Designed by Jørn Utzon in the 70s, the Bagsvaerd Church is a masterpiece of contemporary religious architecture. It is characterized by a white concrete ceiling straddled with softly rounded vaulting that modulates the bright interior lighting. Surrounded by birch trees, the exterior walls are finished with white prefabricated concrete panels and white glazed tiles. The aluminum roof gives the church a rather industrial look. Covering 1,700 square meters, the tight geometrical plan consists of three sections and a courtyard between two parallel corridors.
Bagsvaerd Church by Jørn Utzon Technical Information
- Architects: Jørn Utzon
- Location: Bagsvaerd (outskirts of Copenhagen), Denmark
- Project Years: 1973 – 1976
- Evocative topics: Religious Architecture, Concrete
- Photographs: © Flickr User: Seier + Seier
The inspiration that I derived from the drifting clouds above the sea and the shore [forming] a wondrous space in which the light fell through the ceiling — the clouds — down on to the floor represented by the shore and the sea.
– Jørn Utzon
Bagsvaerd Church Photographs
Text by Jorn Utzon
Bagsværd Church is situated on a long, narrow piece of land and has been designed accordingly. It is a long, slender building opening on to a range of small interior courtyards, and it faces the surrounding world with completely closed façades.
In addition to the nave, sacristy, offices, rooms for confirmation classes, and a meeting room, the church building also includes a whole section devoted to youth activities. All these rooms are linked by means of wide corridors, both intersecting the building and running along the external walls.
Lighting for the various secondary rooms comes in from the small courtyards through sidelights. The corridors receive light from above from bands of skylights extending across the entire width of the corridor. The church’s body and the sacristy are lit through highly placed sidelights extending across the entire width of the building.
Historically speaking, the building of churches has always been an expression of the most sophisticated construction technique of the time. The great spans have been achieved by means of vaulting and pillars so that the naked structures have provided the church with its character and appearance. Even the highly decorated examples from the baroque age show the structural elements clearly and so as all can understand them.
A church of our time
Here in Bagsværd Church, the most elegant building technique for large spans has been taken into service. The ceilings, which at the same time support the outer roof, are formed as reinforced concrete shells, quite thin, about 12 centimeters, for spans of 17 meters. This is possible on account of their being shaped like curved cylindrical shells. It has been possible to shape these shells freely by means of circular geometry so that the architect’s wishes concerning height, pitch, and fall could be met. The demands of acoustics also influenced the shape of the rooms. The thin shells rest on gable walls or flanges, which again are supported by rows of double columns acting as something akin to flying buttresses.
The rows of columns extend along the building’s external walls and form side aisles within the main church area and corridors in the rest of the building. They are covered with VITAL skylights, which in their sophisticated simplicity of detail and with their splendid dimensions, provide this important architectonic element, the skylights, with the desire ethereal character.
The church is provided with white walls and white ceilings so that the daylight, which of course is quite sparse for most of the year in Denmark, can be used to the full and so that all surfaces and facets come into their own.
It is the light that is the most important feature of this church.
The light in the halls
The corridors are totally lit by skylights – from wall to wall – 100%. Together with the white walls and the pale grey floor, this produces an intensity in the light, which is always greater than outside, where it is impossible to achieve the same reflection from the dark surroundings: soil, plants, and buildings.
The light in the corridors provides almost the same feel as the light you experience on a sunny day in winter high up in the mountains, making these elongated spaces a joy to walk in.
The light in the church
The light in the church itself comes mainly from the very large, highly positioned, west-facing sidelight. It is reflected down the ceiling’s whitewashed, curved surfaces and provides a shadowless light that decreases slightly lower down. The room acquires a softness that produces an elevated, optimistic feel.
In the two high side aisles along the nave, the skylights allow the sun to fall indirectly on to the outer walls, providing hints of sunbeams. The two aisles separate the curving ceiling surfaces above the nave from the outer walls so that these stretches of the ceiling have the effect of insubstantial canopies.
The church’s interior also continues beyond the balcony behind the altar, where the sacristy is situated with its large skylight. It is also linked to the body of the sacristy so that the actual church interior is not like an enclosed box surrounded by four walls, but – on three sides – it disappears from sight out into these spaces. This lack of completion provides a sense of openness and infinity. The fourth side, opposite the altar, is finished by the porch, terminating the nave across its entire width with a light, fence-like grill of glass and wood. This wall also provides light to the church’s body so that there are no dark walls or corners in there at all. The light is allowed completely to fill the church. The light from the west-facing, highly positioned sidelight is most concentrated as it falls on the altar and the floor space around it, the focal point of the religious ceremonies.
So with the curved ceilings and with the skylights and sidelights in the church, I have architectonically attempted to realize the inspiration that I derived from the drifting clouds above the sea and the shore. Together, the clouds and the shore formed a wondrous space in which the light fell through the ceiling – the clouds – down on to the floor represented by the shore and the sea, and I had a strong feeling that this could be a place for divine service.
In addition to the nave and the sacristy, there are various secondary rooms: an office for the clergy, an office for the sacristan, a room for the verger, one for the organist and choir, rooms for confirmation classes, a parish meeting room, and study rooms. All these have outer walls looking out on small, intimate courtyards containing flowers and plants. As for the porch walls, these are grills of wood and glass, 50% glass and 50% wood, providing a consistent sidelight in the rooms. The large overhang shades against direct sunlight and provides a peaceful light by which to work – no one is dazzled. Contact with the plants in the courtyards is in certain places intensified by means of larger panes of glass in the grills.
The peaceful light in all these secondary rooms harmonizes with their functions as places in which to work and contrasts to the varying light in the corridors, which always reflects the slightest alteration in the outdoor light coming in through the large skylights. This variation in the lighting in the different rooms is thus the result of very conscious consideration.
The inspiration for the form and the architecture came from a wonderful visit, not once, but several times, to a vast sandy beach in on one of the Hawaiian islands Oahu, on the windward side, where the trade wind ceaselessly comes from California many thousands of meters above the sea, like a completely steady breeze, and from early morning it increases in strength until 11 o’clock o that you can lean against it – otherwise you don’t know the peace that wind gives – and sometimes it brings some clouds with it, and then the light and the sun fall through the clouds down on to the sand.
– Jorn Utzon
Bagsvaerd Church Plans
Bagsvaerd Church Image Gallery
About Jorn Utzon
Jørn Oberg Utzon (1918 – 2008) was a Danish architect that was most notable for designing the Sydney Opera House in Australia, completed in 1973. When it was declared a World Heritage Site on 28 June 2007, Utzon became only the second person to have received such recognition for one of his works during his lifetime, after Oscar Niemeyer. He also made important contributions to housing design, especially with his Kingo Houses near Helsingør. Utzon attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (1937–42) and was influenced early on by Gunnar Asplund and Alvar Aalto.