FOCUS ON COLOUR IN ARCHITECTURE

THERE IS LITTLE TO BEAT COLOUR WHEN IT COMES TO IMMEDIACY IN AN ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN. COLOUR IS OFTEN THE FIRST THING TO STRIKE THE EYE WHEN YOU VIEW THE EXTERIOR OR INTERIOR OF A BUILDING, PARTICULARLY IF THAT COLOUR IS A BOLD ONE. IT STAYS ENGRAVED IN YOUR MEMORY; YOU REFER TO THAT RED OR YELLOW BUILDING, TO THAT BLUE HALL OR ORANGE CORRIDOR. AND COLOUR IS ESPECIALLY EFFECTIVE AS A MEDIUM OF EXPRESSION. IN A FAIRLY SIMPLE WAY, AN ATMOSPHERE IS ENGENDERED, A SIGNAL IS EMITTED, A STRUCTURE IS EMPHASIZED OR A SPATIAL FORM IS SUGGESTED.

Still, the general attitude towards using colour in modern architecture is at best circumspect. Apart from schools and crèches, the application of explicit colour to buildings is not to be taken for granted. Colour is usually reserved for add-ons to the actual architecture: signage, advertising, furniture, ornaments and people themselves with their clothing. Strictly speaking everything has a colour, of course, so we should include black and white, as well as the natural colours of the materials themselves. And in that sense colour is always involved. But architects seem to get cold feet when it comes to applying colour in a more expressive way. This reticence is closely bound up with the purism that typifies modern architecture. Honesty has always been the dogma: the aim to reveal how a building is constructed and what it is made of. Colour tends to be associated with deceit, camouflage and showy effects. Moreover, a colour can never be neutral enough, testifying as it does to personal taste and fashion sense. That is perhaps why a bolder use of colour always seeks justification, usually entailing reliance on colour theories and on psychological research into the influence of colour on mood. Colour, according to adherents of this outlook, plays a positive role by contributing to our frame of mind and sense of comfort, or even to a happier life.

Theories of this kind are not necessarily without foundation. But colour usage is an extremely complex matter, which is difficult to consider separately from structural, spatial, social, cultural and historic aspects of architecture. Its influence is determined to a great extent by its affinity with those other aspects, ultimately forming, as in music, a blend of harmony, melody, rhythm, instrumentation and tonality. So we may be excused for wondering whether an architect might deploy colour in the same way as a composer does harmony. A composer cannot work without some know-ledge of harmonic theory, but in the end it depends on his or her intuitions of how the result should sound, which are the source from which music is born. Shouldn't the architect operate in precisely the same way to make colour an integral part of the design? The three projects described below demonstrate the convincing results that can be achieved by taking an open-minded, bold approach to the application of colour in architecture.

Photo: John Gollings AM

ICON MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

What people consider urban is often synonymous with chaos. Particularly where suburban sprawl is involved, there is little coherence to be found in the jumble of streets, homes and commercial or industrial buildings. Some architects may see this as a license to design whatever they like. If the context has nothing to contribute, there is no need to add anything to it. But there are architects who do after all see possibilities to inject a certain coherence into the chaos by means of design, thereby giving rise to a context that was hitherto absent. With the Icon, a 17-storey apartment tower in Melbourne, the Australian firm Jackson Clements Burrows Architects has succeeded in realizing that context. The Icon is located at an extremely busy traffic intersection. Every possible built object and sign that typifies such a metropolitan location is present there. The apartment tower consists of a stack of coloured boxes. At first the structure looks arbitrary, but it is actually an intelligent response to the urban surroundings.

The boxes combine to connect with the adjacent low-rise developments and with the chaotic mix of buildings on the hill to the south. And the irregularly stacked form of the Icon achieves more than that: it alleviates the massiveness that would otherwise dominate the apartment tower. The individual blocks are moreover shifted horizontally so as to minimize unwanted shading of the adjacent houses. Jackson Clements Burrows Architects collaborated with the artist Matthew Johnson on the façade design. The cladding is made of metal gauze with 40 different colours. The idea was to create a "living skin", a veil that both hides and reveals the dwellings behind it. The colour effect is a dynamic one: the hue of every piece of metal gauze shifts slightly with the changing angle of the sun. At night, the gauze is lit from behind so that the building manifests itself as an intriguing colourful beacon in the nocturnal skyline. Since each box has a distinct colour, the tower suggests an assembly of multiple communities, identifiable as "neighbourhoods". The conspicuous use of colour is far from superficial, for it stimulates, together with the stacked form, the development of local communities within an urban environment that itself offers little if any cohesion.

