on residential ed community of walled courtyards. Ut-
empathy with sun, sky, light, and in- and community scales, suggesting zon’s Espansiva residential building sys-
habitation, and he always begins a its use for a variety of living and work- tem of the late 1960s is similarly
project with the creation of open space, ing activities, and to guarantee each depicted as a community of communi-
a room in daylight. Bagsværd Church, house’s access to daylight. For the ties. A site plan diagram shows nine
with its open courtyards and sanctuary, Skåne housing competition, with Ib houses, each comprised of varying lay-
created from daylight, is just one of Møgelvang in 1953, Utzon developed a outs of five modules, with each house
several essays on outside rooms. In house type consisting of a masonry- forming a courtyard. The collection of
fact, his career could be explored walled precinct of 20 metres on each houses makes a larger open space. At
through his use of this venerable archi- side with two adjacent walls made each scale, Utzon oriented spaces
tectural element.11 Utzon knew the tra- available to support an L-shaped, shed- around light, and light toward people.
ditional Danish farm courtyard arrange- roofed dwelling. In this proposal, a
ment and became familiar with its courtyard remained open to light and Utzon enlarged his understanding of
Chinese and Islamic versions from his views and for private outdoor living. light when he translated his Nordic
travels and books. Almost every one of Two versions of this house type were perceptions to a Mediterranean setting.
Utzon’s built works originates with a built as the Kingo Houses (also called At Can Lis (1970-1972), the first of two

Both the Kingo Houses (left) and the Fredensborg Houses (right) are situ-
ated according to the slope of the land and offset from each other in plan
for advantageous views and to enhance privacy. Both developments offer
open space and light at two scales: private and public.
Photo: Keld Helmer-Petersen

Photo: David Messent

Photo: Arne Magnussen & Vibeke Maj Magnussen/Edition Bløndal©

The Fredensborg Houses were built in 1963 for returning expatriate Danes, primarily elderly people without small children. The houses clear-
ly divide traffic areas and the landscape.

In 1954, together with Ib Møgel-

vang, Jørn Utzon developed a house
type for a housing competition in
Skåne (in the south of Sweden),
consisting of a masonry-walled pre-
cinct forming an L-shaped, shed-
roofed dwelling. The project was
not realized, but marked the begin- The house type from the proposal for the Skåne competition was used in the
ning of Utzon’s work with walled Kingo Houses in Elsinore from 1957. Today – about 50 years after they were
courtyard dwellings. finished – these dwellings are still among the finest in Danish house design.

Photo: Flemming Bo Andersen
In 1972 Jørn Utzon created
Photo: Bent Ryberg/Edition Bløndal©

his own sanctuary on Mal-

lorca. On bedrock, turned to-
wards the African coast, he
had a house built – Can Lis –
on the background of the lo-
cal stone architecture.

When the doors of the house

are open towards the road,
the small patio, the colon-
nade and the living room
form an entire room open-
ing dramatically towards the
Photo: Bent Ryberg/Edition Bløndal©

Photo: Jørn Utzon

The fantastic views from the living rooms are enhanced by

the fact that the windows are installed so that from within
the frames are out of sight.

A small, narrow, glazed opening in

the south-east corner of the living
room marks the passing of the day.
Once a day, for a very short time, Behind the shielding wall of the house there are five offset pavilions,
the sun sends its rays through the connected by courts and walls, oriented at various angles to the broad
opening. view.

