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Jørn Utzon's legacy inspires fashion, ceramics and performance art

Three artists on how the sails have inspired their work. 

Danielle Edwards
Sydney Opera House
As an architect, Jørn Utzon owes his craft to many disciplines. His father was a naval architect and engineer, and throughout his early career Jørn came into contact with some of design's greatest cross-disciplinaries such as architect and painter Le Corbusier, and architects and furniture designers Ray and Charles Eames.
It's been a century since Utzon's birth and to celebrate, the Utzon Center in Aalborg, Denmark—the architect's childhood home—will present Horisont, an exhibition highlighting how Utzon’s travel studies of foreign, often ancient, building traditions coloured his work.
As Utzon drew from a range of influences, so have artists today taken cues from his enduring masterpiece. We talked to three creators on how Utzon's designs, philosophy, and spirit have influenced their practice.

Samantha Robinson, ceramicist 

Like Utzon’s architecture, Samantha Robinson’s practice as a ceramicist allows her to work both sculpturally and functionally. Her hand-crafted plates, vases and bowls elevate everyday objects with bold colour, movement and unique organic form.

On Utzon’s 100th anniversary, Robinson will unveil a range of ceramics which reimagine Utzon's tapestry, Homage to CPE Bach, on Australian porcelain in an exclusive collection created for the Opera House.

“My inspirations come from a lot of prints, fabrics, nature and generally what’s happening in the everyday world around me," said Robinson, whose signature ceramic bowls are moulded from melons. 

“A lot of the different shapes come from different series. The Utzon collection uses Australian melons. The tasting plates and tapas plates originally come from the belly bowls which came from my belly when I was pregnant with my daughter.

“The way that we make molds is a little more creative than a factory, and that’s the difference between studio ceramics—it’s all made by hand. Every single piece is different, and every single plate we make in this range will be different because it will be applied and no image is applied in the same way. It’s always unique and individual.”

Robinson regularly travels to china to work with the seventh-generation masters in Jingdezhen, known as the ‘porcelain capital’ of China. It’s a journey not unlike the one made by Jørn Utzon, who travelled to Beijing in 1958 to study Chinese architecture. His personal films, featured in his centenary exhibition at the Utzon Center reveal how Chinese architecture and the ‘engobe’ technique of glazing bowls and tiles inspired the design of the Opera House tiles.

“A big part of my practice is going to China—not to manufacture, but to learn from the masters. Printing on ceramics is ancient. If you look at blue and white ceramics initially it started with hand painting. But if you go anywhere in the world, any Chinatown, you’ll see everything has been printed. That technology is what we use today to collaborate between ceramics and printing. If you’re looking at how they used to transfer, they would monoprint using cobalt transfers where the cobalt is pushed into designs engraved in etching plates. Rice papers were applied to lift the pattern off then transferred onto the porcelain.

“Before we used to think about art as classical art like a painting but in the contemporary art world, anything is art. Look at the tapestry—it’s art. When you look at the traditional values of what tapestry is or a rug you think, ‘is it an art form, is it a craft?’ It’s about how you perceive it. There’s something exceptional about the tapestry, and to have a piece of that and to bring it home is pretty unique.”

Samantha Robinson’s collection is now available in the Opera House Shop.

Rayyane Tabet, sculptor, Dear Mr Utzon

Before pursuing a career as an artist, Beirut-born sculptor Rayyane Tabet studied architecture at the Cooper Union in New York. He was exposed to the greats of modernism—Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, and while he studied the Opera House, it didn’t strike a chord with him at that time. It wasn’t until 2018 Biennale of Sydney Artistic Director Mami Kataoka invited him to exhibit at the building that the significance of this place and its architect were impressed upon him.

“Frankly, I never understood it,” said Tabet. “I never understood why this building was so important. When I came to Sydney I realised that the Opera House is very iconic in photographs but when you see it in person you realise why it’s a work of genius. Especially when you see the sails and how they’re tiled—which rarely comes across in photographs—you realise how genius it is.

