“We relate everything around us to ourselves. Our surroundings affect us by their size, light, shadow, color, etc. How we feel depends very much on whether we are in the city or the country, in big spaces or small ones.
Our reactions to these conditions are originally unconscious, and we take note of them only in outstanding cases such as when feeling sublime pleasure from detail or a perfect relationship to the environment or when experiencing some gross feelings of displeasure. However, our point of departure should be this: turning unconscious reactions into a consciousness. By training our ability to capture these differences and their influence on us, by being in conscious contact with our surroundings, we learn the essence of architecture.”
-By architect Jørn Utzon, 1948
The Pritzker award-winning architect, Jørn Utzon was best known for the design of the iconic Sydney Opera House in Australia. His work was profoundly inspired by nature and influenced by the additive principle and the cultural context of location. Utzon’s work is symbolic of how cultural elements and natural surroundings can be well integrated and celebrated within the built environment. This is evident at Can Lis, his summer residence which is surrounded by the Majorcan pine trees, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Can Lis is a project located in Porto Pietro, Mallorca, built-in 1973, by Utzon himself, for his family. Although constructed in the 20th century, it exhibits the traits of an ancient temple ruin and a modern house at the same time. The thick and earthy limestone walls remind of a fortress yet the minimalistic structure and elements display the qualities of modernist architecture. Jørn Utzon’s ideology was centered on this very phenomenon – “that architecture is not an external form: it is primarily the frame that encloses a collection of ritualized events”.
Merging seamlessly with the colors in the landscape, Can Lis stands on a cliff located on the Balearic Islands in Spain. The narrow site sandwiched between the road and the sea persuaded the architect to build five separate buildings, instead of one. The rooms are arranged in a linear form, connected by transitional courtyards, enabling every space to take full advantage of uninterrupted sea vistas. The house is divided into five individual blocks, each with its function: a courtyard, the kitchen and dining room block, living room block, bedroom block, and a partly covered patio with views towards the sea. None of the room’s functions are visible, thus letting the visitor connect with nature and its surrounding context.
As a symbol of homage to the former street address on Avinguda Media Luna, a crescent moon motif is portrayed throughout Can Lis. The motif is used through different profiles and patterns: in the living room’s semi-circular seating, in the profile of the courtyard walls, and the pattern of the tiled seats. A moon-shaped window is positioned directly opposite the front door, offering a glimpse of the blue sea beyond. It’s the first thing visitors see upon entering the home, unifying them with the sea at the first glance.
Utzon was known to transcend architecture into art and poetry. Based on the function, the area of rooms varied throughout the house: a small area for private space and a large area for the public. The living room is the largest and the most awe-inspiring space in the house, with a high ceiling and large windows offering a sweeping view of the sea. From the top corner of the living room, a beam of light falls through a small opening in the western wall, welcoming a ray of sunlight in- celebrating the simple phenomenon of changing sun positions throughout the year.
Materials and Construction Techniques
The ingeniousness of Can Lis lies in Utzon’s ability to re-invent traditional Majorcan building methods and local building materials. The outer wall is a cavity wall construction. The discrete limestone, ranging from yellow to pink, was sourced from a quarry in the nearby town of Santanyi. Using local materials and construction techniques, Utzon created a seamless connection between the architecture and the cliffs it sits on, effortlessly blending in with the surroundings.
Locally sourced Marés sandstone for walls and columns and Santanyi sandstone for floors, interior walls, and kitchen worktops were used. Madeira Norte, a Majorcan pine was used for all the woodwork, which is found in abundance on the Balearic Islands. Windows are placed on the outside of the structure, to hide the door and window frames in interiors. The wide glass windows vitalize the effect of light, creating a contrast between the dark interior of the house and the flaming Mediterranean sun.
The main roof construction is composed of tiled vaults called “bovedillas” supported by concrete beams. Most of the furniture such as stone tables and seats are constructed as permanent fixtures, while niches are carved into the stone walls to support the beds. The furniture is kept minimal to maximize the space. The additional furniture is positioned in each room to have an unobstructed view of the Sea. Despite being not so big in the area, the house induces comfort and a sense of belonging.
Restoration of Can Lis was carried out between October 2011 and February 2012, By Lisa Juel. Currently, it is privately managed by the Utzon Foundation. Though not open to the public, it can be visited upon prior request with a restriction on the number of visitors. Without a doubt, Can Lis feels deeply anchored to its place and purpose, in total harmony with its environment; melting into the yellow limestone mountain by the sea, as if it has always belonged here and always will.