“Our entire imagination could never create anything that lies outside the infinite wealth of nature – it is therefore first when we wholly comprehend nature, and are in contact with it, that we are at liberty to create in our own, personal style,” wrote the 29-year-old Jørn Utzon in a manifesto in 1947. Furthermore, Utzon continued, nature consists of “many tiny, similar elements of highly differing types and qualities, which in combination with themselves or others provide infinite riches and splendour – spatially, in regard to materials, form, and colour”. In his comprehensive volume on Utzon, Richard Weston emphasizes that the Danish architect is part of a long tradition of theorists and practitioners, from Aristotle and Goethe to Bauhaus and the early modernists, who were all inspired by the organic forms of animals and plants. Nature itself appears as a sort of “modular architecture” that revealed the possibilities inherent in industrial prefabrication.
At the same time that Utzon wrote his manifesto, the somewhat older Norwegian architect Knut Knutsen (1903–69) built his summer residence in Portør on the southern coast of Norway (1949). This unassuming cabin also reveals an intense preoccupation with nature, and it quickly established itself as an ideal for many Norwegian architects. Both Jørn Utzon and Knut Knutsen were interested in the natural. Knutsen’s focus was on topography, and it is difficult to distinguish his cabin from the coastal crags of southern Norway. The edifice is deferential in that it identifies itself with the forms of the surrounding landscape, becoming one with the locality. Utzon for his part belongs to a tradition that searches for underlying regularities in botanical and biological phenomena. Employing that as his point of departure, Utzon created an additive architecture that was applicable to the entire range of design – from large-scale urban structures (Farum City Centre, project 1966) to furniture systems (Utsep, 1968).
“There are many sources for the revitalization and transformation of the pre-war architectural concepts that took place around 1950,” asserts the Danish professor of architecture Nils-Ole Lund. One example he cites is Jørn Utzon’s journeys to Morocco and Mexico in the late 1940s, to ancient cultures that had contended with fundamental problems of architecture – experiences that our industrial culture had removed us from. Such traditional architectures, in addition to the organic forms of nature, were primeval sources that contemporary architecture needed.
In the immediate post-war years, Norway’s leading journal on architecture, Byggekunst (Architecture), was full of travelogues – after five years of occupation and isolation, there was a great hunger for impressions from the outside world. Some correspondents reported on architectural developments in the United States, which had not suffered the ravages of war, while others re-established contact with European colleagues. Surprisingly many, however, sought out simple, down-to-earth styles. Not everyone travelled south, however, as aboriginal architecture could also be found within Norway’s borders. The architect Kjell Borgen journeyed for example to the county of Finnmark in the northernmost part of Norway and became the first to document the architectural traditions of the Sami peoples.
Another luminary who sought out local roots was the prominent Norwegian architectural historian and theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz (1926–2000). During the winter of 1963–64, a classmate from ETH Zürich, Gunnar Bugge, took him along to the valleys of Telemark in southeastern Norway, where he was introduced to the venerable architectural styles of the Norwegian farmsteads. This resulted in the monograph Stav og laft (1969), which remains a standard work on Norwegian stave churches and the farmsteads of the inland areas.
Such an understanding of local traditions was considered to be all-important in the post-war development of Norwegian architecture. In 1961 the Wood Prize (Treprisen) was awarded for the first time, with the twofold aim of paying tribute to outstanding modern uses of wood in architecture and of inspiring innovation and the development of an artistically sublime wood architecture. In a 1966 publication that showcased the works of the first four recipients of the prize, Norberg-Schulz wrote an introduction where he linked the age-old traditions in this field with the Wood Prize winners’ modern contributions – the national “primeval architecture” continued in other words to be relevant as a knowledge repository and source of inspiration.
When Norberg-Schulz studied at ETH, one of his teachers was Siegfried Gideon, who was not only the general secretary of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) but also a major Baroque scholar. Already during his student years, Norberg-Schulz thereby gained a double toehold in the discipline: he was committed to contemporary architecture, but he also acquired wide-ranging knowledge of architectural history – a rare combination for the time.
Other architects received an entirely different education. “We were tossed around the history of art with a ruthless subjectivity, without any chronology, without any plan. The road to Africa went through the ethnographer Leo Frobenius’s notes; the journey from Egypt to neoclassicism was never taken.” These lines were written in 1985 by the prominent Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn (1924–2009) about his relationship to his mentor, Professor Arne Korsmo (1900–68), and the haphazard instruction in architectural history Fehn received as a student in Oslo right after World War II. Fehn would later thoroughly acquaint himself with Europe’s heritage of classical architecture, and with Andrea Palladio in particular. But in the immediate post-war years it was “primitive” architecture that seemed most relevant.
In 1951 Fehn received a grant to study the traditional architecture of Morocco. The following year he wrote a four-page article for the journal Byggekunst, wherein he gave an account of the journey and presented sketches and personal photographs. In 1987 he expressed himself as follows in regard to his experiences in Morocco: “I went to Morocco not to discover new things but to recollect what has been forgotten. (…) The only answer to this architectural simplicity and clarity is that it exists in a culture that for us seems timeless. Architecture’s work is perfect, because it is working in a timeless space. Its signature is anonymous, because it is nature itself.”