homes he built on the Spanish island of stone emerges: its texture and the cir- three examples, the primary public
Mallorca, Utzon revisited the three cular marks of the saw are revealed in room rises above a fabric of smaller
themes we have explored with a neat shadows and highlights. All year round, supporting facilities, and furnishings
twist essential to the way the house the bays reach out to the horizon for appear to be sculpted from the ground.
fits in its site and climate. Located in a skylight and to control sunlight, while As in those public projects, the living
distinctly different solar environment, at the same time framing stunning room at Can Lis is a kind of theatre. It is
Utzon’s light-receiving strategy at Can views of the Mediterranean. Each of oriented on a diagonal with the north-
Lis is actually the same as at Bagsværd, the bays is fully glazed without inter- south axis, its arc of built-in seating
but inverted. To minimize glare, reflect- mediate divisions, and the wooden aimed south. The orientation of this pa-
ed daylight is gathered from the part of window frames are applied to the out- vilion maximizes the exposure of the
the sky farthest from the path of the side face of the building in the manner living room pavilion to the arc of the
sun. In the Mediterranean, the loca- of Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz.13 sun throughout the day and across the
tions of sun and diffused skylight are With the frames out of sight, not even seasons, while the bays control the re-
reversed from those of Scandinavia: a sliver of shadow obstructs the inward ception of daylight. Both Can Lis and
skylight is available from near the hori- rush of light. There is no impediment to Bagsværd have vaulted ceilings; had
zon, and direct sun from the top of the the competing attractions of the sea Sydney been completed to Utzon’s vi-
sky, because the sun path is so much and sky. As the openings appear to be sion, the Opera House would also have
higher throughout the year.12 The mani- unframed and unglazed, it looks as had ceilings generated by circles and in
festation of these observations is clear- though you could walk right out into sympathy with acoustic principles. In
ly observed in the most important the horizon. the Can Lis living room as at Bagsværd,
room in the house, the living room. light is the performer, and it is reason-
Sunlight is introduced conditionally to able to conjecture that for the architect,
The Can Lis complex of five pavilions the living room. When the sun is low in this is the kind of theatre that he al-
is associated with six courtyards in var- the sky, early in the day and during the ways wanted to make.
ying configurations, seven if you count cooler winter season, it penetrates
the living room. Like Bagsværd’s sanc- deeper into the room. But as the alti- Structuring light:
tuary, this living room has a reciprocal tude of the sun increases, the depth of Kuwait National Assembly
relationship with the sky and site, in its reach is restricted to the bays where The Kuwait National Assembly building
which the room is both part of the it is held and diffused. The one excep- (1970-1983) is a direct response to the
house but incomplete without the sky tion to this rule is the single, small, aridity of the region and the need to
and, at Can Lis, the view. And again, glazed opening high on the southwest control sunlight that brings extreme
Utzon designed the room to receive wall that invites a blade of light to heat. Here again, Utzon found the solu-
and reflect indirect light. There are no swing across the southeast wall in the tion embedded in the problem: the
openings in the roof plane to admit hot late afternoon to animate the space stronger the sun is, the deeper is its
sunlight. Instead of reaching upward and mark the passing of the day. The shadow. “The dangerously strong sun-
for light, the living room projects epi- introduction of sun high in a tall room shine in Kuwait,” Utzon wrote, makes it
sodically toward the sea with five and softened light entering below re- necessary to protect yourself in the
glazed window bays, each about the calls the Hall of the Abencerrajes and shade – the shade is vital for your exist-
size of a person and aimed at a differ- its relationship to the Court of Lions at ence…”14 It might be said that the loca-
ent angle around the horizon. the Alhambra. Like the Hall, the living tion of the sun in the sky prompted the
area at Can Lis has a ceiling capable of design of shade, rather than the design
The bays resemble the window seats diffusing light down into the room: a of light. The institutional occupancy and
that we used to find in the thick-walled series of shallow, vaulted, white-paint- the public scale of the building task
buildings of previous centuries. But at ed ceiling tiles in place of the Alham- gave Utzon the opportunity to identify
Can Lis, the bays are fully open to a bra’s polychromed muquarnas. And architectural modules that were both
view of the sea and they have no seats again like the Hall, sun and skylight are spatial and structural. At the same time,
– the floor continues into the bays. They reflected from the floor of an adjacent each of the three module types, for cir-
are like side chapels in a church, small courtyard (north of the living room) culation, offices, and large gatherings,
rooms linked to a great room, but with and are admitted through a colonnade works to control light in a slightly differ-
Photo: Bent Ryberg

the exterior walls blown out to reveal that creates a layer of cooling shade. By ent way and each draws from the archi-
the horizon resulting in a dual alle- means of this courtyard, skylight is tectural traditions of the host culture.
giance. In form, they resemble the gathered from the northern sky, which,
deep-set, canted openings in Le Cor- at this latitude, is the quadrant of the
busier’s chapel at Ronchamp, but are sky with the least direct sun. The central hall of the National
more inviting because they can be lived Assembly Building, which Utzon
in. The bay surfaces catch skylight from In its sectional development, Can Lis called the central street, is spanned
the horizon and diffuse sunlight. Their recalls many built and unbuilt projects by a series of precast concrete vaults.
The curved elements of the structure
sandstone surfaces absorb radiation by Utzon. At the Zurich Theatre (an un- allude to the folded fabric of tents
and lend their warm yellow-pink colour built competition-winning project of and the full-length tunics worn by
to the sunlight. The character of the 1963), Bagsværd, and Sydney, to cite many who work in the building.

