Martin Schwartz


In 1998, Jorn Utzon was presented with the keys to the city of Sydney, Australia[1] the site of his design for the Sydney Opera House.  This project can be said to have made his reputation as a great architect while sabotaging his career.  He had left Sydney and his involvement as the architect of the Opera House in 1966,[2] before the building’s completion, in the midst of local political turmoil that made continuing his work impossible.  However, in the intervening years, among the relatively small number of buildings he completed, Utzon produced several fine buildings and a few that might be considered masterpieces.  The works are not widely known, but deserve to be, particularly as he was well ahead of his time in his thinking about how architecture is generated and constructed.  Utzon’s ideas included design and construction strategies that combine prefabrication with unique on-site work; the use of traditional materials in new ways; nature as a model for the design process; and the use of daylight to influence a range of design decisions, from the basic organization of a building to the detailing of materials.  In fact, Utzon’s understanding of daylight influenced all of the other strategies.

Can Lis

One of Utzon’s most powerful works is a house he designed for himself and his family near Porto Petro on the Spanish island of Majorca, off the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona.  The house is a complex of four pavilions associated with five courtyards.  The pavilions are threaded along a south facing Mallorcan cliff and adjusted in response to the topography so that each affords views of the Mediterranean.  The house is one of those rare, successful essays in the conscious production of a vernacular building by a professional and an example of Utzon’s deep understanding of daylight.  Until recently, daylight and thermal controls were derived from knowledge that resided firmly in vernacular building traditions that addressed materials and techniques, culture, and environmental needs.  At this house, which Utzon called Can Lis, he developed a strategic approach to daylighting, one that, in a vernacular manner, guided his design and construction decisions.

Utzon understood that a little sunlight goes a long way.  For the most part, direct sun is visually uncomfortable and inefficient.  Direct sun is great if you are lazing on the seashore or enjoying a leisurely stroll.  But too much sun, even a little sun from the wrong direction, easily introduces glare and overheating to a building’s interior.  Utzon’s knew that views of sun-washed and daylighted surfaces bring the satisfaction of sunlight and a sense of the passage of time into a space while minimizing the visual problems.  He realized that the task of the architect is to place surfaces in the path of light so as to capture it, redirect it, diffuse it, and when necessary, to occlude it: to let it be seen and its presence felt.

The daylighting strategy Utzon developed at Can Lis stems from a recognition that in Spain the sun follows a relatively high daily arc through the southern sky.  This means that openings aimed at the horizon minimize direct sun and maximize the intake of more desirable, diffused skylight and sun reflected from building surfaces and the sea.  Utzon’s daylighting strategy is fully realized and evident in the living room, the room most open to the world.  The room is cubic and high, 480 cm (about 15 feet 9 inches)[3] floor to ceiling, with the volume oriented so that the plan diagonal lies on the north-south axis.  Views and light are captured by unique, deep bay windows, chambers so large that they are nearly rooms and not unlike side chapels in a church.  The bays are glazed and fully open to views of the sea, but have no seats–the living room floor continues into the bays.  Low winter sun enters, early and briefly, when it warms and wakens the house, and later in a streak, near the end of the day all year round.  Direct, high summer sun is minimized, though again it may penetrate deeply on early summer mornings and for a time in the late afternoon, but the overall intensity of sunlight is generally redirected or diffused by the stone surfaces of the bays.

There are several precedents for these unusual bays.  Utzon may have been inspired by the south windows in Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, a dramatic example of glare control in low-light space.  This is the traditional way to make openings in a massive, load-bearing wall so as to minimize glare and diffuse light into a room.  The sills, jambs, and heads of the openings at Ronchamp are broad and canted to catch and diffuse incoming light.  This relieves the eye of the discomfort and difficulty of having to adjust, simultaneously, to the extremes of darkness and brightness.  In terms of the making the best use of a little sunlight, it is noteworthy that, at Ronchamp, the actual aperture size, the glazed area, of each opening is rather small and that the much larger embrasured area is such an effective distributor of light, that it seems to be an amplifier, which it is not.  The glazing in each opening is further modified, stained in colors and patterns designed by Le Corbusier.