Fehn has on numerous occasions highlighted how this journey fundamentally influenced his understanding of architecture. Some of the lessons he had learned in Morocco could be applied directly. For example, the 1952 Byggekunst article includes a photograph of a Moroccan house that lies in a slope, with the entrance on the roof terrace, and Fehn employed the same principle in the 1980s when he designed a detached house in the fashionable hillside neighbourhood of Holmenkollen in northern Oslo.
In 1949 Liz and Jørn Utzon travelled to the United States along with Arne Korsmo and his wife Grete, and it was during this trip that the two couples took a detour to Mexico. Among the architectural wonders Utzon set his eyes on was the Zapotec temple complex on Monte Albán, an experience that would greatly influence his competition entry for the Sydney Opera House in 1957. In 1947 Utzon had also visited Morocco, and he supposedly recommended his good friend Sverre Fehn to travel there as well.
Another architect in the Team Ten generation who was concurrently seeking out the same sources was the Dutchman Aldo van Eyck (1918–99). During the period 1947–52, van Eyck visited prehistoric monuments in France and also made three expeditions to North Africa to study the local architecture. “The travels that Aldo went on in this period shared a constant theme, that of the ‘elementary’. Their aim was, at least in the first instance, not to become acquainted with modern or classic art and architecture, but to make direct contact with the primary forms of visual language,” Francis Strauven wrote in his comprehensive monograph on van Eyck. The mural architecture of the oases seemed authentic and would serve as a useful foundation for creating the buildings of the future.
North Africa had not always been perceived as exotic and far removed from Europe. For many centuries the Roman Empire had included all the territories that bordered on the Mediterranean. In addition to the impressive Roman network of roads, it was this immense mare nostrum (lit. “our sea”) that bound the Roman Empire together, and North Africa was a vital and integrated part of this empire. Here was Rome’s granary, here were large, flourishing cities; from this region came individuals who would rise to the very top of the imperial administration, or even ascend the imperial throne. During this era it was rather Northern Europe and the Germanic world across the Rhine that was primitive and alien. Following the fifth-century dissolution of the Western Roman Empire and the seventh-century expansion of Islam, however, North Africa disappeared from the European sphere.
It was first 1100 years later that Europe would again gain access to, and insight into, this part of the world. The 29-year-old general Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt (1798–99) was of course a strategic ploy and a facet of his continuing battle with his primary foe, Great Britain. But in addition to 50,000 soldiers, Napoleon’s expedition included 154 learned savants (experts), who were to document the Egyptian civilization. This encyclopaedic gathering of knowledge was entirely in the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment and can be viewed as a parallel to Alexander von Humboldt’s concurrent American expedition (1799–1804): the world was to be measured, described, and understood.
The re-opening of North Africa thus commenced with the documentation of the grand, imposing monuments of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The area’s other major civilization, the Islamic world, had long held the Europeans’ fascination. But when the British architect Owen Jones (1809–74) embarked on his Grand Tour in 1832 and included not only the classical architecture of Italy and Greece, but also the Islamic architecture of Istanbul, Cairo, and not least the Alhambra in Granada, he opened an entirely new chapter in this relationship with his scientifically exact studies of Islamic decorative patterns. At about the same time Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was visiting North Africa, where he was inspired by the dignity of the local population and the exotic sensuality of the women. This type of Orientalism was continued by Henri Matisse when he painted his North African Odalisques in the 1920s, and also by Le Corbusier, who painted similar feminine motifs a decade later while on assignment in Algeria. This took place in 1931 when Le Corbusier was busy drafting a utopian city plan for Algiers, Plan Obus, featuring monumental, curved buildings and a winding, arced viaduct that would serve as a massive landscape sculpture along the coast. The gigantic, feminine forms stood in contrast to his diagrammatical Ville Contemporaine (1925) for Paris, but the proposed plan for Algiers showed little understanding of the local building traditions, nor was it in line with France’s determination to view the colony as a natural part of the French motherland. However, in 1942 Le Corbusier designed a farmstead in Cherchell, Algeria, that was a fenced-in construction with barrel arches, clearly inspired by local building customs. This project was by no means unique in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, and he had begun to use rough construction materials already in a number of works in the 1930s. It is therefore not surprising that in the post-war years he advised young architects, such as Sverre Fehn, to travel to North Africa to study the “primitive” architecture there.
In 2007 I visited Libya and Tunisia to see the ruins of Roman settlements in Sabrata, El-Jem, Thuburbo Majus, Dougga, and not least the impressive Roman city of Leptis Magna, which lies 120 km east of Tripoli. Though it was not our goal to follow in the footsteps of Sverre Fehn and the other European architects who had visited this part of the world in the 1950s, we could not avoid encounters with local building traditions of a striking vitality and quality, such as Ksar Hadada, an ancient granary where the Berbers had stored barley, wheat, and olive oil. The edifice consists of a series of multi-storeyed barrel arches, and displays a certain similarity with Le Corbusier’s project in Cherchell in Algeria. However, a sign by the entrance to the facility emphasized an entirely different link to Western culture. The sign was written in three languages, and the English version went as follows: “Ksar Hadada. U.S. film maker George Lucas used this monument to create the town Mos Espa on the Galactic planet Tatooine, featured in the tremendously successful movie ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’. Date of shooting July 1997.”
The young Darth Vader had thus also been to North Africa, though to be sure in an era that lies far in the future. It therefore seems to be correct, just as the Nordic architects believed in the post-war years, that the future belongs to the fundamental, the primeval.