“When I dug deeper into the history and the history of Jørn Utzon I drank the kool-aid. I’m the biggest Utzon and Sydney Opera House fan now!

“He is kind of like a vision of an architect which I think no longer exists. He is an artist, an architect and an engineer at once. Right now the professions have been so divided that it no longer operates as such but he’s really kind of one of these Renaissance men that resolves the building of the sails as he would resolve the tapestry that’s in the room, as he would resolve a detail of the staircase. The building is all of these things together.”

In March 2018, Tabet’s Biennale performance piece Dear Mr Utzon transformed the Utzon Room, one of only two Utzon-designed interior spaces, using historical and found objects to trace a connection between the Sydney Opera House and Utzon’s unrealised plans to build a theatre within the Jeita Grotto in Lebanon.

“When I did a little bit of research into the history of the site, also the life of Jørn Utzon I was very surprised to find out that two years after he was dismissed from the Opera House project he actually came to Lebanon, which is where I’m from, to propose building a theatre inside a cave in the north of Lebanon.

“Originally I was just going to make a sculpture that would be in the Opera House but would actually be Utzon’s project for Lebanon, kind of like the return of an unrealised project to an unfinished building. Slowly the project morphed from being a sculpture—which I know how to do—to a performance—which I don’t usually do.”

In researching and composing Dear Mr Utzon, Tabet met with historians, archivists and heritage experts including Penelope Seidler, architect and wife of influential architect and vocal Utzon supporter Harry Seidler. Her comparison of Utzon to Hamlet introduced a new insight to the work.

“I quoted her exactly in my text: ‘You know Utzon was like Hamlet, a self-critical and honest man struggling to do what is right under unfavourable circumstances.’ What’s crazy about this is that Utzon’s last place of residence was in Elsinore where there’s Kronborg—the castle that Shakespeare used as the setting for Hamlet. Which is insane! I ended up reading ‘to be or not to be’, which is again a text I’ve studied in English when I was a kid but never understood it. If you re-read it now and think of Utzon it makes so much sense it’s as if it was written for him.

The only physical remnants of Dear Mr Utzon are reproduced leaflets, distributed at each venue of the 21st Biennale of Sydney, which read ‘BRING UTZON BACK’.

The Biennale of Sydney runs until 11 June 2018.

Dion Lee, fashion designer

Dion Lee can’t remember a time when the Opera House wasn’t part of his landscape. Born in Sydney in 1985, twelve years after Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece opened its doors, Lee was an Opera House habitué from the start, attending the ballet, contemporary dance and theatre performances. 

The Opera House was a consistent source of creative inspiration for Dion, and in 2010 he became the first designer to show in the purple-carpeted Concert Hall Northern Foyer. It would become a career-defining moment.

"What really struck me at the time was how that sense of space resonated internationally and how iconic the images of that presentation became.

“I’ve always been interested in sculptural design and structure. Tailoring has been something I have really focused on from my college days, drawing on menswear and traditional tailoring techniques. For me there has always been this overarching parallel between pattern-making - the process of drafting a pattern for the body - and architecture. It’s a mathematical process of plotting a structure, plotting something physical."

It’s hard to miss the echoes as he speaks of a building designed to be seen from all sides, reflecting every fluctuation of the movement around it. A building described in fact as “a great urban sculpture set in a remarkable waterscape, at the tip of a peninsula projecting into Sydney Harbour” in its 2007 World Heritage listing, one that “brings together multiple strands of creativity and innovation”.

Lee made that inspiration explicit three years later when - as the first Australian representative at the prestigious International Woolmark Prize - he designed his acclaimed ‘Utzon’ collection, named in honour of the architect of the Sydney Opera House and drawing on Max Dupain’s celebrated photographs of the Opera House shells under construction.

Read the rest of the interview with Dion on Backstage.

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