On Utzon’s trail

Susan the hostess

Susan was the best of hosts! We discovered her house in Airbnb, it lay fifty meters from the shoreline and less than a thousand from Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. She immediately made us feel at home, she already had recommendations for our dinner – a quaint little restaurant in the Nivå harbour – booked a table, lent us bikes and we were on our way. Back home after a solid and delicious Danish burger, she offered us tea and wonderful conversation until midnight.

Humblebaek

In the morning, after a sunny breakfast that she’d left us before going to yoga, we went to visit the neighbourhood’s private jetty upon the Øresund. The sun was shining bright and the reflection on the gently wavy water turned it into a yellowish-green up close, or a blinding white far away on the horizon, where a faint silhouette of Sweden’s coastline and a less faint contour of the cliffs of the isle of Ven (Hven in Danish) could be seen.

After a short train ride to North Copenhagen and another north-westward from the city, we reached Bagsværd, a suburb of the capital chosen to become the site of a church designed by Jørn Utzon in the sixties. The design, having little resemblance with a church from the outside, had the natural light as it’s best friend and ally. It’s one of those designs where everything seems obsessively drawn by the head architect, from the free-form concrete ceilings emulating clouds in the sky, to the door plaques and the detailing of the exhibiting cases upon the hallway walls.

Bagsværd church

Benefiting from a lot of glass ceilings and being mostly built with prefabricated blocs of white concrete and white ceramic casing, we had to wander the long hallways with sunglasses on. While it is nordic and timeless in the process – almost everything seemed prefabricated! – it was international and time-framed in its layouts and free-form ceilings – reminding Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp or several of Niemeyer’s works. It’s a daughter of modernism and a spearhead of Frampton’s critical’s regionalism.

Louisiana

Train to Humblebæk

After a few hours spent in the holiday-deserted streets of Helsingør, we caught the train southward to Humblebæk, an otherwise unremarkable small town on the western shore of the Øresund – using the Danish spelling here. What really puts this town on the map is Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, an outstanding building, landscape and institution in the outskirts of Copenhagen. It’s been around since the late 50s, harbouring works from all kinds of well-known artists from all around the world. The exhibitions that were there weren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I rejoiced seeing the tiny permanent Niels Wessel Bagge collection of pre-columbian art. Such objects were there to remind me of the wonders of simplicity in patterns, shapes and colours and also that humour belongs in art! Like three-dimensional caricatures The more we stared at some of the objects, the funnier they got! I love to find that in art.

Louisiana

Outside lies the true richness of Louisiana: it’s carefully designed gardens, with (litterally) tons of sculptures and peaceful viewpoints over the sea. The sun was already low so we took advantage of whatever picnic leftovers we had and called it a day on top of the natural grassy amphitheatre. But our wonderful hostess – whom we hadn’t met yet – still had something in store for us.

Patio-houses of the Öresund region

In the eastern section of Lund lies a neighbourhood called Planetstaden. It’s pretty much a cul-de-sac with one street that loops around 45 houses on a few hectares of land. Still, those houses hold great interest, because they comprise a housing complex designed by Jørn Utzon, the famed danish architect who came to design Sydney Opera House just a few years later.

Planetstaden by Jørn Utzon

Utzon presented this model of houses in a Skåne competition and applied the same project to four distinct locations around the Öresund, both in Sweden and Denmark (Lund, Helsingør, Fredensborg and Bjuv). The houses are inspired by danish barns, a patio with house on two sides and walled on the other two, so that further construction in each patio does not affect the exterior design. But this construction might as well (and probably was) inspired by mediterranean or chinese or middle-eastern patio-houses. It’s such a successful concept that it’s difficult to find a culture that hasn’t absorbed it.

Planetstaden by Jørn Utzo

The low-pitched inward-facing roof brings to mind some coastal town houses of the Mediterranean Sea or even the ancient roman colonial villas. The wide windows are easily identified with nordic or maybe japanese architectures. That special yellow-coloured brick makes us think about the rammed earth buildings of Yemen or Mali. It is an international design, no doubt, but also very much local. It is a design that is simultaneously vernacular and modernist. And apart from a few outside air conditioning units, it still preserves its original unity.