Utzon was inspired by
Isfahan’s Islamic urban
pattern when he
designed the Assembly

Plan of the Assembly

Building. The function of
the building as an
institution and the public
magnitude of the project
gave Utzon an opportuni-
ty to focus on both spatial
and structural architectur-
al forms.

A concourse, the primary corridor, over the course of the day and as the public piazza, its freedom within con-
which Utzon has referred to as a cen­- light is diffused by the architecture, it straints symbolized and enabled by its
tral street, is a two-storey-high space, reminds us of the outside world, time access to daylight. Utzon envisioned
spann­ed by a series of precast concrete of day, and direction. With this strategy, the space as one “where the people
vaults that overhang the clerestory the recognition of the path of the sun can meet their ruler” somewhat in the
glazing by half the width of the con- and the quality of its light, Utzon manner of western democratic society.16
course. This configuration requires sun- counters the disorienting tendencies of The shadow that the canopy casts on
light to bounce at least twice, once a large building with similar spaces and the ground is a function of the intensity
from the roof surface and again from symmetries. The courtyards and roof of the sun, and it is as much this pool of
the underside of the vaults, before it monitors support this approach, the darkness as the architecture that de-
enters the space. Running through the use of daylight to engage architecture fines the space. This space recalls
building from its entry on the southeast and place, establishing spatial charac- Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s observation in ref-
to its shaded square on the northwest, ter while helping us to orient ourselves erence to his native Japanese architec-
the illumination in the concourse is a in the world. ture, that “in making for ourselves a
greatly softened version of the harsh place to live, we first spread a parasol
exterior climate. The light also models The concourse bisects the orthogo- to throw a shadow on the earth...”17
the surfaces of the allée of cylindrical, nal grid of office modules and provides
precast, supporting elements. This pro- access to the two large gathering spac- The work spaces, actually office court-
duces an effect of grace and subtlety es, the legislative assembly hall and a yard modules, have received scant crit-
that plays against the rigour of the con- covered outdoor space, both roofed by ical attention. Perhaps they have been
struction system. The curved elements sweeping vaults of precast concrete, devalued as they are simply places to
allude without mimicry to the folded again recalling the tent architecture as- work and not as important as the hon-
fabric of tents and even to the tradi- sociated with Bedouin life in this re- orific spaces. Perhaps the difficulty is
tional full-length white tunics worn by gion. The outdoor space is open on that little good documentation has
many who work in the building. Utzon three sides, one of them facing the wa- been available. As Utzon’s work ma-
also called our attention to the fact that ters of the Arabian Gulf. Utzon called tured, however, it was compounded by
the concourse is an orientation device.15 the space a “great open hall” and a “big his frequent rethinking of the court-
The size, scale, and linearity of the open square … symbolic of the protec- yard, and in Kuwait the office courtyard
space contribute to this, but so does the tion a ruler extends to his people.” It is elements become the very fabric of
shifting light. Even as daylight changes an optimistic gesture toward making a this significant public structure. We can

Projects from Jørn Utzon’s hand are derived from principles found in natural phenomena
such as snow, sky and light.
Photo: Richard Weston

Photo: Hans Munk Hansen

make some reasonable conjectures by the courts. Precast concrete blades, combination such that new spaces will
about this compelling composition and a variation on the wood grilles that fill always have a means for receiving day-
the further ideas it suggests based on wall openings in Islamic architecture, light. Since the modules are square, as
Utzon’s previous courtyard schemes span the courtyards at the roof. These Utzon’s building and planning elements
and on the available Kuwait plan draw- louvers break solar radiation, shade the so often are, the building is quite easy
ings, conceptual sketches, and models. courts, cast changing shadow patterns, to expand, at least conceptually, in two
In the early floor plans, the office court- and permit air to move through.18 The directions. The result is a chequerboard
yard modules are units that allow for office modules were originally intend- of solids and voids, occupied offices
groups of work spaces to be flexibly ar- ed to aggregate beyond the initial and spaces for the reception of light.
ranged around two-storey-high court- boundary of the building as needed for The fabric of the National Assembly is
yards of various rectangular configura- future expansion. That is, there is a vo- an institutional version of the courtyard
tions. The offices borrow light captured cabulary of parts and a syntax for their houses, the possibility of which was

A section of the original competitive proposal, containing a mosque and a conference hall. The conference hall
was left out of the realised project.

