surroundings and belongs as clearly to the north as the
cave-like interior of Can Lis does to the intense light of
At Sydney, Utzon’s mastery of interior lighting was
extended to the design of the surfaces of the ‘shells’.
The design’s origins lay in two experiences of ancient
architecture. Visiting the Mayan temples of Mexico
in 1949 he had the idea of making a hollow platform
to house a building’s secondary functions: in Sydney,
everything that sits on the platform – foyers and bars,
performance halls and restaurant – is public. He had
also visited the Middle East, where he experienced
the contrast between the baked earth fabric of the
settlements and the gleaming tiled domes and minarets
of the mosques.
The Opera House’s shells – in constructional fact, a
series of spherical surfaces generated by pointed arches
– Utzon had decided from the outset would be tiled.
And to describe the quality he was after he drew on his
experience of skiing, specifically the contrast between
the matt, even surface of newly fallen snow and the
icy, reflective surface below that was revealed as the
turning blades cut through the new covering of snow.
He likened the effect to the contrast between skin and
fingernails, and to half-glazed Japanese ceramics, and
he hoped that it would produce something akin to the
colourful afterglow on snow-covered mountains known
It took three years of experimentation with the Swedish
company Höganäs to achieve what he was after. The
requisite ‘bobbliness’ was achieved by crushing some
newly made tiles and adding the fragments to the mix:
after glazing, they were large enough to disrupt the
even surface and catch the sun in unexpected ways.
The contrast between matt and glazed surfaces resulted
from the system of precast ‘tile lids’ developed with the
engineer Ove Arup. These matched the tapering profile
of the beams and the irregular gaps along their edges
between the diamond-grid of glazed tiles were filled by
matt tiles that did not spall so readily when cut.
Achieving the requisite spherical surface was a tour de
force of construction: after work each day, surveyors
climbed the shells to take levels for the next day’s run
of tile lids. The dimensions were processed overnight
by one of Sydney’s only two computers – owned by the
electrical company – and a schedule of the packing shims
required for the corners of each tile lid was worked out.
The result is a succession of perfectly smooth
surfaces that are among the most radiant and alive in
architecture, thoroughly modern in their abstraction
and technically impossible before their day – on arriving
in Sydney Utzon told journalists that he aspired to ‘Our
Time Style’. ▼
At Bagsvaerd Church in Denmark,
all the surfaces, except the
beechwood fittings, are in shades
of white, and the coolness is
relieved by long runs of large,
clear, low-power tungsten bulbs