Jørn Utzon's House in Hellebæk


23 Mar 2015 04 Dec 2017

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The "Architect's house" in Hellebæk, Denmark, fifty kilometres north of Copenhagen, was built in 1953 on the designs of the great architect, Jørn Utzon, aimed to be his own home in one of his most loved areas of his country. Small, yet spacious, this dwelling is hidden in the green Danish forests not far away from the place he grew up and loved so much. This house was built at the commencement of Utzon's career with limited funds:

The story goes that Utzon... could only afford a regular suburban lot but bought one at the end of a street, cancelled the driveway and persuaded the local forester to let him enter trough the forest instead. (Anon., May 2008)

In this essay I intend to look at how this house functions, both aesthetically as well as ergonomically. I will analyze its style, layout and both its external and internal structure with references to the time and location it was built in. I will also examine the practical functions it provides. Subsequently, I am going to compare it to two other houses which either have been an inspiration for the architect or have been themselves influenced by Utzon's Hellebæk house.

The House at Hellebæk is not just another paradigm of a typical modern mid-century house but one of the very first structures to feature the trend of single-storey, flat-roofed residences with long glass walls. The whole façade of the house is made up of yellow brick and large glass panels which create long uninterrupted, parallel walls. The north brick wall is completely blank in the sense that the architect punctured no windows in it at all except for the front door. As for the interior, the kitchen and the living room are situated in the core of the house while the bedrooms are at the sides and are only illuminated by roof openings due to Utzon's desire to keep the bareness of the north wall. His determination to avoiding openings lead that the internal walls have no doors but mere gaps between them as passageways, and he achieved that by arranging them in such a way that the doors were ceiling high.

The walls extend from ceiling to floor with black-painted wooden strips so the walls can be moved, the rooms re-arranged according to the need later on. (Jorn Utzon)

By designing this house, the architect's aim, was to make a modern and attractive residence that accommodated his wants and needs. At that time, he was married with children and needed a family house that would please him both aesthetically and emotionally by allowing him to enjoy the beauty of the Danish woods on his slightly elevated porch. On the other hand, he needed it to have enough room for a family while keeping the construction on a low budget.

What is interesting about this residence is the fact that if you inspect it from the south, you will see a lightweight structure with thin timber framing and glass plates. On the other hand, if you stand on the north side, you will observe a heavy, stone building with no openings for the building to breathe. The south lighter side which stands on a solid brick wall, is said to be inspired by eastern, Chinese architecture. (20th century houses)

With the construction of this house, Jørn Utzon was the first to bring the open-plan movement to the then conservative Denmark as it features a large open space and minimizes the use of small, enclosed rooms. This is in strong contrast with the traditional Danish houses with strictly defined rooms (Denmark, Unofficial Handbook, Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 622-644). This house is yet an even more contradictory structure to that area due to the architect's choice not to provide north-facing openings since the conventional housing of the 50s used to have large windows on every side. Yet, the south side and the use of brick balance everything up.

One of the things that catches my eye on this house is the precise geometry in which the yellow bricks are placed. The entire building seems like it has been very carefully constructed, taking into consideration every little detail. The geometry is emphasised by the two very long parallel walls on either side.

The structure of the house, resembles that of a traditional Japanese house that was designed according to the ancient Kiwari modular system. This was a very simple method of building based on standard dimensions and spacing between columns which was measured in 6 to 6.5 Shaku (1818mm to 1969.5mm)(Davies book 2). Utzon borrows this scheme and converts it into his own culture, the traditional Danish brick. "In the Utzon house it is the humble brick that sets the module both externally and internally."(Davies). All the proportions are planned on an 120mm grid which is devised by Danish brick and cement joints, timber panels, floor tiles and brick paving.

The Japanese influence is not only apparent in the structural elements of the house but in the interiors and decoration as well. The materials used outside are the same as inside: yellow brick, Oregon pine, aluminium and black-painted skirting boards and ceiling strips. The whole plainness of it all is what reminds me of Japanese quality. Photos of the interiors which are geometric, with straight edges, a grid-like placement of furniture, ample wide, open space and a very generous usage of long timber planks bring to my mind the simple lines that traditional Japanese architecture followed. The architect himself recalls all the different sorts of materials used in this project; walls and doors are framed with Oregon pine boards, the kitchen, grill niche, shower and bathroom are all adorned with the same yellow brick but glazed white and shiny like porcelain. The flooring in the entrance hall, kitchen and round the fireplace consists of yellow-brown oblong tiles made of clay.

Utzon's main inspiration for creating the Hellebæk house, were Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses (1936) and especially Jacobs House which was the first out of this series of small ranches in West America. The windows, the single-storey and open plan structure as well as the flat roof and the use of brick and timber were obvious elements which Utzon mimicked after Wright's work.

After the Second World War, Utzon decided to travel to the United States where he stayed with Frank Lloyd Wright for several months. He closely observed the great architect who was at the peak of his career as he worked. This is very noticeable in Utzon's work following that journey.

Jacobs House is located in Madison, Wisconsin and was created by Wright during a major pause of his career in the 30s due to being affected by the time's depression. The architect's main intention was to create a large collection of such houses that were both economical and environmentally friendly. The materials used in this project were timber, stone, glass and bricks made out of baked clay, a series of resources that state a clear relation to the area's vernacular(www.usonia1.com). This is exactly what Utzon did for his own house.

Wright's concept included an L-shaped floor plan with a two by two grid as a guideline. Utzon consequently used a certain pattern as well by making everything a multiple of 120mm. The living and dining areas as well as the kitchen are all in a single open area in contrast to the two bedrooms and the study which are enclosed in their own rooms. He, as well as Utzon, make the same clear distinction between the private and public areas of the house, the serving and served. The whole house is characterized by the simplicity of the materials and space.

Floor heating, Chinese method. Both houses.

A house in which was undoubtedly influenced by Utzon's creation is Richard Horden's residence in Poole Dorset.

Utzon is a great mind in the history of architecture and his Hellebæk house still remains as an example of how well he could implement modern structures of the mid-century. The yellow brick is still standing symmetrically and geometrically inside the deep Danish woods.


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