Sketchers: Jørn Utzon

A sketch of the covered square which,

as Utzon formulated it, was born in the
meeting of shore and sea.

A sketch of the central

covered street opening
onto the Arabian Gulf.

The National Assembly Building from

1970 is formed as a direct response to
the aridity of the region and the need to
subdue the sunlight that brings extreme

hinted at by the ordered plan of Bag­ closely associated with the image of (lighted spaces) and houses (shaded
sværd Church. paradise19 and that improvisations on enclosures), and even a roofed loggia,
these themes recur in Islamic architec- the Ali Kapu (a talar or columned porch),
The courtyard appears in many cul- ture. A view of Isfahan from 1712 de- deployed as a reception pavilion facing
tures and climates, but it assumes a picts a city composed of the same three an open public square, much like Ut-
critical role in the architecture of hot spatial/daylighting modules that we zon’s covered square.21
climates because of its effectiveness in find at the National Assembly: a long,
taming heat, creating shade, moderat- broad street called the Chahar Bagh Utzon understood the National
ing sunlight, and transforming arid ( not covered, but enhanced by trees Assembly and its additive potential as
landscapes into habitable settlements. for shade and a thin waterway down a version of the Islamic bazaar22, an ur-
It comes as no surprise that in Islamic the center20), an urban fabric knit from ban pattern with spatial complexities,
culture, the ordered courtyard garden is an orthogonal alternation of courts capable of growth, and enlivened by

many. But it is to say that light was and, so to speak, the building’s first in-
never simply a forecast of future lux habitant. This approach has allowed
levels or merely a means of decoration. Utzon to make decisions about how we
Utzon’s ideas have not been founded in might live in buildings by imagining
intricate calculations, nor have they how light would enter, be distributed,
been constrained by his technical flu- and perform on and inside architecture.
ency, and his passion for the natural Where there is light, there are people.
world has led him to seek more from
daylight than adequate illumination or
sensual delight. Natural processes were Notes
models for numerous aspects of his 1. Richard Weston, Utzon; Inspiration Vision
Architecture (Hellerup: Edition Bløndal,
work and they have inspired him to
2002) p. 22-23.
take that which is essential to daylight, 2. Nicholson Baker, “The Size of Thoughts,”
because it is essential to human exist- in The Size of Thoughts, Essays and other
ence, and use it to generate architec- Lumber, (New York: Random House, 1996)
ture. Conceiving daylight as a function p. 14.
3. Weston, pp. 152-153.
of architecture, he addressed the con-
4. Jørn Utzon, “Sydney Opera House:
stituent features of daily life: how we The Roof Tiles” in Architecture in Australia,
Utzon’s simple diagram of Can Lis
find our way in the world, how we dif- December 1965; reprinted in Weston,
catches the essence of this unique
house on the east coast of Mallorca. ferentiate our public lives from our pri- p. 149.
vate selves, how we organize ourselves 5. In Copenhagen, the sun reaches just
over 57.5 degrees above the horizon at
in a landscape, how we distinguish in-
noon on midsummer day, June 21: this is
side from outside, and the ways in the highest point that the sun reaches all
which we support a roof above our year long. If on that day the sky is clear,
surprising incursions of light alternating heads. Because he imagined whole the sun may be seen in more than 260
with shade and shadow. In this spirit, buildings as intrinsic light-gathering degrees of the 360-degree horizon. Early
light also activates the circulation and construction systems, daylighting and late in the day, it is low and well
spaces between office courtyard mod- within an individual’s cone of vision. On
or shading tasks were assigned to near- December 21, midwinter day, the sun
ules. Roof mounted light monitors catch ly every inhabitable space and surface. barely reaches 11 degrees at noon.
light from the relatively benign north- No light-receiving or intercepting ele- 6. Francoise Fromonot, Jørn Utzon, The
east quadrant of the sky and are locat- ment is simply a mechanism attached Sydney Opera House (Milan/Corte Madera,
ed to bring skylight and reflected sun- to the architecture; each one is a space CA: Electa/Gingko, 1998) page 210.
light into the corridor stairwells and 7. Fromonot, p. 210.
and meant to be inhabited. 8. Jørn Utzon, “Bagsværd Kirke,” unknown
into the basement. This is again evi-
source, pp. 23-25.
dence of Utzon’s awareness of the path Utzon could not possibly have plan­ 9. Francoise Fromonot, “Un riccordo della
of the sun. The sun only threatens to ned the arc of his career, but a com- Hawaii,” Casabella, October 1997, (649),
breach the monitors and break into the pelling pattern emerges from an over- pp. 24-37.
interiors during the summer season, 10. Jørn Utzon, “Platforms and Plateaus:
view of his work as if it were an essay, Ideas of a Danish Architect,” Zodiac, no. 10,
and then only early in the day when its a proposition about the individual, the 1962, pp. 112-140.
energy is most easily diffused and the community, and lighted space. The 11. Martin Schwartz, “Light Organizing,
heat of day is lowest. At those times, square Kingo and Fredensborg court- Jørn Utzon’s Bagsværd Church,” Jørn Utzon
the sun is in the northeast sky but so yard houses adjust themselves vertical- Logbook, Volume II, Bagsværd Church,
low as to be intercepted by the hood of Edition Bløndal, 2005).
ly and horizontally on their sites to dif- 12. At Can Lis, the sun reaches an altitude
the monitor and reflected down into ferentiate themselves one from another of about 74 degrees (almost 20 degrees
the corridors. Here, as at Can Lis, the and such that the residence of each higher than Copenhagen) on June 21. On
building’s diagonal orientation to the family is lent individuality. At Bagsværd December 21, the sun rises to almost 24
north-south / east-west axes offers ad- Church the courtyards realign them- degrees (more than twice that of
vantages. Sunlight is not entirely elimi- Copenhagen) at noon.
selves into a linear sequence to corre- 13. At Lewerentz’s St. Peter’s Church in
nated. It may enter the corridors brief- spond with the hierarchy of organized Klippan (1962-1966), the architect fixed
ly, but these spaces are meant for religion. Finally, the fabric of the Ku- lights of insulating glass to the exterior
movement and the occasional conver- wait National Assembly is a reordering faces of the masonry walls with metal
sation. A brief sliver of sun may be en- of the square courts into a civic grid, clips and filled the gaps with sealant.
joyed or easily avoided. 14. Jørn Utzon, “The Importance of
which acts both as a symbol of equality Architects,” in Denys Lasdun Architecture in
under the law and suggests the poten- an Age of Skepticism, (London and New
Conclusions tial for future growth. York: Oxford University Press, 1984) p. 222.
For Jørn Utzon, light has been the en- 15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
during thread tying his interest in na- Utzon’s work with light might be de-
17. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
ture to architecture and to his world scribed as metonymical, meaning that (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books,
view. This is not to say that there are no light is a stand-in, a representative for 1977) page 17.
other influences on his work – there are people at the moment of composition 18. Weston, p. 331.

