14 July 2011

A Religious Experience

We are not really religious souls, but Jorn Utzon is a saint of sorts for architects. He is of course mostly and rightly known for his work on the Sydney Opera House, but that story, and the inglorious ending of his commission, overshadows his other work. Although the Opera House is probably one of the most recognised architectural icons on earth, the same cannot be said of any of his other works, magnificent though they are. Although this situation is being redressed gradually, with a recent rush of publications (notably the massive Richard Weston collection "Utzon" - a genuine coffee table book, in that you could actually make a coffee table from it), his other buildings generally remain obscure and known only to the profession itself, and the lucky souls who use them.

As a result, when we decided to take a trip to Bagsvaerd, a suburb of Copenhagen, to see Utzon's fabulous Kirke (church), we were the only tourists making that particular journey.

It was a Sunday, a beautiful sunny morning. We left the rain-battered chaos of Copenhagen behind and braved the long bus trip out to Bagsvaerd. Of course being a Sunday there was a service about to start when we arrived so we didn't have time to properly consider the austere and simple exterior, with the walls clad in a mixture of matt and gloss material - a reminder of the shimmering shell of the Opera House.

We decided instead to sit at the back and take in the interior atmosphere, and were treated to a musical treat as the tiny church choir and musical director lifted our spirits.

The simple rectangular forms of the elevations and plan are contrasted with a flamboyant and organic roof section inside the church itself.

There are hints of a traditional church layout, with aisles formed at either side, but no crossing or vaulted roof. Instead, the roof sweeps overhead like a rolling cloud, swooping up towards a hidden roof light, allowing light to cascade down to the wooden pews that are almost the only decoration. If you ever wanted to explain to a student what Corbusier meant when he described Architecture as the "masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light", then this is the place to come.

I was aware of this project through photos and a general interest in Utzon's work, so I was vaguely familiar with the interior before we arrived. However, those who know this scheme will also know that it is the concept drawings that stick in the mind, with the rolling shapes of the church ceiling drawn in rough axonometric in simple pen sketches. What struck me therefore more than anything was the absolute directness in how the building has realised the power of those sketches. It was not the photos I had seen that meant the building was "known" to me, it was the experience of seeing a concept sketch writ large. This simple church is a genuine fulfilment of an artistic vision, rare in architecture but not in the work of Jorn Utzon.

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