It has also been suggested that Utzon was influenced by a project that appeared in Zodiac 14 along with an article on his work that appeared in the same issue.[4]  But there is an older precedent for these bays: the traditional window seat and bay window.  Such spaces are found in buildings across cultures.  They are capable of addressing the need for heating and cooling, the desire to inhabit spaces that are scaled to the human body, and the desire for daylight.  In a massive wall, the carving out of human-scaled space for inhabitation has several advantages.  It permits one to sit in a daylighted space, one with a satisfying sense of enclosure as well as views, lending the perception of security.  The thick, bearing walls receive and store the heat of the sun in cool weather, creating warm surfaces to lean against.  In warm weather, an operable window offers cooling.  In overcast weather, or any time at which the sun is not visible, the diffused light of the sky provides comfortable illumination for the bay and for adjacent, larger spaces. The bay is a space that provides a variety of lighting conditions, the stimulating, changing light of day, and the potential to be cool while in the sun or to be warmed by the sun in a cool weather.  It is the kind of space that offers the complex pleasures of being warm and cool, protected and exposed, at the same time.[5]  The window seats at the Louhissari Manor and in Turku Castle, both in Finland, are good examples of the usefulness and pleasure of such elements.  Whatever Utzon’s sources might have been, he made this element distinctly his own, creating an inhabitable, light-gathering and modifying space, an element characteristic of his work and insight.

The bays are configured and located with reference to the local sky, latitude, orientation, and climate.  They look out generally toward the south, to the sun and the sea.  Moreover, the rotation of the volume such that the diagonal lies along the north-south axis provides greater sun exposure to the southeast bays–four of the five–and to early, low angle, sunlight.   The bay surfaces are configured to catch skylight from the sky just above the horizon over the course of the day.  In this way, direct sun is generally sequestered at the perimeter of the living room but released to penetrate further at the times when it might be welcome.  As Richard Weston recalls, “Sunlight fills the openings but all around the walls are gathered in shade.”[6]

Weston’s observation is confirmed by sun studies. (Figures 1 through 7)  On December 21, the sun reaches an altitude of 27 degrees above the horizon at noon.  Consequently, December mornings are characterized by sunlight that penetrates deeply into the room.  The sun retreats closer to the region near the bays during the middle of the day.  A bit of sun drops into the room from the southwest on December 21.  The southwest bay admits a thin lane of sun that closely parallels the southeast bays on some late afternoons.

On June 21, the sun reaches its highest altitude, about 69 degrees above the horizon at noon.  The high angle generally keeps direct sun within or close to the bays.  Sun reaches deeply into the living room early, retreating and barely dipping into the bays around midday.  It drops into the southwest bay in the late afternoon.  The plan diagrams correspond to physical model heliodon studies; two model photos, illustrating sun penetration at noon in June and December, are presented here (Figure 7).

Utzon’s approach to daylight creates spaces that respond to sun angles and climate.  When the sun is low in the sky, direct radiation penetrates deeply into the room.   As the altitude of the sun and temperatures increase in the warmer seasons, the reach of the sun is constrained and rebroadcast as diffused daylight.  The bays do not simply restrict sun, but gather and redirect it, controlling glare and heat, and making inhabitable places.

Fig. 1. December 21, 7:30 a.m.

Fig. 2. December 21, 12:00 p.m.

Fig. 3. December 21, 4:00 p.m.


Fig. 4. June 21, 6:00 a.m.

Fig. 5. June 21, 12:00 p.m.

Fig. 6. June 21, 4:00 p.m.


Fig. 7. Heliodon sun studies of the living room on December 21, 12:00 p.m. (top) and June 21, 12:00 p.m. (bottom)

Utzon’s use of materials and details support the daylighting strategy.  The locally quarried stone units reveal a palimpsest of textures and colors that influence the character of the living room.  Sunlight is integrated with small shadows created by the texture and color of the stone walls.  We see the stone’s mineral constituency and the circular marks left by the saw used to cut the stone, all revealed in shadows and highlights.  The light in the rooms is enhanced by the warm tone of its stone surfaces.

