Les Dés sont Jetés - The Die is Cast

Le Corbusier's iconic tapestry at Sydney Opera House

By Sydney Opera House

''The destiny of the tapestry of today emerges: it becomes the mural of the modern age.'' Le Corbusier

Les Des sont Jetes (The Die Is Cast) tapestry by Le Corbusier (1960) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

Les Dés sont Jetés, which in English translates to The Die is Cast, is a tapestry designed by Le Corbusier, and made in wool by the weavers of the Aubusson workshops of Pinton Frères. 

The tapestry was commissioned by Jørn Utzon, principal architect of the Sydney Opera House, who wrote to Le Corbusier during the early, halcyon years of the project, when Utzon was contemplating the sorts of artworks that might adorn the interiors of the finished building.

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

But it would be another 55 years until the tapestry was situated at Sydney Opera House, as Utzon had originally intended, and where it can now be found today for all to see in the Western Foyers of the building. 

Front cover, the Red Book (1958) by Jørn UtzonSydney Opera House

1958: The Commission

Jørn Utzon wrote to Le Corbusier in October 1958, after a busy and exciting year which saw the first parabolic designs for the Sydney Opera House published in the Red Book.  

Jørn Utzon drawing at the Hellebæk office, Denmark (1959) by Yuzo MikamiSydney Opera House

Utzon was exploring his ideas for art and design in the interiors of the building. Corbusier’s enormous influence at the time, and perhaps especially his support of tapestry as an art form, inspired Utzon.  

Early parabolic scheme, southwest elevation, 1958-61 (1958/1961) by State Records of New South WalesSydney Opera House

Utzon wrote to Le Corbusier, originally in French, ‘"It would be an immense joy for me if I could be assured of your participation for the decoration, the tapestries and paintings of this building and I come to ask you to let me know if it could be done in one form or another."

Corbusier (1946) by Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

A fortnight later, Le Corbusier replied that he was considering Utzon's proposal. The two architects met twice in Paris in 1959 to discuss the artwork, and in early 1960, the tapestry was arranged to be delivered to his house in Hellebæk, while Utzon was in Sydney.    

Preparing Les Des sont Jetes, for hanging (1960) by Copyright Utzon Archives, Aalborg University & Utzon CenterSydney Opera House

Preparing Les Dés sont Jetés for hanging

Utzon family members at home in Hellebæk, including Lis (centre) and Jan (right), prepare the Le Corbusier tapestry, Les Dés sont Jetés, for hanging. 1960. 

Later in the year, Utzon wrote again to Le Corbusier, "It has endowed our home with a beauty so exquisite that I am at a loss… to describe our feelings for it… We are very, very happy and very, very grateful."

Utzon family home, Hellebæk (1960) by Copyright Utzon Archives, Aalborg University & Utzon CenterSydney Opera House

Utzon family home in Hellebæk in 1960.

Jørn Utzon with a small model of the spherical scheme (1962) by State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

Describing the Spherical Solution: Jørn Utzon at home in Hellebæk, against the backdrop of Le Corbusier's Les Dés sont Jetés, 1962.

"As a trial, he [Jørn] thought he would like to have made some tapestries that fitted the walls of the Opera House but he couldn't do that. At least he could have Le Corbusier make one that could fit in the home and he could walk around and look at it and get a feeling for what could be in the Opera House." Jan Utzon, 2015

Utzon family home, Hellebæk (2015) by Doug SouthwellSydney Opera House

Les Dés sont Jetés hanging in the Utzon family home, 2015.

Les Dés sont Jetés remained in the dining room of the family home for a couple of years before moving to Utzon’s home studio, where it remained for half a century. In 2015, the Sydney Opera House Trust purchased Les Des sont Jetes at auction for over half a million dollars. Its acquisition was made possible by the support and generosity of a group of Sydney Opera House donors, led by the late Peter Weiss AO, and facilitated by the New South Wales Government.

