Visiting Can Lis – Jørn Utzon’s House on Majorca

JA+U: "Visiting Can Lis – Jørn Utzon’s House on Majorca" Report by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto © Yasuhiro Nakayama (Shinkenchiku-sha)

Architect Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow shared with us his experience visiting Jørn Utzon’s Can Lis, a house on Majorca, Spain, which we visited and photographed in 2012. Through the photographs as well as the drawings, sketches, essays, and details, a+u March 2013 Special issue documents the house – originally built in 1972 – after the restoration by Danish architect Lise Juel.

Below is Mr. Tsukamoto's text from A+U April 2013:

I visited Majorca in November 2011 with the assistance of Lise Juel, the architect who was designing the restoration of Can Lis. Driving from the airport through fields of olive trees, we began to see windmills here and there. None of the windmills was spinning, and in their stillness, their triangular white blades, shining in the sun, stood out vividly. On closer look, no one could be seen working in the olive fields, either. These days, I was told, the olive fields are maintained less for production than for tourism. As we drove along, farm storage buildings of yellowish sandstone block also appeared. It was the same stone as used at Can Lis. Upon taking a liking to Majorca, Utzon had investigated the island in detail. By employing the same materials as those he found in use around the island, he had sought to place his own house in the lineage of the simple local architecture.

Seeing the street name change to Jørn Utzon Street, I knew we were close to our destination. The pine trees lining the road all leaned in the same direction, a fact that spoke of strong ocean winds. Beyond them, near the street, the stone walls of Can Lis appeared. The walls were capped with a line of terracotta roof tiles, set at a slight incline toward the outside. With this simple small detail, directionality was born among walls of various heights. Because of the tiles and also the soft appearance of the sandstone, the walls, although built of stone, did not appear cold and impersonal.

JA+U: "Visiting Can Lis – Jørn Utzon’s House on Majorca" Report by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto © Yasuhiro Nakayama (Shinkenchiku-sha)

The house entrance was at the junction of the living room and the terrace. On opening the door, another outdoor space appeared, with a crescent shaped opening in the opposite wall. Below the opening, tiles of white and deep blue formed a pattern evoking the waxing and waning of the moon. This design had been inspired by the street’s original name: Cala media luna (Half-moon cove). The city, desirous of sharing Utzon’s fame as the Sydney Opera House designer, had changed the street’s name to impart a touch of local refinement. As a touch, it nevertheless seemed unrefined compared with the sensibility that had found a connection between a street name and the cliffs and moon and enshrined it in a building.

Opening the door to the right, I entered the U-shaped colonnade surrounding the terrace. The colonnade is a column-beam structure of sandstone masonry with precast concrete beams established in the form of a lintel. Precast concrete joists connect the pairs of beams, and arched terracotta tiles are fitted between the joists to produce the roof. By grafting new technology – a precast concrete beam – onto the local stone storage house style of architecture, Utzon had produced a space that uses the same sandstone but enjoys greater openness. Through its exposure to modern conditions, the intelligence that informed the historical architectural style had been revived and put into practice, with result that a new generation of that style was born. Utzon’s method of approaching historical architecture is well expressed here.

The sandstone terrace is a stage offered to the Mediterranean Sea, the sun, and the moon. What manner of varied program will the wind, light, and shadows unfold for us, amid this confrontation between flatness of sea and flatness of stone? The desire one feels to sit and enjoy dinner here is due to its arrangement: the east wall of the terrace behind one and the tiled table placed to look out across the terrace. The diagonal stone slabs protruding from the wall and the stone rising from the floor are also finished in tile. Their tiles appear cool and inviting to sit on, and when one does, one’s body connects them as the back and seat of a bench. Their edges, where they contact the body, are finished with smooth, half-cylinder tiles – tiles that were fired by Utzon’s daughter, Lin.

To the opposite side of the house entrance, there is a small walled garden. Here, because of the humidity and the shadows from the building and pine trees, the surface of the sandstone has blackened. Two rows of columns form a corridor to the bedrooms at the east. Three sets of wood doors seal the spaces between the columns, and opening them, one enters a room with a high ceiling. On the sea side of the room, six niche-like apertures of moderate height protrude outward at different angles. The differences in their angles suggest the movement of the sun as it rises in the east and sets in the west. Because the opening in each aperture has no window frame, the room appears wide open to the elements. Yet, window glass has in fact been installed from the outside. The simplicity with which Utzon has bonded the glass to the stone from the outside, with a wood frame, is moving. Here, because of the windows, the wind that had played freely in the terrace is excluded, and only the sun and views remain.

JA+U: "Visiting Can Lis – Jørn Utzon’s House on Majorca" Report by Yoshiharu Tsukamoto © Yasuhiro Nakayama (Shinkenchiku-sha)

When one sits on the crescent stone sofa in the middle of the room, the horizon line of the sea reaches the very center of the windows in the apertures. The exterior view framed by the niche is divided in two, sky above and sea below. If one stands up, the volume of sea increases and there is less sky, but this cannot be considered the standard eye height for the room. The height of our eye when sitting on the sofa tells us that, here in this place, the sea and sky meet, and we are united with what lies beyond the horizon.

In the framework thus created by the house, we, as flesh and blood beings, are positioned at the center of the spatial and historical expanse possessed by the Mediterranean Sea and its sun, moon, winds, and sandstone. That expanse, even though encompassed by walls, extends far beyond the site’s boundaries. The entire earth, one feels, is the house’s site. The impression given by the house of being divorced from reality perhaps derives from this fact. Living here, one would surely feel as if enveloped by the earth, embraced by the earth. Lise Juel’s design for the restoration, which in every detail inherits this spirit of Can Lis and progresses within a dialogue with Utzon, is superb. When I told her she had the most enviable job in the world, she answered back, smiling, It’s just as you say.

Translated from Japanese by Brian Amstutz.