The bays are glazed, but no window frame is visible from the interior so that the typical separation of view and viewer is minimized.  This detail is likely derived from the glazing assembly employed by the Swedish architect, Sigurd Lewerentz, at his St. Peters Church, in Klippan, Sweden, not far from Copenhagen.[7]  Lewerentz sealed large thermopane units over masonry openings with gobs of sealant and stainless steel clips.  Utzon similarly places the wood frame and glass against the outside face of the bay.  The frame is out of view and protected from the elements by a short roof overhang.  With the frames out of sight, nothing, not the slightest shadow, obstructs the inward rush of light through each bay and it appears as if one could step right out into the horizon.  The effect is remarkable and it evokes a powerful feeling of mastery over the scene.

Of course, a view is really an impression of reflected light.  From the bays at Can Lis, the sky is a scene of sunlight scattered and diffused by the earth’s atmosphere.  The water is a flickering play of daylight reflecting from the ever-changing pixels of the moving sea.  The living room is a play of light, shade, shadow, changing light, and changing views, a non-uniform lighted environment and rich experience in a relatively small space.

At Can Lis, one is always aware of the day and positioned to derive pleasure from it as light arrives by mediated paths.  One transforming moment is the blade of afternoon sun that slices across the inner face of the southeast wall, breaking the regime of controlled daylight.  Admitted by a small, high opening in the corner at the southwest facade, sunlight moves across the wall above the bays, marking the passage of time and lifting out of shade the textures left on the stone.  On these afternoons, the setting sun draws an illuminated lane across the floor.  The introduction of sun high in a tall room with softened light entering below recalls the Hall of the Abencerrajes and its relationship to the Court of Lions at the Alhambra.  Like the Hall, the living area at Can Lis has a ceiling that, while considerably simpler–a series of shallow, vaulted, white-painted ceiling tiles in place of the Alhambra’s polychrome muquarnas–is capable of diffusing light.

Nearly all of Utzon’s buildings have courtyards [8] and at Can Lis, as in most of his buildings, the courtyard plays an organizing role and is part of the daylighting strategy.  The house has five courtyards.  A courtyard is a defined space that combines the definition usually associated with interior space with the light, air, and general exposure of the outside world.  In such rooms, one has the great emotional and physical satisfaction of feeling protected and exposed at the same time.  At Can Lis the courtyards are designed with varied orientations, differentiated purposes, and with positions relative to the site and interior spaces.  They encourage one to live in the light of day and, like the bays, they gather daylight and diffuse it to adjacent spaces.   Answering the light admitted by the bays, daylight enters the living room from its northwest courtyard, through an associated colonnade and four tall doors in the northwest wall.  The colonnade establishes a shadowed threshold between the open court and the lighted shelter of the living room.  From this courtyard, the living room receives skylight and sun reflected from the surfaces of the court, balancing illumination levels across the living room.  Light enters the room from opposite sides, reducing the contrast that occurs when light enters primarily from one side only.

Utzon’s concept sketch [9] of the living room pavilion demonstrates the connection between interior and exterior spaces, and the resulting gradations of daylight, from one zone to the next.  This rough, evocative hand sketch shows a crowded treescape ending just short of two contour lines that indicate the edge of the cliff and the beginning of the sea.  Emerging from the trees and facing out to sea is an indication, with a thick pen line, of a rectangular precinct subdivided by distinct sets of additional marks into zones.  The sketch begins at the north (tree side) with an area framed as a courtyard.  Moving south, the courtyard is delimited with a series of paired dots, a colonnaded zone that creates the shadowed threshold between courtyard and living room.  Continuing south, the living room is indicated by an arc, representing what we know as the built-in, curved, stone and tile seat.  The southernmost zone is evoked by pairs of short, angled lines that indicate the individual bay windows.  The drawing concludes with four dots representing the columns that support the roof.

