The penalty of Jørn Utzon | Borja Lopez Cotelo

The night of June 20, 1976 it was falling a thin rain on Belgrade. Antonín walked his skinny figure for forty meters that separate the midfield of the penalty spot, placed the ball and moved back to take run. It raised the head. Before him, this Sepp Maier’s bony and fierce face; maybe then he remembered Zdeněk Hruška, that companion of the Bohemians with the one that had tested the launch again and again. When it initiated the career towards the ball, Antonín Panenka knew that it would leave forever the anonymity: it would be admired by the whole Europe or would be an object of his jeers.

Panenka transforming the penalty in the final of the Euroglass of 1976

In 1957, Jørn Utzon was on the verge of expiring forty years. It had crossed half a world visiting oriental and Indo-American architectures, it had formed a part of the PAGON – Norwegian sector of the CIAM – and enclosed some contest had gained1. But it was conscious that everything had to change, and the international contest for the construction of Sídney’s Opera2 was the occasion to do it. There, Utzon decided to invent something uncertain that was extracting it of this marginality that had accompanied his big teachers of the Kunstakademiet: Kaare Klint, Steen Eiler Rasmussen and even, in minor measure, to Kay Fisker. It drew then a beautiful bundle of curves on Bennelong Point’s sting of an insect and crossed the threshold.

Utzon’s initial sketch for Sídney, c. 1957, published originally in the Red Book

The whole world knows the end of the history. Utzon gained the first prize (thank you, to a great extent, to Eero Saarinen’s obstinacy) and they began the problems. Because it that the Danish had drawn could not be constructed, not at least for Ove Arup: ‘Utzon’s design […] consisted of four couples of triangular rinds sustained in a point of the triangle; both symmetrical rinds of every couple were inclining one towards other one, as a couple of hands or ranges. The Gothic arch that was formed between both supports of every couple was not following the line of push, for what there were taking place moments of dead weight. If we rely on that the rinds were fixed to the supports we will see that, rightly when a maximum force is needed, the width of the rind sees come down to the minimum. And what is more, every couple of rinds is not balanced longitudinally, but it transmits his force at par following […] East is one of these frequent cases with which the best architectural form does not coincide with the most appropriate structural form. If we had known in time where we were getting, it is possible that we had desisted’3 , the Swedish engineer wrote. The drawing with which Utzon had seduced the juror was gestual, had an indescribable expressive vigor; it had drawn a desire, maybe a dream, not the solution to this entelequia. And the Danish – underlines Frampton – was not the first one in proceeding thus: ‘ Sídney’s opera demonstrates up to what point it is not necessary that there coincide a tectonic concept and a structurally rational work; a dysfunction that resembles the critique that Damisch was doing to Viollet-le-Duc, to the effect that always some insurmountable jump exists between the constructive means and the architectural result’4.

Utzon’s sketch for Sídney’s covers, c. 1958 published in the Red Book.
Utzon’s sketch for Sídney’s covers, in which the nervures are distinguished, c. 1958 published in Red Book.

Four years after having gained the contest, when everything seemed to be lost, Utzon demonstrated the dimension of his talent, and was at the time when it appeared as a Colossus. Maybe the last one that the architecture has given up to today. He imagined an extremely simple solution from the constructive point of view; paradoxically, everything was there, in a pure geometry, in the sphere: ‘ In case of Sídney’s Opera everything can show on a sphere, as if it was an orange shaped for do not be how many clusters, for similar pieces that are subdivided and even they are prefabricated. This one is the idea’5. The solution was much more near where all the rest had searched.

Model of the geometric final solution for the covers, c. 1960, published originally in the number 14 of the Zodiac magazine.
Development of the geometric solution for the covers, c. 1960 published in the number 14 of the Zodiac magazine  (1962).

The solution proposed by Utzon allowed the construction of the dome in Sídney’s bay with a limited number of prefabricated pieces of concrete. That one was the way of thinking of the Danish: even the initial drawing was hiding the germ of a tectonic concept. Along the process of concretion of the building there arose new difficulties that tested his ingenuity and the patience of the condition New South Wales6. This way, architect and client were drifting apart unpardonably: when, in 1973, the construction of the opera was reached, Utzon had got free of the project and had decided not to return to tread On Australia.

Utzon with the model of the false acoustic ceilings proposed for Sídney, published in the number 14 of the magazine Zodiac (1962). They were never constructed.

It was a goal. Sepp Maier was left to fall down towards his left side and, from the soil, could see how the ball was entering manor-house, almost weightlessly during a few seconds, for the center of the desk. Czechoslovakia was turning this way, for the first time, into champion of Europa; and Panenka in a myth.

Sometimes I imagine Utzon in his Hellebaek’s study, to thousands of Sídney’s kilometres, repeating again and again the models of the opera, observing them while he remembers the shipyards of Ålborg in that his infancy had happened. Then me Antonín Panenka comes to the mind, with his dark lock and his sideburns of axe, puliendo the launch day after day on having finished the training. Competing chocolatinas with his companion Hruska. In the end, I think, the parable that described the ball stamped in the final of Belgrade was not very different from the curve drawn by Utzon nineteen years before. These two men, one while it was taking his pencil to scribble a paper, other one while it was walking towards eleven meters, knew that his life – and probably the history of his respective disciplines – would not turn to be equal. The end was uncertain, the failure was possible. But both knew that it had not gone back.

Borja López Cotelo. Doctor architect

A Coruña. may 2013


1 In 1953, Utzon gained the contest of economic housings Skånska hustiper in the south of Sweden. The project was not constructed, but it gave origin to the celebrated sets of Elsinor (1956) – called the houses Kingo – or Fredensborg (1959) in Denmark, and of Lund (1957) and Bjuv (1956) in Sweden. In all of them, Utzon investigated in the possibilities of the aggregation of the typology of house – court.

2 The contest was summoned in December, 1955 by the condition of New South Wales, and to him they presented 233 offers. Between the architects participants were Alyssum and Peter Smithson or the Australian Harry Seidler. See FERRER FORÉS, J.: Jørn Utzon. Obras y Proyectos (Ed. Gustavo Gili, 2008) p. 148

Ove Arup, in a text gathered in FRAMPTON, K.: Estudios sobre cultura tectónica (Ed. Akal Arquitectura, 1999), p.266

4Ibid., p.262

5 Utzon in PUENTE, M.: Conversaciones con Jørn Utzon (Ed. Gustavo Gili, 2010), p.26

6 Specially showy they are the difficulties arisen during the process of definition of the false acoustic ceilings; again, Utzon designed a solution based on an elementary geometry, on this case that of the cylinder. But his offer was never constructed. See WESTON, R.: Utzon (Ed. Bløndal, 2008), p. 168

Borja López Cotelo

Borja López Cotelo, arquitecto por la ETSAC desde 2007, y doctor por la UdC desde 2013.

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