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

The Western Foyers

Le Corbusier's Les Dés sont Jetés is freely accessible to the public.

Based on sketches by Le Corbusier, scholar Antony Moulis believes it was Utzon's intention for the tapestry to be located ‘in the harbour side foyer’ on the ground floor level of the Opera House. 

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

This may have been what is now called the Western Foyer or foyers within the northern part of the building. 

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (6 October 1887 - 27 August 1965), was a Swiss-French architect, urban planner, designer, painter and writer. His fame endures as one of the most important founders of modern architecture.


Nina Leen, 1946-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Nina Leen, 1965-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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By Nina LeenLIFE Photo Collection

Le Corbusier's cultural and artistic contribution to the 20th century is widely accepted as enormous and continues to resonate across the worlds of architecture and the arts.

Le Corbusier not only influenced Jørn Utzon directly, but through other masters and teachers Utzon encountered before designing Sydney Opera House:  Gunnar AsplundAlvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright among others.  

By Frank ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

With such a diverse range of creative output, his emphasis on the significance of tapestry as a legitimate medium for artworks was hugely influential in the rehabilitation of the ancient craft in the post-war years of the mid twentieth century. 

LIFE Photo Collection

Le Corbusier considered the medium of tapestry as both artwork and a significant aspect of interior design, and the "the murals of our times". His advocacy of the weaver’s craft contributed to the revitalizing of the Aubusson weaving industry during in the post-war period.  

La Femme et le Moineau (1957) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

Alongside Pablo Picasso, Alexander CalderJoan Miró and other significant artists at the time, Le Corbusier championed the medium of tapestry through the creation of a series of significant artworks that hang all over the world in key civic building and private homes. 

Weaving the Curtain of the Sun (1970) by Coburn Family ArchivesSydney Opera House

The weavers of Aubusson would later produce the tapestry curtains, designed by John Coburn, for the opera and drama theatres of the Sydney Opera House. (More on the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon.)

Colours from the Architectural Polychromy (2020) by Creative CommonsSydney Opera House

Colour: the Architectural Polychromy & the Red Book

The inspiration for the colours in Les Dés sont Jetés may have come from different sources, but they correspond precisely with Le Corbusier’s Architectural Polychromy and the colour scheme featured in the Red Book.

The colour groups of the Architectural Polychromy (1960) by Les Couleurs Suisse AGSydney Opera House

The Architectural Polychromy is a series of two colour palettes devised in 1931 and 1959, with which to design architectural spaces. The five colours Le Corbusier used in the tapestry originate in the 1959 palette. 

Colours of the Architecture Polychromy (1959) by Le CorbusierSydney Opera House

The five colours that are represented in the tapestry Les Dés sont Jetés are seen in the second palette, created in 1959, and which completed his Architectural Polychromy book, a project which had begun with his essay of the same name in 1930. 

Les Des sont Jetes (The Die Is Cast) tapestry by Le Corbusier (1960) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

“Each of us, according to his own psychology, is controlled by one or more dominant colors.” 
Le Corbusier, 1931.  

Front cover, the Red Book (1958) by Jørn UtzonSydney Opera House

The colours also resonate strongly with the Red Book, Jørn Utzon's first set of plans for the Opera House scheme, which Le Corbusier received in 1958, sent as part of the initial commission from Utzon.

Le Corbusier (left) with Albert Einstein, 1946 (1946) by Public domainSydney Opera House

Inspirations

Les Dés sont Jetés translates literally as The Die is Cast. The enigma of the name endures in posterity, as Le Corbusier does not seem to have given an explanation for his choice of title. However, two aspects of his milieu point to possible inspirations. 

In 1946, Le Corbusier met Albert Einstein at Princeton, and in his 1954 book, Le Modular, he writes about the great impact Einstein had on his thinking:

At one point, Einstein took a pencil and began to calculate. Stupidly, I interrupted him, the conversation turned to other things, the calculation remained unfinished. The friend who had brought me was in the depths of despair. In a letter written to me the same evening, Einstein had the kindness to say this of the “Modulor”: “It is a scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy.” There are some who think this judgement is unscientific. For my part, I think it is extraordinarily clear-sighted. It is a gesture of friendship made by a great scientist towards us who are not scientists but soldiers on the field of battle. The scientist tells us: “This weapon shoots straight: in the matter of dimensioning, i.e. of proportions, it makes tour task more certain.”
Le Corbusier, Le Modular, 1954

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Among Einstein's most memorable and world famous quotations is "God does not play dice with the universe".

Although its meaning may have been elaborately misconstrued, as an adage it has been world famous since its first utterance in 1926. 

Red Book model, view from the Monumental Steps (1958) by State Library of New South WalesSydney Opera House

In 1959, the year Le Corbusier designed Les Dés sont Jetés, and published the second palette of his Architectural Polychromy, a major exhibition at MoMA in New York, Architecture and Imagery: Four New Buildingsincluded Utzon's designs for the Opera House.  

Early parabolic scheme, southwest elevation, 1958-61 (1958/1961) by State Records of New South WalesSydney Opera House

The exhibition celebrated four contemporary building projects considered to be breaking with conventions in architecture, and each in their own right controversial new approaches. Introducing the exhibition, Arthur Drexler, Director of the Architecture Department at MoMA wrote: 

"Most of the modern buildings we see around us use standardized windows, wall panels and structural frames... Some architects believe that this uniformity truthfully reflects decisive characteristics of technology in our time. Others, however, believe that just because technology (in its present state) has imposed such overriding uniformity, it is increasingly desirable that a building's shape express some particular aspect of its purpose. An apartment house, they believe, should not look like an office building and a church should not look like a gymnasium." Arthur Drexler, 1959

There are a range of interpretations of Le Corbusier's inspirations for the graphic elements of the art work. They clearly indicate recurrent themes in the artist's abstract style, while the use of colour resonated with both Le Corbusier's Architectural Polychromy and Utzon's the Red Book.

Back cover of the Red Book (1958) by Jørn UtzonSydney Opera House

"Le Corbusier is almost picking up compositional inferences from the Red Book. The yellow sail is most emblematic to me.” Associate Professor Antony Moulis, University of Queensland School of Architecture’s Director of Research. 

One of eight Le Corbusier's murals at Eileen Gray's modernist villa, E-1027 (1938) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

The salient 'P' in Les Dés sont Jetés, surrounded by the abstraction of a visage, can also be seen in this Le Corbusier mural, painted between 1958-59 on a wall of Eileen Gray's modernist villa, E-1027.

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

"The inclusion of a small image of a sailing boat is Le Corbusier’s only obvious clue to the Opera House’s harbour setting, [but] is missing from a lithographic poster... produced to promote an exhibition in which the tapestry was included in early 1960." Dr Anne Watson.

La Femme et le Moineau (1957) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

1957-60: The Art of Le Corbusier

Below, Les Dés sont Jetés can be seen in the context of another tapestry and painting Le Corbusier created in the same period. Below left, La Femme et le Moineau , was produced in 1957, by Pinton Frères weavers in Felletin. Jeux, was painted in 1960 and shares the same colour scheme.

La Femme et le Moineau, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1957, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Les Des sont Jetes (The Die Is Cast) tapestry by Le Corbusier, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1960, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Jeux, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1960, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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Lithograph poster for an exhibition at La Demeure, 1960. (1960) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

Lithograph promoting Le Corbusier's contemporary work, 1960

Dr Anne Watson has observed, "that Le Corbusier was pleased with the tapestry design is clear from its use as a promotional tool." Note that in this lithograph, the sailboat is absent. The poster was for an exhibition in Paris of Le Corbusier's tapestry works, in 1960.

"The Die is Cast" hangs behind the coffin at Le Corbusier's funeral. (1965) by Robert Cohen, copyright FLC and ADAGPSydney Opera House

Le Corbusier's state funeral at the Louvre in Paris, 1965

Another edition of Les Dés sont Jetés, complete with sailing boat, was displayed as Le Corbusier lay in state, before his funeral on 1 September 1965 in Paris.

The tapestry, displayed behind Le Corbusier’s coffin, is described by Professor Antony Moulis as “selected to represent a life of creative toil, a final statement of the architect’s oeuvre that silently registers the strange but implicit presence of Sydney in Le Corbusier”.

Assessing Les Des sont Jetes (2015) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

Les Dés sont Jetés arrives in Sydney

Assessing Les Des sont Jetes (2015) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

Assessing Les Dés sont Jetés in Sydney.  The tapestry was originally woven at Pinton Frères workshop, Aubusson, France. It measures 3.6 metres wide by 2.18 metres high and is made from linen, wool and metallic thread.

Assessing Les Des sont Jetes (2015) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

Les Dés sont Jetés at International Conservation Services

"Initial surface cleaning tests were carried out to ensure that the dye colours wouldn’t run when the piece was submerged in water... and the particular detergent and water used had to be carefully selected and mixed to ensure they had the right PH levels."  ICS report.

Unveiling Les Des sont Jetes (2016) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

The Unveiling

“It is wonderful to be injecting such an extraordinary piece of the original DNA back into the Opera House as we embark upon projects that will touch all four corners of the building."
Louise Herron AM, CEO of Sydney Opera House.  

Unveiling Les Des sont Jetes (2016) by Sydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

"Jørn Utzon always intended the interiors of his masterpiece to be filled with the work of the great artists of his day. This is a remarkable work and a remarkable insight into his original vision." 
Louise Herron AM, CEO of Sydney Opera House.

Jan Utzon, Lasse Andersson and others tell a story of collaboration between Le Corbusier and Jørn Utzon.

Le Corbusier's tapestry, Les Des sont Jetes (2020) by Sam DoustSydney Opera House

“The tapestry is a critical find for linking two of the 20th century’s most important architects. That the locus of their collaboration was a work intended for the Opera House makes it a significant cultural asset for Sydney and the nation.”  Associate Professor Antony Moulis. 

Les Des sont Jetes (The Die Is Cast) tapestry by Le Corbusier (1960) by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-GrisSydney Opera House

 

Credits: Story

Exhibit curated by Sam Doust.
Thanks to Laura Matarese.

Informed by research prepared for the Sydney Opera House by Dr Anne Watson. 
Image Credits: Utzon Archives, State Library NSW, Fondation Le Corbusier, LIFE Photo Collection, Sydney Opera House, Coburn Family Archives, Sam Doust, Yuzo Mikami, Doug Southwell.

Les Dés sont Jetés – Donors

The late Peter Weiss AO

Joseph Skrzynski AO
The late Michael Crouch AO

Rick & Rae Assender
Helen & David Baffsky AO
Sheridan Burke
Clark Butler & Louise Herron AM
Andrew Cameron AM
Patsy Crummer
Michael & Manuela Darling
Christina & Maurice Green AM
Richard Johnson AO MBE
Andrew Kaldor AM & Renata Kaldor AO
Anne & John Leece AM
Colleen & the late Robert Leece AO RFD
Ken Maher
Margaret Sixel & Dr George Miller AO
Peter & Kate Mould
Rebel Penfold-Russell OAM
Penelope Seidler AM
Ezekiel Solomon AM
The Utzon Foundation
Phillip Wolanski AM 
  
Sydney Opera House staff:
Michelle Dixon; Hugh Lamberton; Lauren Martin; Crispin Rice; Carolyn Stewart-Smith; Brook Turner
Sydney Opera House staff: Michelle Dixon; Hugh Lamberton; Lauren Martin; Crispin Rice; Carolyn Stewart-Smith; Brook Turner.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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