Each zone is characterized by a different quality of daylight and each contributes to the quality of illumination of adjacent zones.  And each zone, including that of the trees and continuing through that of the sea, exhibits its own qualities of exposure to, or protection from, daylight.  The trees offer filtered and varied exposure to daylight.  The courtyard is enclosed horizontally, but exposed vertically, to the sky.  The colonnade is an intermediate threshold of shade and shadow serving the court and living room.  It provides relief from direct sun and filters light before it reaches the interior.  The sequence of spaces ends (or begins again so that the sequence reverses) at the precarious cliff where one is completely exposed to the sky, to the horizon, in full daylight, to a flickering array of sun on moving water. The cliff edge is further formalized by a series of low, stone walls, set a few meters from the faces of the pavilions, and which serves to terminate the succession of inhabitable spaces.

In its sectional development, Can Lis recalls other built and unbuilt projects by Utzon.  At the Zurich Theatre (an unbuilt, competition-winning project of 1963), Bagsværd Church, and the Sydney Opera House, to cite three examples, the primary public room, like the Can Lis living room, rises above a fabric of lower support facilities.   In these designs, the seating appears to be sculpted from the earth.  At Can Lis, the living room’s arc of built-in seating is aimed south, mirroring the sun’s arc through the sky. The bays, each a proscenium, control the reception of daylight.  This living room-as-theater presents a play of evolving daylight, shade, shadow, light diffused from the sky, light reflected from the surface of the sea, the surprising brief oblique of sun, with sun and skylight relayed inward by the bays, all overlapping.  In the living room, daylight is the performer, displaying its range of qualities and moods, and it is reasonable to conjecture that, for Utzon, this is the kind of theatre that he always wanted to make.

If the design and performance of Can Lis leave any doubt as to Utzon’s daylighting intentions, we have more evidence with which to confirm them, in particular, his design for Bagsvaerd Church, which he developed at the same time as Can Lis.  Located at a distinctly different latitude, Utzon’s light-receiving strategy at Bagsværd is actually the same as that at Can Lis, but with a neat twist.[10] At Bagsvaerd, to minimize glare and maximize the diffusion of illumination, daylight is, again, gathered from the part of the sky away from the path of the sun.  At Copenhagen (56 degrees north) however, that slice of the sky is the top of the sky dome, not the area just above the horizon as at Can Lis.  As a result, and in a direct inversion from Can Lis, Bagsvaerd has almost no windows in the exterior envelope of the building.[11]   The church receives daylight through skylights and clerestories, which is then reflected from the tops of tall wall and ceiling surfaces, reflected and filtered by courtyards into the building.

The interiors at Bagsvaerd appear to be infused with light. We see light as it touches building surfaces and we form an impression of an expansive and fully illuminated space.  The impact of daylight is heightened because the structure’s exterior walls are opaque and the interior brightness is fully unexpected.  Counter to one’s intuition, at Bagsvaerd, it often seems as if the interior is brighter than the outside world: and it is.  Utzon’s simple explanation was that white walls reflect more light than relatively dark houses, landscapes, and plants.  The daylight produced at Bagsvaerd is infused with softened, diffused, cool light, and domesticated sun in response to a climate, which is often overcast.  Can Lis produces dim, subtle, spaces with greater variations in shade and shadow and views of sun on surfaces, in response to a clear, bright, sunny climate with views of the blue sky and water.[12]  That is, the interior spaces in each of these projects respond to the sky and light of its place in the world.  Spaces and forms are generated by light and, in a reciprocal way, the spaces make light unique to these places.

Jorn Utzon’s architecture makes a case for the design of non-uniform, rich and varied, daylighting.  The living room and other spaces at Can Lis, for example, are essentially simple, vernacular, arrangements with gentle classical aspirations, seen in load-bearing, local stone walls, colonnades of trabeated stone, and courtyards.  The qualities of daylight and the spaces designed to catch it bring richness and complexity to the architecture.  The clarity of the spaces and variations in light help us to orient ourselves, minimize the monotony of uniform illumination, and give us a sense of time, all essential to health and well being.

Can Lis presents us with three kinds of non-uniform lighting conditions.[13]  The first condition is spatial.  In the living room, the asymmetry of the room, a result of the specificity with which openings correspond to solar orientation and views, ensures that lighting is not uniform.  The subtleties of darkness and light are available at the same time as these qualities overlap each other.  The second condition is temporal.  The room displays the daily and momentary changes characteristic of daylight.  As a whole, the house is subject to a third condition, the richness of the lighted, spatial experiences available as one walks through variously open and closed, shaded and exposed, indoor and outdoor spaces, creating a set of experiences that are activated by light and movement.

