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Research by Antony Moulis leads to purchase of Le Corbusier Tapestry

Monday, 15 June 2015

Research by Antony Moulis leads to purchase of Le Corbusier Tapestry by Sydney Opera House

In 1958 Jørn Utzon requested a tapestry from the great Swiss-French architect and urbanist Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, to hang in the Sydney Opera House.

In 2015, the result of this extraordinary collaboration of two of the 20th century’s greatest architects will finally take its place as originally proposed, thanks to the generosity of Sydney Opera House benefactors.

Le Corbusier’s Les Dés Sont Jetés (‘The Dice Are Cast’) is a 6.5-square-metre wool tapestry designed for the Sydney Opera House but never installed. This extraordinary work, which hung in Jørn Utzon’s house in Hellebæk,  was acquired by the Opera House at auction in Copenhagen on 9 June.

Completed at the height of Le Corbusier’s international renown, the tapestry is a rare example both of Le Corbusier engaging with the work of another architect and of Utzon’s original vision for the Opera House interior.

Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron said: “Jørn Utzon’s Le Corbusier tapestry represents a meeting of two of the great design minds of the 20th century. It is wonderful that philanthropists have enabled us to incorporate this vital piece of the Opera House’s heritage back into the building as we work to renew it, thanks to the commitment of the NSW Government.

“It will be a source of daily inspiration for us all, as it was for the Utzons. We are profoundly grateful to the passionate philanthropists who  have enabled this very special acquisition for the Australian public, led by Peter Weiss AO and including former SOH chairman Joseph Skrzynski AO, who re-engaged Jørn Utzon during his tenure. The tapestry will be on public display for everyone to enjoy,  reminding us of our roots as we embark on a decade of renewal.”

The tapestry was commissioned just a year after the announcement of Utzon’s winning Sydney Opera House entry, while he was simultaneously working in earnest on the structural design and interior detail.

The younger architect wrote to Le Corbusier in October 1958 expressing the debt his own work owed to the master, asking if he would contribute to the Opera House in the form of ‘decoration, carpets and paintings’, and enclosing drawings of his winning design – parts of which found their way into the finished work.

In 1959 the two men met in Paris to discuss the proposal. A year later, the tapestry was delivered to Utzon, who admired its ‘strong quality’. Their correspondence continued about additional artworks. However, with Le Corbusier’s death in 1965 and Utzon’s departure from the Opera House project in 1966, the building’s interiors incomplete, plans to bring the tapestry to Australia were never realised. 

In 1960, Utzon and his wife, Lis, wrote to Le Corbusier to express their gratitude: “For quite some time we have intended to write to you again in order to tell you how extremely happy we are for your wonderful tapestry. It is a daily source of delight and beauty not only for ourselves and our children but for all our friends and guests, too. It has endowed our home with a beauty so exquisite that I am at a loss for the proper words to describe our feelings about it.”

Utzon, the Danish architect of the signature structure of the 20th century, was re-engaged by the Sydney Opera House Trust in 1999, with his son Jan. Together they completed a number of projects including the Utzon Design Principles, which outline his vision for the evolving future of the building; the re-imagining  of the Western Foyers area comprising the Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio; and the interiors of the venue now known as the Utzon Room. The Pritzker Prize-winner finally realised his own marriage of his architecture and art in 2004 with his music-inspired design for the Utzon Room tapestry, Homage to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which now hangs there.

From Denmark, Jan Utzon said: “On behalf of the family, I couldn’t be more delighted that the tapestry is finally coming ‘home’ to the Sydney Opera House, in keeping with our father’s original intention. My father greatly admired Le Corbusier and they engaged and collaborated deeply. Le Corbusier incorporated the city and architectural details of the planned Opera House into his composition. It belongs in Sydney, and we’re thrilled at that this legacy will live on in the Opera House.”

Les Dés Sont Jetés incorporates  various visual references that Jørn Utzon provided to Le Corbusier. As Professor Antony Moulis of the University of Queensland has noted: “The graphical sign positioned in the bottom right of the tapestry – white lines on a black ground appearing to represent a crying face and, simultaneously, the letter ‘P’ – appears to be produced by tracing over the competition issue site plan of Bennelong Point,” while “the graphic outline forming the centre of the ‘P’ is in fact an outline of the distinctive plan footprint of the tram depot previously housed on Bennelong Point.”

The work’s acquisition coincides with a major exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death at France’s Centre Pompidou in Paris