Can Lis is a Meditation on Space and Light

can lis majorca exterior

Sydney-based architect Kelvin Ho draws inspiration from this clifftop house, designed by the man behind an Australian icon.

Can Lis was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon.

Shortly after he was pushed off the Sydney Opera House project [in 1966], Utzon moved to the Spanish island of Majorca, bought some land and built this house for his family. Can Lis is both incredibly simple and complex. It’s a meditation on space, designed as four pavilions – for sleeping, living, dining and cooking – with small courtyards linking each pavilion.

I went there in 2019, when I was in Majorca for my wedding.

The Utzon Foundation hosts Danish artists at the house and the artist-inresidence let me visit. I was so excited when I got there that I ran around like a kid but once you absorb the space it feels very calm. It’s a place for reflection. It’s quite surreal to be in because it’s on such a dramatic part of the coastline. But that’s the power of architecture – it can bring a sense of calm to a sheer cliff face.

You could almost drive past the house and not notice it.

We’re acclimatised to seeing enormous homes, especially in Spain, but Can Lis is a humble building. Although it was built in the 1970s, it feels very of-the-moment. It embraces local materials, natural light, ventilation and outdoor spaces. And its lack of fuss or decoration connects with people in a primal way. There’s a restraint that gives it a timeless quality; it’s the equivalent of a linen dress, something that’s easy to be in.

What’s most beautiful about Can Lis is its relationship with light.

In his design, Utzon plays with the apertures and volumes so as the sun rises and shifts throughout the day, each room has distinctive light qualities. This is enhanced through the simple material palette, which is mostly local sandstone, so the house feels like an extension of the cliffs. The way the light bounces around this singular material is beautiful.

Although it’s a famous piece of architecture, it’s accessible. There’s no fence around it. You can just pop over a little stone wall and get in. And people do because they’re intrigued by the house, which is a bit awkward for the people staying there. But that accessibility is also charming. Can Lis isn’t treated as an exclusive thing that no-one can experience.

Kelvin Ho founded the full-service spatial practice, Akin Atelier (, in Sydney in 2005. His commercial projects include Merivale hotspot Coogee Pavilion and boutiques for leading Australian fashion designers, including Bassike and Dion Lee.

Image credit: Terence Chin

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