When he translated his Nordic and personal perceptions of light and nature to a Mediterranean setting at Can Lis, Utzon realized a substantial correspondence between the understanding of daylight and the making of architecture.  The living room, and the house as a whole, is generated substantially as a response to daylight.  But there is yet another source for Jorn Utzon’s concern with light.  Utzon claimed that his eyes were extremely sensitive to light.[14]  In this way, his individual, if not entirely unique, sense of comfort in the world played a part in the making of Can Lis.  This is confirmed by his other projects, Bagsvaerd Church as we have seen, and most of Utzon’s works, even the Sydney Opera House, whose shells are sheathed in a quilt of matte and gloss finish ceramic tiles that mediate its reflective qualities.[15]  Despite his personal visual sensitivity, Utzon never tried to eliminate sun altogether and, but for one unbuilt project, seems never to have designed truly dark spaces.[16]  The resulting controlled relationships between interior and exterior spaces, from inner room to courtyard, from room to sky, toward field or water, all of which constitute the control of daylight and view, are also suggestive of this architect’s introverted personality.[17]  Though his architecture of layered walls, courtyards, and strategic openings, Utzon suggests gentle, graceful ways of mediating the individual’s relationship to others and to the world.

Utzon’s living room at Can Lis is a room in which daylight is meant to play with all of the intensity one might expect considering that the task at hand is the calculated containment of the primary force of nature and of life on earth: the sun.  In the end, Utzon’s design is neither a pure gatherer of skylight nor a perfect or absolutely consistent eliminator of sunlight.  It is an effective mediator of incoming sun such that its appearance is remarkable and pleasurable.  This very enclosed room is still fully available to sky illumination.  Utzon said simply that, “The deep window-wall softens the glare from the sun and the sea.  The window frames are outside–invisible from the inside–so you are alone with sandstone, sky, and sea.”[18]   The interesting thing is just how he accomplished all this: Can Lis is founded in his simple observation as to where the sun is in the sky.

In this way, Utzon’s work illustrates the powerful part daylight plays in the creation of architecture that belongs to an identifiable place, a role far beyond that of simply a source of illumination and an enabler of vision. Daylight is a potential generator of designed space, at least as much as program, materials, structure, and site.

Form and Performance

We are now prepared to address the question, what would Utzon do now?  Clearly, the real question is what are we to do now, having studied this architect’s work?

Utzon’s works suggest that buildings can be organized, from the beginning, with reference to daylight.  They further suggest that understanding daylight helps us to address a range of issues: circulation, structure, materials and finishes, and details.

A larger reading of Utzon’s work suggests that we might consider the performance of daylight in architecture as a model for the design process, a system in which richness and meaning arrive as a result of the design of simple, appropriate spaces in which daylight is invited to perform.  This strategy further points toward an approach to design, which carefully examines how things that change (daylight or the movement of people) work within systems that are static and singular or that are assembled of simple, repeated elements (structural or modular systems).  Serial systems hold the potential for variation to be programmed into them and this may be observed in nature.  Utzon frequently referred to nature as a source of inspiration and he considered the need for variation in his proposals for an “additive architecture.” [19]  We see evidence of this approach in a number of Utzon’s buildings.  Note the variable, custom concrete ceiling vaults and how they perform at Bagsvaerd given their deployment within an array of pre-fabricated and off-the-shelf elements that establish the fundamental architectural order of the spaces.  Consider the office and courtyard modules, and their variations, with which the architect generated the Kuwait National Assembly.  Consider how squares, their subdivisions, and aggregations generate the plans of Bagsvaerd and Can Lis.

The idea of finding the potential for variation within repetition is inherent in digital design and fabrication. These instruments now further validate Utzon’s vision, as they investigate new ways to treat traditional materials and make it feasible to program changes into otherwise stable systems.  It is now entirely possible to economically design, study, prototype, and build things–repeatable elements and programs–that incorporate the potential for change.  Moreover, this approach is a viable alternative to the making of aggressively shaped, expensive, and therefore inherently unsustainable buildings.