19. John D. Hoag, Islamic Architecture (New
York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977) p. 9.
20. Charles W. Moore, William J. Mitchell,
Richard Weston is Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University,
William Turnbull, Jr., The Poetics of
Gardens (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, BA (1st Hons.), BArch, MLA (Penn), RIBA, editor of the refereed
1988) pp. 148-149. journal Architectural Research Quarterly, and director of Richard
21. John D. Hoag, Islamic Architecture Weston Studio Ltd. His recent books include ”Plans, Sections and
(New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977) p. Elevations, Key Buildings of the Twentieth Century; Materials,
Form and Architecture”; and ”Utzon Inspiration Vision Architec-
22. Utzon, Architecture in an Age of
Skepticism, p. 222. ture”, Edition Bløndal 2002, the only monograph written with full
access to Jørn Utzon and his archive. Co-editor of Jørn Utzon Log-
The illustrations in the article “Inhabiting book Vol I-VI, 2004. His monograph from 1995 on Alvar Aaalto
Light, Jørn Utzon’s use of light in architec- won the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize, while Modernism received the
ture”, have been used by courtesy of Edi-
International Book Award of the American Institute of Archtects.
tion Bløndal and come from the book:
”Utzon Inspiration Vision Architecture”.
Martin Schwartz is an architect, teacher, and writer. He contrib-
uted an essay, »Light Organizing Architecture: Jørn Utzon’s Bags-
vaerd Church,« to the recently published book, Jørn Utzon Log-
book, Volume II, Bagsvaerd Church, (Edition Bløndal, 2005). In
1994 he was the Frederick Charles Baker Distinguished Professor
in Lighting at the Department of Architecture, University of Ore-
gon. Most recently he has taught at the University of Michigan,
Lawrence Technological University, and the Cranbrook Academy
of Art.

