jørn utzon, jeddah stadium, saudi arabia 1967
stadium and sports complex, jeddah, saudi arabia, 1967 (unbuilt).
architect: jørn utzon, 1918-2008.
engineer: max walt, zürich
"we are not really interested in how things will be in 25 years, whatever we build. actually, what we are interested in is that if in 2000 years some people dig down, they will find something from a period with a certain strength and purity belonging to that period", (utzon 1978).
one of the strangest and most beautiful post-sydney projects by utzon is this stadium and sports complex in saudi arabia, a commission he won by way of kenzo tange and which sadly remained unbuilt. it may well be that "it's been done before" is one of the sillier games of architectural history, but when it comes to folded construction and system thinking of which we see plenty these days, jeddah deserves to be remembered.
for lack of physical evidence, I have built a digital model based on the drawings published by utzon in Danish magazine "arkitektur", #1 1970, an issue devoted entirely to utzon's concept of additive architecture which proposed open-ended building systems of almost organic growth, yet consisting of a limited number of prefabricated units.
this rendering shows four such modules for the stadium grandstand. we know few details, hence the high level of abstraction, but in his later works utzon increasingly eschewed details for the naked presence of his monumental concrete structures.
a comparable competition, the parliament in kuwait, was won 5 years later. there, the prefab elements were produced locally in stainless steel formwork using local sand to achieve a brilliant white finish without painting the concrete. that building was later painted, by the way, after it had been looted and torched by iraqi troops.
in his own 1970 text on the jeddah stadium, utzon stresses the rationality of prefabrication and how the additive architecture supports the natural flow of people through the complex. no doubt these things are beautifully resolved, indeed the aspect of flow is central to the project as the site model shows so well, but reading the text, I couldn't help feeling that I was in the presence of some conjurer trying to divert my attention from his magic tricks: imagine standing next to such haunting shapes in the thinnest possible folded concrete, would your thoughts be on rational production and patterns of movement?
the folded plate construction in concrete is not in itself unusual for the late sixties. what is exceptional is utzon's ability to invest it with layers of meaning without adding physically to the minimal structure. in the context of the arabian peninsula, the facetted concrete resembles the islamic muqarnas vaulting, utzon had witnessed in isfahan and the many prismatic derivatives found in that most beautiful of cities. but it is no mere allusion to one of islamic architecture's most iconic elements. utzon lifts it from role as ornament into modern construction, returning it to the constructive purity of its origin, the squinch.
that cultural continuity was possible within modernism and the conditions of the 20th century is one of the salient points of utzon's work regarded as a whole. one can only hope that the people responsible for the ongoing embarrassment which is historicist islamic architecture today will look to him for guidance.
to the Danish eye, the relationship to the cross-pleated paper lamps of the klint family is the most immediately intriguing. former employees testify to utzon's admiration for p.v. jensen-klint's ruskinian monument, the grundtvig church, and for his son, kaare klint, the uncompromising father figure of Danish furniture design. in effect, they were the true royalty of the copenhagen scene.
the le klint lamps were put into production by his sons some forty years after p.v. jensen-klint invented the first version for his own home. still developed and reinterpreted by new generations of architects, it remains one of the true classics of danish design - but why did it turn up, violently out of scale, in utzon's oeuvre?
in my brother's bookshop, I chanced upon the memoirs of le klint, jensen-klint's grand-daughter after whom the company was named. of her stay in neutral sweden in 1944 she writes,
"...jørn utzon...lived under the roof in one of gamla stan's beautiful flats. his wife received me...jørn arrived home from work and was wildly enthusiastic about the lamps - especially kaare's lamps which he hung all across the little flat.".
"jørn immediately set about planning the exhibition. in the evening we would sit all three of us making new lamp shades until long into the night. the exhibition room was large and several hundred lamps were needed."
you can only imagine how he must have stored the idea for using folded construction on a larger scale. the first place it turned up in his production was an early idea for the inner acoustic shells of the sydney opera house - a beautiful, triangulated surface but less repetitive and more complex than the saudi project.
for all his universalist aspirations, maybe this autobiographical trait in utzon's works as each project seems to draw up world maps of his encounters and personal experiences is the most moving to me. it is the very opposite of the architecture coming out of the major offices that undertake projects on this scale today.
some of the design ideas behind the jeddah stadium were later recycled by renzo piano in bari, others by santiago calatrava just about everywhere.
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gallery of related projects: www.flickr.com/photos/seier/galleries/72157623050016581