Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
What Utzon did next
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
Design is in his blood and Jeppe, grandson of Joern, is not afraid to try his hand at an icon, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
It’s not just Mary. And not just Tom Kvan, the University of Sydney’s new architecture dean (about whom I wrote last week). There’s a small rash of Danishness appearing across Sydney at the moment and it centres, not surprisingly, on the Opera House.
Its latest exponent is Jeppe Utzon, grandson of the Great Man, Joern, and living embodiment, as it happens, of Kvan’s theory that architecture makes a good first degree for just about anything. But the bigger question, which everyone is trying not to ask, remains. Jeppe may have the mantle but did he, as some expect, inherit the genius gene?
I had an email the other week from a journalist in New York, referred to me by an academic in Copenhagen, who writes from time to time about the Sydney Opera House. The journo wanted to know if Australia’s failure to produce architectural icons stemmed from residual guilt over said Opera House. I said no, I didn’t think so. I reckon a number of global trends – from our glorious shareholding democracy to excessive television watching – all mitigate against decent architecture. Then again, are icons architecture? Or just postcard fodder?
What I might have said, but didn’t because it seemed somehow disloyal, is that our take on history is so cavalier that hardly anyone in Sydney remembers the Opera House fiasco any more, much less feels guilty about it. Or maybe after the convict thing and the indigenous thing, we’re guilted-out.
One who should know, though, about opera-house guilt, is Jeppe Utzon. He, too, is a Dane and, perhaps just as inevitably, an architect. He has been in Sydney for a few weeks – launching a new $8000 barbecue design for Electrolux, meeting the Swedish royals (not Danes), partying at the Opera House and being tailed by a Danish film crew. That’s fame. I guess he’s used to it.
Jeppe, 35, is a fourth-generation Utzon architect; after his father Jan, Jan’s father Joern, and Joern’s father Aage, renowned yacht designer. That makes architecture look like a genetic defect, especially since Jeppe’s uncle Kim and sister Kickan – plus her husband – are also architects.
Until age 17, Jeppe wasn’t considering architecture at all, but marine biology. It was only when he realised marine biology wouldn’t be all Jacques Cousteau glam did he decide to pursue “inventing” instead, enrolling in architecture at Copenhagen’s famous Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
After 61/2 years at the academy, focusing on computer-aided design before it became mainstream, Jeppe had a serious market edge, not least with the family firm Utzon Associates Architects. The downside, though, was becoming typecast and feeling, even by the end of university, “very sick of architecture”. So Jeppe tried what he calls “real art” – painting and sculpture – but, finding it difficult to work without a brief, he set up a motion-graphics company with a friend and spent four years producing graphics for the Denmark Broadcasting Company, among others.
It was, says Jeppe, “really creative” but still “just a filler, you know, with no content. I was still doing the cover, not the book. I wanted to do something real again and I started missing architecture. Then my uncle [Kim] invited me back.”
To many, working for family may seem a shortcut to perdition, but for Jeppe it was “fine”. In the end, though, he got tired of “doing someone else’s jobs. You can’t tell one week from another, you feel you are wasting your life, you know?” I do, as it happens.
Eighteen months ago Jeppe formed his own one-person practice in shared studio space in an old downtown Copenhagen dance studio. His fare, architecturally speaking, is houses. Four so far, to be exact; too few to answer the genius question, especially with none of them complete. Enough, though, to suggest where he’s coming from: Denmark circa 1960, roughly, but with a twist.
Ask Jeppe whether he learned more architecture from the academy or from home and the answer is, unhesitatingly, home.
“Joern always talks about architecture,” he says. “Well, it’s more a lecture really. He’s a total believer – but he’s very plain about architecture, without putting any fake stories into it, like at architecture school.”
And there’s a clear Utzon flavour in the houses; a serious, earthy, program-driven quality, an impatience with ornament, but also a looseness, a subtle sense of play.
“I don’t need to give objects personality, like the Italians do. But I like a small twist in that direction, barely recognisable. It’s hard.”
One house, Jeppe’s favourite – for which, like a bereft parent, he still grieves as it died before construction – comprises seven separate brick pods, all oriented to the garden; three for service spaces, four for living, embedded in a common, glazed hall.
For now, however, Jeppe wants to do more product design. “It’s not more fun than architecture,” he says, “but it’s easier to keep in your mind. And there are royalties. A basic income means you can start saying no to the boring projects.”
Jeppe’s barbecue, just released by Electrolux, is slick. Hardly your 44-gallon drum topped with corrugated iron. But it is endearingly functional all the same, a table whose sleek carapace glides apart to reveal the grill, while the wings accommodate the cooking gear.
How did he get the job? Again, the answer is disarmingly frank. “Joern gets invited everywhere all the time, but he never goes; they usually get my dad instead. And if he can’t, sometimes I get to go. I’ve been to Scotland and Kuwait … Sometimes they don’t really want me because I’m not important enough. But Electrolux did. And Lars [Erikson, Electrolux’s design director] had seen all these nice Sydney houses with ugly barbecues and asked me if I’d have a go.”
What would he do if invited to design a full-size icon – an opera house, say?
“It’d be hard to compete, on this continent. But sure, I’d have a go. No doubt about it. But it’s a life sentence, 20 to 25 years. That’s how long it takes.”
Does he feel vicariously hurt by Sydney’s shabby treatment of his grandfather, four decades ago?
“No,” comes the quick reply. “I wasn’t hurt by Sydney. It’s like when someone tells you someone is really bad and you meet them, and you really like them, you know?”
The latest Opera House project may have come to a (second) shuddering halt, but that didn’t stop Bob Carr, from Macquarie Street, sorry Bank, claiming it as a coup at the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ awards event in the Opera House recently.
What does Jeppe think of the changes so far – the colonnade, the podium openings? “It’s a dangerous thing to do, opening it up. It’d probably be best if they hadn’t, but they’re good architects, so it’ll probably be all right. It’ll be interesting to see how much the building can take. I’ll wait and see.”
Him, his gramps and the rest of us.
THREE PHOTOS: Burning ambition … (clockwise from right) Jeppe Utzon; Jeppe’s design of a little Aussie icon, the $8000 barbecue; Joern Utzon (left) and his son Jan, Jeppe’s father. MAIN PHOTO: STEPHEN BACCON