The potential for rich, stimulating, and meaningful buildings resides in the relationship between form and performance, exemplified in the rhythmic, geometric interplay of the earth and the sun, and seen in the daily variations of sunlight as it plays across architectural space, human space.


[1]  Michael Richardson, “After 25 Years, Sydney Embraces Jorn Utzon,” The New York Times, September 28, 2000;, retrieved August 13, 2012

[2]  Richardson, “After 25 Years, Sydney Embraces Jorn Utzon”

[3] The Utzon library: Utzon and the new tradition, edited by Martin Keiding and Kim Dirckinck-Holmfeld, (Copenhagen: Danish Architectural Press) 2005.  For these dimensions I have used the plan and section drawings in this book.  However, Utzon’s construction drawings were typically sparse and, in the case of Can Lis, sometimes done after construction decisions were made or revised on site as Utzon observed the progress of the house.  For example the house, as completed has a colonnade with four opening from the living room to its courtyard; the drawings show three. Therefore, it would be safe to consider the dimensions to be approximate.

[4] “Casa del arquitecto Eduardo Ellis” Zodiac 14, page 154-157, related by Richard Weston, who credits Peter Myers, in Utzon: Inspiration, Vision, Architecture, page 374, as cited below.

[5]  Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture, (Cambridge: MIT Press) 1979, pages 21-24. Heschong discusses the idea of overlapping sensory experiences and the pleasure of opposites as they relate to thermal conditions.

[6] Richard Weston, Utzon: Inspiration, Vision, Architecture, (Hellerup: Edition Blondal) 2002, page 382.

[7]  Richard Weston, Utzon: Inspiration, Vision, Architecture, page 285.  Utzon mentioned to Bagsvaerd Church members that he admired Lewerentz’s St. Peter’s Church.

[8]  Richard Weston and Martin Schwartz, “Inhabiting Light: Daylight in the Work of Jorn Utzon,” NYT Magazine, The Louis Poulsen Magazine of Lighting and Architecture, number 582, 2006

[9] Jorn Utzon, “The Importance of Architects,” in Denys Lasdun, editor, Architecture in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Oxford University Press) 1984, page 226.  The plan sketch is accompanied by a similar, hand-sketched section.

[10]  Martin Schwartz, “Light Organizing Architecture: Jorn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church,” Jorn Utzon Logbook, Volume II: Bagsvaerd Church, (Hellerup: Edition Blondal 2002) Denmark, 2005

[11]  The church courtyards are surrounded by wood and glass screens and the east end has a row of windows that illuminate a basement workspace.

[12]  The Mallorcan climate has significantly more hours of sun and fewer hours of rain than that of Copenhagen.  Refer to online weather and climate resources such as

[13] “Environmental diversity and natural lighting strategies,” Mary Ann Steane, in Environmental Diversity in Architecture, edited by Koen Steemers and Mary Ann Steane (London: Spon Press, Taylor and Francis Group) page 160

[14] Weston, Utzon; Inspiration Vision Architecture, page 370.

[15] Weston and Schwartz, “Inhabiting Light: Daylight in the Work of Jorn Utzon, pages 10-34

[16] Weston, Inspiration Vision Architecture, page 370.  Utzon prepared a design proposal for a theatre in an actual cave at Jeita grotto, north of Beirut, Lebanon.  It was never built.  He certainly was aware of the possibilities of darkness; as cited in note 6 above, Utzon knew St. Peter’s Church, an essay in unfolding darkness,

[17] Philip Drew, The Masterpiece; Jorn Utzon A Secret Life (South Yarra Victoria: Hardie Grant Books) 1999, page 6

[18] Utzon, “The Importance of Architects,” page 226.

[19] Weston, Utzon; Inspiration Vision Architecture, pages 248-277.

The author wishes to acknowledge research and graphics work contributed by research assistants Julia Jovanovich, Betty Shreve, and Brendan Cagney, as well as the insights of the noted authority on Jorn Utzon’s work, Richard Weston.