© Text by Richard Weston, Utzon: Inspiration, Vision, Architecture (Hellerup: Edition Bløndal, 2002).
© Photos by Hans Munk Hansen
In 1958 Utzon was approached to design the university branch of Iran’s National Bank, Bank Melli Iran, in the university area of Teheran (Enghlab Ave.).
The source of the work was Jorgen Saxild of the engineering company Kampsax-who, as president of Dansk Samvirke, was later instrumental in commissioning him to design the Fredensborg housing. Kampsax were very active as consultants in the Middle East, and had secured the contract to design the bank. The fee was very modest, but the opportunity to build in the country from which he was to draw so much inspiration was too good to miss.
To benefit from his experience of working in the Middle East, Kampsax had already contacted the architect Hans Munk Hansen – he effectively became project architect and was based in Utzon’s office. His interest in Islamic architecture helped him build a close working relationship with Utzon, who he recalls asked him to look carefully at Aalto’s National Pensions Institute and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh: Utzon visited the new capitol complex en route to Sydney in November 1958, and particularly admired the High Court building. He told Munk Hansen that the bank would need a similar strength because ‘two days after we leave the building will be a mess.’ Utzon saw the site in Teheran with Munk Hansen in 1959 and never returned.
They did not discuss the project specifically at all whilst there, but immersed themselves in the architecture of the city and, especially, of Isfahan. The urban fabric of traditional Islamic settlements – made up of repeating units, and penetrated by the green-filled holes of countless courtyards – was to exert a decisive influence on subsequent projects and on the development of the ‘Additive Architecture’.
The National Bank was sited in a wide main street, on a generous twenty-six metre wide plot. The brief was straightforward, requiring a large banking hall with ancillary offices; an underground car park was added after the initial briefing. The client wanted it to stand out from its neighbours and Utzon decided to set it back on a raised platform framed by boldly projecting flank walls, thick enough to contain services. To one side the flank wall was doubled to form a servant zone to accommodate an office, private interview rooms and other support spaces; two additional administrative floors spanned between the outer walls above the entrance.
The raised platform made for a dramatic entrance sequence: visitors pass through a low dark space, roofed by V-shaped beams, and then enter the open banking hall which expands dramatically both up and down, affording a sight of the whole interior. The arrangement gave visitors an instant overview of the facilities, and Utzon designed the hall as a ‘landscape’ of desks and small cubicles, inspired by the interview spaces in Aalto’s Pensions Institute.
The furniture, to be made from a system of elements, was intended to echo the modular structure of the town itself, but sadly Utzon’s intentions for the interior were not realised.
The movement from a low, shady space into a high more brightly-lit one was hardly new Frank Lloyd Wright’ employed it frequently – Utzon referred repeatedly to the Johnson Wax Building, entered from a low, dark covered car-park- and in conversation with Munk Hansen Utzon likened it to Japanese examples; he might equally well have referred to the way into a mosque. The idea might be familiar, but it was handled with exceptional power. The top-lighting was inspired by the Isfahan bazaar: Utzon wanted something soft and diffuse to suggest coolness, and following a study of the lighting system in Aalto’s project for an art gallery in Baghdad, the roof was articulated as folded-plate beams of varying depths: to Utzon, the section recalled the flowing Arabic script of the bank’s name, which he included in the presentation of the project in Zodiac. Light entered at high level through narrow slits of glazing between the beams and then reflected off the deep V-shaped troughs. Munk Hansen recalls Utzon drawing a sketch showing how the result would be like ‘light through clouds’,^ and there was a long debate about whether to make the transition between the sloping and horizontal planes rounded or sharp: they finally opted for the latter.
Aalto may have provided a model for the roof-lighting but the transformation of the prototype was dramatic, calling for a 20m structural span to be achieved by post tensioning the concrete: although Kampsax were known for working on large-scale structures for railways and roads they opted only to manage the job – which was built entirely by Iranian labour – and employed the engineer Hejlund Rasmussen to calculate the demanding structure. The client was not convinced by Utzon’s intuitive reliance on local precedents for the lighting, and Kampsax sent the drawings to the leading Danish consultant Mogens Voltelen, who calculated that the tight levels would indeed be too low Utzon, more confident in the experience derived from the bazaars than in Voltelen’s numbers, was angry at this manoeuvre behind his back, and his passions were doubtless heightened by memories of Voltelen’s attempts to prevent his graduating from the Academy for failing to complete a project involving light calculations. Utzon eventually won the day, and in practice the lighting proved satisfactory.
Utzon asked for the in situ concrete flank walls to be left smooth like skin, and then, in the manner of Asplund, partly clad with lines of travertine – a procedure echoing the practice, in the older Islamic buildings Utzon particularly admired, of contrasting areas of rough brick with glazed, highly coloured tiles. For the wall panels of the interior Munk Hansen was instructed to find something rough – like the sweater you are wearing – to soften the acoustics. He eventually discovered a rough peforated brick, but it proved too peasant-like for the client, who ordered it to be replaced with more luxurious-looking American acoustic panels. A similar clash of cultures arose over areas of concrete left exposed to reveal the structure behind the stone revetment; the client considered it unfinished, and immediately after Utzon’s involvement ended, it was clad with travertine: in a culture used to the decorative elaboration of every surface of important buildings, the Modernist version of ‘architectural truth’ suggested poverty of means rather than nobility of purpose. Few drawings and early photographs of the Melli project have survived, and it cannot be photographed in its present condition. It deserves to be better known, not only for the intrinsic quality of the architecture, but also because it clarified the formal type – parallel walls containing a freely articulated roof – Utzon had begun to explore in Morocco and to which he returned in several projects of the early 1960s and which in its final flowering fifteen years later in Bagsvserd Church.
Weston, R. Utzon: Inspiration, Vision, Architecture (Hellerup: Edition Bløndal, 2002).
Lund, N.O. Jørn Utzon (Salzburg-Munchen: Verlag Anton Pustet, 1999).