Can Lis, built between 1971 and 72, and considered one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, is a house that blends into the landscape, organic, changing and soaked in light.
Jørn Utzon dreamed of the sea. Not the cold, foggy sea of his homeland, Denmark, but the mild, sun-kissed Mediterranean. He who had travelled the world, following in the footsteps of masters such as Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright until he became one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century, felt that only in the gentle embrace of the waves he would find his home. That’s why at the end of the 60’s, when he had to work on a project as iconic as the Sydney Opera House, he decided to give up everything and move to Majorca.
He had already fallen in love with that dazzling and wild land in 1958, when he first set foot there, to visit a fellow countryman, an architect like him, Erik Christian Sørensen. In 1970 he finally found the perfect spot on which to build his house, a rugged and remote piece of mountain overlooking the sea, not yet affected by human intervention. However, the local authorities went sideways, and so Utzon was forced to change his plans. Instead of the mountain, he folded back to Portopetro, a high, steep cliff overhanging the coast, in the south-east of Mallorca.
With the help of building contractor Jaime Vidal, the great Danish architect began working on the project for the house in Majorca, renamed Can Lis, after his wife’s name, who would soon live there with him and his son Kim. The final design emerged little by little, through continuous modifications and adjustments to adapt the construction to the specifics of the place, to the unexpected and to the needs that arose along the way. In a similar way, step by step, Alvar Aalto had built Villa Mairea in Finland, and certainly Utzon was inspired by it.
His vision rejected the idea of rigid architecture, understood as a pre-established and self-referential form. What was important to him was to create a deep connection with the space, through a dynamic and permeable approach, always in progress. Thus, by adding and refining the elements a bit at a time, free from patterns, codes and binding geometries, Utzon came to compose a peculiar design, which has no definite form, but is rather the frame of a painting in perpetual movement.
The house is the stage on which family rituals are consumed, and it must adapt to them. The cliff itself becomes a podium or a basement, a living, architectural part, despite itself, of that variegated yet unitary organism that Utzon has generated, where each element meets precise functional, distributive or climatic requirements and finds meaning within the whole.
“A pure principle of addition implies a new architectural form, a new expression, with the same characteristics and effects that are obtained, for example, by adding more trees to the forest, more deer to a herd, more stones to a beach”, explains Utzon, drawing on the natural imagination to tell his dimension. “Like a glove that fits the hand, this game responds to the needs of our time, which support freedom in the design of buildings and a deep desire to escape from the house in the form of a box of predetermined sizes, divided into partitions in the traditional way”.
Can Lis consists of four pavilions that operate almost independently, connected by courtyards, walls, terraces and porches. In this anarchic balance of empty and full spaces, the circulation between the different areas takes place through external spaces interconnected in an oblique, never axial way. Utzon breaks the steps, eschews the transversal views, gives shade and light, to obtain a surprising and scenographic spatial sequence, where long perspectives alternate with semi-hidden corners, and sky and sea interfere to capture the eyes.
Built of Marés stone, the local pink gold sandstone, Can Lis blends into the landscape as if it were made of sun, wind and sand. Its grandeur, marked by enormous columns, is almost reminiscent of a pagan temple. At the same time, its naked and irregular materiality makes it resemble a vernacular house, an agricultural building or a country house. And indeed Utzon winks at tradition, but his sensibility is daringly modern and unconventional, making the work one of the most representative of the 20th century.
Looking closer, Can Lis reveals intriguing details and influences: the concrete roof is covered with yellow tiles, while the gables are made in Chinese style, like those of the Fredensborg Houses. From west to east, the first block houses the kitchen, dining room and study, the second block the living room, with the last two pavilions containing the bedrooms, for family and guests. All overlook the sea, with slightly different orientations that are shaped according to the contours of the cliffs. The relationship with the landscape is also substantiated in a prudent management of light. Loggias and overhanging roofs appear everywhere in pursuit of the relief of shade, while the window frames, mounted on the external walls, create plays of light inside. Here, a higher density sandstone (from Santanyí) is used to create walls, floors and shelves sculpted by the architect himself. The raw stone is exhibited and enhanced in all its plasticity, just mitigated by inserts in madeira norte, the typical Mallorcan pine.
Utzon lived in Can Lis from 1973 to 1994, when he got tired of the excessive heat and above all of the architecture lovers and tourists who wandered open-mouthed through his courtyards. In the meantime, the administration had lifted its veto on mountain buildings, and so the family moved to the more secluded and discreet land they had initially adopted. Here Utzon built his new home, Can Feliz, and stayed there until one year after his death in 2008. Purchased by the Utzon Foundation, and restored in 2012 under the guidance of Lise Juel, the house now opens its doors to artists and architects, who can seek inspiration among the golden stones and rarefied atmosphere of this timeless masterpiece.