The deep window bays in

the Can Lis living room
form a stone frame of the
sea with great beauty.
Photo: Bent Ryberg

19. John D. Hoag, Islamic Architecture (New
York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977) p. 9. Richard Weston is Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University, BA (1st Hons.),
20. Charles W. Moore, William J. Mitchell,
BArch, MLA (Penn), RIBA, editor of the refereed journal Architectural Research
William Turnbull, Jr., The Poetics of
Gardens (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, Quarterly, and director of Richard Weston Studio Ltd. His recent books include
1988) pp. 148-149. ”Plans, Sections and Elevations, Key Buildings of the Twentieth Century; Materials,
21. John D. Hoag, Islamic Architecture Form and Architecture”; and ”Utzon Inspiration Vision Architecture”, Edition Bløn-
(New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977) p. dal 2002, the only monograph written with full access to Jørn Utzon and his ar-
chive. Co-editor of Jørn Utzon Logbook Vol I-VI, 2004. His monograph from 1995
22. Utzon, Architecture in an Age of
Skepticism, p. 222. on Alvar Aaalto won the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize, while Modernism received the
International Book Award of the American Institute of Archtects.
The illustrations in the article “Inhabiting
Light, Jørn Utzon’s use of light in architec- Martin Schwartz is an architect, teacher, and writer. He contributed an essay,
ture”, have been used by courtesy of Edi-
»Light Organizing Architecture: Jørn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church,« to the recently
tion Bløndal and come from the book:
”Utzon Inspiration Vision Architecture”. published book, Jørn Utzon Logbook, Volume II, Bagsvaerd Church, (Edition Bløn-
dal, 2005). In 1994 he was the Frederick Charles Baker Distinguished Professor in
Lighting at the Department of Architecture, University of Oregon. Most recently he
has taught at the University of Michigan, Lawrence Technological University, and
the Cranbrook Academy of Art.


1. After reading this article, the learner c. Making inhabitable spaces into 7. Utzon translated his Scandinavian
should be able to: receivers of daylight daylighting strategy (low sun, diffused
a. Discuss the use of daylight in the design d. Direct sun light from the top of the sky) to Spain
of buildings. with no changes of any kind.
b. Describe how nature can be an essential 3. The finishes of the ceramic tiles that a. True
tool in the creative process. make up the exterior surfaces of the b. False
c. Discuss Jørn Utzon’s architectural career Sydney Opera House shells are of two
in terms of recurring themes. types, an unglazed matte finish and a 8. The Kuwait National Assembly
glazed reflective finish. presented a critical daylighting
INSTRUCTIONS a. True challenge to Jørn Utzon, requiring the
• Read the article “Inhabiting Light – Jørn b. False design of:
Utzon’s use of light in architecture” a. Glare
using the learning objectives provided 4. Two of Utzon’s projects specifically b. Shade
• Complete the questions below, then fill evoke the spatial and lighting character c. Reflection
in your answers (back cover). of what geological formations? d. Brises soleils
• Fill out and submit the AIA/CES a. Caves
education reporting form (back cover). b. Lakes 9. Jørn Utzon’s career could be analysed in
c. Mountains terms of what recurring architectural
QUESTIONS d. Deserts and daylight-gathering device?
1. Jørn Utzon’s architectural insights a. Courtyard
frequently have been inspired by his 5. In northern latitudes, such as Scandina- b. Light Monitor
observations of natural phenomena. via, the sun travels relatively low in the c. Skylight
The sources for his insights include sky making the top of the sky a good d. Bay window
which of the following items? source of diffused light.
a. Sand and snow a. True 10. Jørn Utzon’s buildings are conceived as
b. Sky and light b. False intrinsic light-gathering and construc-
c. Trees and leaves tion systems.
d. All of the above 6. The sanctuary vault at Bagsværd Church a. True
adopts what feature of the sky to help b. False
2. Jørn Utzon relied on three observations develop a working model of Nordic sky
to help generate space and form with illumination?
daylight. Identify the one item below a. Rainbow
that is not one of these principles. b. The sun For NYT CEU comments or
a. The advantages of reflected and c. Blue sky questions, please contact us at
diffused daylight d. Clouds
b. The sun’s daily and annual paths
through the sky
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