A brighter shade of pale

Herbert Wright is tickled pink with ideas for the city

September is upon us, holiday time is vanishing faster than peanuts at a beerfest, and it’ll soon be time to dump bright summer clothes, coat up and traipse out under grey skies. Still, maybe there’s some cheery colour in the daytime built environment (other than the ephemera of billboards and street-art).

Colour that grabs the eye has made some appearances in our architectural history, but they are usually brief, then hastily stuffed back like a jack-in-the-box and the lid closed. The Regency period favoured gorgeously colourful interiors, but outside, apart from a few splashes like the pediment friezes by JG Bubb on John Nash’s Regents Park terraces (so like Wedgwood), it was all about cream or stone. Sure, the Victorians leveraged the colour possibilities of masonry to the max, and even had a weakness for glazed brick, but bright colour was in the detail, not the big surfaces. Similarly art deco with its optimistic motifs and trimmings. International-style 60s blocks sometimes sported coloured spandrels, but by the 70s it was all browns and Miesian blacks. Even crazy-fun PoMo wasn’t that colour-splashy in the UK – sadly-missed FAT’s most day-glo work was in a Rotterdam suburb. Incidentally, the new, completely red Casa das Artes in Miranda do Corvo, Portugal, is not by the same Fashion Architecture Taste boys at all, but Future Architecture Thinking from Lisbon. It chose a similar tomato soup shade to Jean Nouvel’s decidedly devilish 2010 Serpentine Pavilion, also sadly missed (at least by me).

Rogers and Piano brought colour with high-tech to Paris’ Pompidou Centre, and Rogers has stuck with his colour-coded ventilation pipes ever since. I’m looking forward to the kinetic colour action when the 200m of north facing lifts and lights get going on RSHP’s Cheesegrater. But in the Central St Giles offices (2009), Piano actually embedded warm colours into entire volumes, using glazed tiles. What’s not to like about this great cubist salad in the middle of London?

After Edi Rama became mayor of Tirana, Albania, in 2000, he had loads of drab buildings painted in bright colours. The whole city perked up

We need more stuff like this – entire buildings. Colour profoundly affects our psychology, as architectural lighting and interior designers know well. Still, it also gives confusing signals – perfect for government department buildings. Red, for example, is aggressive but also represents love and says STOP: that’s Defence. Green is GO, evokes nature but can be just greenwash: Environment. Yellow may be cheery, but can induce frustration and is the most demanding colour: obviously, the Revenue. That’s Westminster sorted, let’s order the paints.

But colours work most effectively in combination, as artists such as Edi Rama, for example, know. After he became mayor of Tirana, Albania, in 2000, he had loads of drab buildings painted and patterned in bright colours. Some were like dazzle ships, but brighter, drier and unarmed. The whole city perked up and arrived on the culture map. Well, Hans Ulbricht Obrist turned up.

Not only do we need to fruit up our cities with colour, we should also consider colours beyond the visible spectrum. Let’s expand the palette. Surely either genetic engineering or an update on Google Glass will enable us to see in infra-red and ultra-violet sooner or later. But no need to bother with wavelengths shorter than UV. That’s X-ray territory, and there’s enough see-through stuff with the endless march of blocks of low-E glass.

And if we don’t want any building colour to cheer us up on grey days, fine. We can always take Mick Jagger’s advice and paint it black. 

Last supper

With this column, the Flâneur bids adieu. He was defined by Baudelaire and Victor Fournel as a voyeur of the urban experience when Haussman’s Paris was emerging. What with global money, bloating urban grain, digitalisation and now the rise of AI, DB05 and FOMO, psycho-geographical upheaval continues. Time to wander off. The Flâneur thanks his readership, including those who thought this was a cookery column. Sorry I never got round to that recipe for a tasty flan.