ARCHITECT: JACKSON CLEMENTS BURROWS ARCHITECTS Developer: Pace Photos: Michael Gazolla, Architecture Photographer

NURSERY AND PRIMARY SCHOOL SAINT-DENIS, FRANCE

That colour can be so much more than a superficial addition to architecture is evident from the work of the French architect Paul le Quernec. As in his other buildings, colour, form and spatial quality make up an exemplary integrated whole in the Niki de Saint-Phalle – Petits Cailloux educational centre in Saint-Denis. That is immediately visible from the façade: coating one side of the lathwork screen with orange paint has resulted in an exciting optical effect, in which the perceived colour continually alternates from apple green, to natural wood and to orange as you walk past it. Playfully, the children learn to relate their own movement to the building in which they spend the day.

The centre is designed in plan as a cloverleaf. No infant, toddler or pupil needs to feel lost in the complexity of its interior. On entry, a destination – to the crèche, the primary school, the cafeteria, the recreation centre or one of the two playgrounds – is immediately apparent. To bolster the child's capacity for orientation and identification, the rooms in the crèche and the primary school have different shapes, round and square. In the large multifunctional spaces, that difference is further interpreted in the treatment of the ceilings: dome-shaped in the crèche and pyramidal in the primary school. Both rooms have generous rooflights to gather as much natural daylight as possible.

Colour plays an essential role in the play of forms by amplifying the spatial differentiation already achieved. The architect therefore decided to give the rooms in the crèche a different colour to those in the primary school. Varying orange hues are placed in contrast with blue. The organically designed vestibule and the spaces leading to the classrooms have a softer, more muted colour, but here too there are colour accents that spur the children to movement and discovery, so contributing to their growing comprehension of space. Everything in this complex is thus devoted to an architecture that changes along with a child's development from baby to a reading, arithmetizing and running schoolchild. Every phase of childhood is accorded its own forms and colours, its own spatial experience and sensitivity.

ARCHITECT: PAUL LE QUERNEC ARCHITECTES Photos: 11h45

BIOMUSEO PANAMA CITY, PANAMA

Some cultures, such as those of Latin America, are better acquainted with an exuberant use of colour than others. This is something we often see reflected in polychrome architecture. The palette of highly saturated colours with which the famous Los Angeles architecture firm Gehry Partners had painted on the roof surfaces of the Biomuseo and plastered on the walls of its pavilions, is an unmistakable reference to the embrace of colour in Panamanian society. Due to the reflections from the roof slopes combined with the colours of the information panels, the tones of the exterior are echoed in the interior.

The exhibition pavilions are wrapped around a central atrium containing a cafeteria, a museum shop and a temporary exhibition space. In these pavilions, the museum displays the biodiversity of Panama and the country's geological and natural history. The narrative of Biomuseo also aims to breed awareness of the worldwide urgency of nature conservation and environmental issues. The museum's adjacent to the city and close to the cruise harbour indicates that it is not only oriented towards educating children and the local population, but also towards international visitors. These considerations contributed to the decision to make a maximally striking design, an icon you will never forget once you have seen it.

With its tremendous sculptural quality and far-reaching, expressive fragmentation of form, the museum is a typical Frank Gehry design. The building is no longer a thing, a mere object, but presents itself as a disintegrating collage of planes and volumes. The enclosed space is something that spontaneously arises between them, so to speak. Yet the Biomuseo may be seen as contextual in various respects. This applies not only to the use of colour but also to the corrugated roof segments that hood over the pavilions and the central atrium. These features are characteristic of the way people build in a tropical climate like that of Panama: the roofs are constructed so as to offer protection against violent rainfall and to make cross-ventilation possible. As in all his designs, Gehry's wholly unique signature never excludes an intensive dialogue with the context.

ARCHITECT: GEHRY PARTNERS Photos: Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP