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Colour vision

Some architects today are exploring anew the role of colour in their buildings.With his roots in the early Modern Movement, Josef Albers can still show the way

Just north of Cologne, around the rivers Rhine and Ruhr, is where German heavy industry was once concentrated. At the sound of such names as Dusseldorf, Duisburg or Essen, you immediately see polluted skies. Today there are still some smoking chimneys but many sites have been demolished, with surviving ones now linked by a lengthy tourist route der industriekultur.

Supplanting them are the usual bland business-park sheds.

Seen through the car windscreen on a dull grey day in early March, with patchy snow still on the ground and mist veiling the distance, this region seemed unrelievedly drab. Its colours were under a shroud.

At the former coal-mining city of Bottrop, however, colour returned with a rush. Bottrop, birthplace of Josef Albers (1888-1976), is now home to the Josef Albers Museum, which you enter on axis with one of the most radiant of his Homage to the Square paintings, in shades of orange and yellow.

Albers' activity as an artist went hand-in-hand with a commitment to teaching, beginning at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, flowering at Black Mountain College in the 1940s after his emigration to America, and culminating at Yale in the 1960s - and many architects attended his classes. Among his various publications, one, the fruit of both his practice and teaching, was paramount - Interaction of Color, published in 1963.

But is Albers now a figure just for art historians? Absolutely not, as a visit to the Bottrop museum makes plain. For anyone alert to the potential of colour in architecture, his example is as relevant as ever. The relationships that he explored in his paintings, and the exercises that he set his students, offer finelytuned lessons in looking. He links the early Modern Movement to today.

There are alternatives to both whitewalled denial and the vulgarity of a place like the Lowry. Albers shows what colour - seen acutely, used adroitly - might really do.

Alternative attitudes

For many Modernist architects, reacting initially to the decorative indulgence of the late 19th century, applied colour was an anathema - a mask.

'The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament. . . Our temples are no longer painted blue, red, green and white like the Parthenon. No, we have learnt to feel the beauty of naked stone, ' wrote Adolf Loos in one his polemical essays, 'Architecture', in 1910.

More than half a century later, Louis Kahn gave an interview to House & Garden (October 1972), saying: 'I have no colour applied on the walls of my home. I wouldn't want to disturb the beauty of natural light.

The light really does make the room. The changing light according to the time of day and the seasons of the year gives colour.

Then there are reflections from the floors, the furniture, the materials, all contributing to make my space made by the light, mine. . .

Ever since I knew this to be true, I grew away from painting and depended on the light.

The color you get that way is not applied, but simply a surprise.'

That is Kahn at his most persuasive. But persistent though such views were during the 20th century, there were alternatives, most notably in the early years of the Modern Movement, when the role of colour in architecture was explored in the Netherlands by members (and ex-members) of De Stijl, in France by the Purist Le Corbusier, and in Germany by Albers' colleagues at the Bauhaus.

The De Stijl monument is, of course, Rietveld's Schroder House in Utrecht (1924), with its use of the primaries, black, white and several shades of grey. The colours reinforce the house's structure, picking out elements of the architecture and highlighting separate planes, though - as in the original scheme for the upstairs living area - it sometimes seems that colour is simply relished in its own right. ('Rietveld said to me once that he sometimes wondered if he hadn't gone too far with colour, ' Mrs Schroder later told one interviewer. ) Mrs Schroder described the use of colour in her house as 'entirely Rietveld', though as a rule De Stijl experiments with colour were collaborations between architects and artists. In an essay in De Stijl: Visions of Utopia (1982), Nancy Troy suggests that the painters, initially subordinate, became more ambitious as the 1920s proceeded: 'They felt increasingly free to exploit color as a means of integrating discrete architectural surfaces, disguising doors so that they appeared to be part of the walls which they in fact pierced, and painting around or across corners to undermine the character of each wall as a distinct, individual plane.' Theo van Doesburg's designs for the Cafe Aubette are an obvious example.

Troy argues that, by the end of that decade, architects and artists largely went their different ways. Nonetheless, as the recent restoration of Brinkman and Van der Vlugt's Sonneveld House in Rotterdam reveals, architectural colour was alive and well in 1933 (AJ 7.6.01). There, a scheme in muted primaries by Bart van der Leck, who made an early exit from De Stijl, is part of the broader palette that pervades the whole house.

The Purist colour world was more varied and nuanced than De Stijl's, exploring not just the spatial effects but also the associations that certain colours might bring - with the earth or sky, for instance. It was the spatial impact, however, that Le Corbusier stressed in describing his Fruges housing scheme at Pessac in L'Architecture Vivante (1927): 'The Pessac site is very enclosed. The grey concrete houses gave rise to an unbearable compressed mass, lacking in air. Colour was the solution to generating space. . . Some wall surfaces are painted in burnt sienna, while clear ultramarine blue makes entire rows of houses recede.

Elsewhere, pale green facades fuse with the foliage of the gardens and trees.'

One Modernist objection to colour centred on the inconsistency of paint finishes in their mixing and application. Le Corbusier countered this in 1931 with the extensive range of wallpapers that he developed for the Swiss manufacturer Salubra.A few years later, at a conference in Rome in 1936, came his most decisive endorsement: 'What power!

Dynamic, I would call it; or dynamite, once my painter starts up on the house. . . With polychromy the skilful architect has before him an endless bounty of resources. Polychromy belongs to the great vibrant architecture of the past, the present and the future. . . Polychromy - as powerful an architectural tool as the plan and section.'

But Albers' immediate colour environment was at the Bauhaus, first at Weimar where he was a pupil, and then from 1925 at Dessau where he was appointed a master.

During these Bauhaus years his understanding of colour must have been greatly enriched by the contrasting approaches of the teachers there - Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee.

The Bauhaus had a wall painting workshop, led from 1925 by Hinnerk Scheper.

With a taste for pastel colours and a range of greys, Scheper used paint to make architectural structure explicit, not subverting or disguising it as in some instances of De Stijl.

It is a decorative scheme by Scheper that has been renewed in the house at Dessau, designed by Gropius, which Lionel Feininger occupied. Nearby, however, is another of these master's houses (a flat-roofed Modernist 'semi'), which Kandinsky and Klee jointly occupied. Each devised his own colour treatment for his half of the house and the appearance of the interior in 1932, with some 170 different colours in all, has recently been recreated (AJ 13.4.00).

Research that preceded the restoration showed that both artists made many changes to their schemes during just a few years. They each used their home for experiments with colour, and their choices and combinations were often unusual.

At this time, Albers was responsible for material studies at the Bauhaus, running classes in which pupils explored the qualities of glass, wood, metal and so forth, with an emphasis on personal discovery and invention. It is just this impression of discovery and invention that the Kandinsky-Klee house conveys in respect of colour - and this must have told on Albers.

For, in his later classes and own artistic practice, he was never dogmatic about colour. He did not propound a particular theory; instead, he supplied a framework and mechanisms for his students to reach their own conclusions. Albers does not want you to acquiesce - he wants you to see.

Colourful career A feeling for both colour and material is combined in an early Albers work on show at the Joseph Albers Museum - one of several assemblages of coloured glass that he made about 1921-22. It is among the first things you find on entering the building, a separate pavilion linked by an enclosed bridge to the rest of Bottrop's Quadrat Museum. The pavilion's plan, appropriately, is a square within a square.

The whole complex, completed in 1983, was designed by Bernhard Kuppers. Its idiom is Miesian, but Kuppers is happy to sacrifice the transparency of Mies' Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in the interest of hanging some paintings.

In its well-chosen collection, the museum reflects Albers' diverse, prolific career.

We see his other Bauhaus works - geometrical compositions with paint on sandblasted glass. We see too the visible influence of architecture after Albers emigrates to the US, in his black-and-white Graphic Tectonics, whose linear oblongs-within-oblongs, receding or advancing, recall the stepped forms of the Meso-American pyramids he photographed on Mexican holidays.

Architecture recurs in a striking group of Variants from the late 1940s, which look like simplified flat facades perforated by doors or windows. But, dispersed as all these pieces are around the four sides of the museum, they seem preparatory to those in the top-lit square room at its centre.

This is where 26 examples of Albers' Homage to the Square paintings are displayed - the series which he began in 1950 and continued until his death. Illustrating the four different formats which Albers favoured, with their shifting proportional relationships between the concentric squares, they are grouped according to their size and to their dominant colours.

Exactly the same colour, applied directly from the tube on to a masonite ground, can behave very differently, depending on its neighbours. In some of the Homages the innermost square appears quite deeply recessed at the end of a perspectival tunnel; in others it presses forward, taut and luminous, and seems to hover in front of the picture-plane. Moreover, the mood of these paintings varies greatly: they can be reticent or extrovert, grave, jubilant, ethereal.

On the back of each one, Albers itemised the colours he had used - Shewingen Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Pale, etc - which implies a 'scientific' approach. Quoted in Art News (January 1966), however, Albers said: 'I don't care to be scientific and explore all the possibilities. To be complete is of no interest to me at all. I deal with what tickles me.'

Substantiating this, the titles of some Bottrop works are undisguisedly expressive - Spring Promise, Idol, Thaw.

Informing all these Homages is Albers' research and teaching at Black Mountain and Yale, which was eventually formalised in Interaction of Color. We tend to know this only in the abbreviated paperback version - its illustrations much reduced in quantity and size, and without the 'commentary' that relates to each in turn. The original, always expensive (US$200 in 1963) and long out-of-print, is something else.

It is not a book but a large box. Inside it, along with the text and commentary, are 80 folders containing 200 or so colour studies, most of which are silkscreen prints and hence very different in appearance from the paperback reproductions. (No doubt some copies are now framed on walls. ) 'In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is - as it physically is. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognise that color deceives continually. . .

What counts here is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision - seeing, ' says Albers in his introduction.

This deceptive quality is a consequence of the interaction of colours: 'We almost never see a single color unconnected and unrelated to other colors. Colors present themselves in continual flux, constantly related to changing neighbours and changing conditions.'

Some studies in the box, with cardboard flaps attached to them, present such deceptions with theatrical panache. You open one folder to find a pale grey flap pierced by two small 'windows', through which identical dark grey oblongs appear from the study beneath. Lift the flap and - hey presto - the unity of that dark grey is instantly dispelled, as one oblong looks still darker on its light grey ground, while the other becomes lighter against a dark green ground. And just as identical colours can be made to look different, so Albers' exercises can make different colours look the same.

These exercises become steadily more sophisticated as you work through the box, with special attention to the spatial effects that juxtaposed colours create. Another feature is Albers' challenge to conventional assumptions about colour harmony and to his pupils' prejudices in general:

'We try to recognise our preferences and our aversions - what colors dominate in our work; what colors, on the other hand, are rejected, disliked, or of no appeal. Usually a special effort in using disliked colors ends with our falling in love with them.'

As a teaching device, Interaction of Color is unusual - it is precisely focused but liberating at the same time. It prompts the closest possible scrutiny of visual effects without any prescriptive intent. Pupils would complete Albers' classes as individuals, not clones.

Living legacy

At both Black Mountain College and Yale, Albers led courses on design as well as colour.

One architect who attended both is Harry Seidler, still practising in Sydney, who, when asked about them, at once sent me copies of his notes at Black Mountain in 1946.

Some phrases that Seidler has transcribed in these are identical to ones that Albers later used in Interaction of Color, and its exercises were already taking shape. 'I found out more about visual perception at Black Mountain than at any architecture school, ' says Seidler.

Among Albers' UK students at Yale in the 1950s was architect John Winter, who took the design course, and his wife Valerie, who took colour - and, like Seidler, they still have their notes and studies.

About 60 students from both the painting and the architecture schools would attend each colour class, and Valerie Winter remembers pupils putting their studies on a ledge around the hall for Albers' criticism: 'Those sessions were electrifying, ' she says. 'The course only lasted one term but it has played a very large part in my life as a designer - it has carried me through so much. It was quite difficult, some of it - you had to be careful about lighting, for instance - but it really trained your eye.

'A lot of its impact is in your subconscious, it's not something you can verbalise, ' she adds, but, referring to her garden and landscape designs, 'that course still helps me to get it right.'

Two of Yale's most celebrated UK graduates are, of course, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Both were there in the early 1960s after Albers had retired, although their near-contemporary, the artist Michael Craig-Martin, recalls that Albers' colour course was still on offer then, led by his former assistant Si Sillman.

'Sadly I was not in contact with Albers.

Nonetheless, like so many 'greats', he remains an inspiration, ' says Foster. But colour has hardly been high on his practice's agenda. As Paul Overy puts it in his essay in Norman Foster: 30 Colours (1998): 'Although there are some exceptions, Foster tends to emphasise spaces, both inside and out, by the use of a single neutral or metallic colour, working with limited accents of other colours to create 'signals'.'

Rogers had no comment at all to make on Albers, but given the strident and simplistic handling of colour in his projects over the years, that was no great surprise.

Another near-contemporary of Foster and Rogers (though not at Yale) was the artist and architect Donald Judd, who praised Interaction of Color in a review in Arts Magazine (November 1963) and remained an Albers supporter and collector until his death in 1994.

Judd, labelled a Minimalist, is often seen as puritanical in his approach to art, but as early as 1971 the critic Hilton Kramer called him a 'closet hedonist', who revelled increasingly in colour with his industriallyfabricated sculptures. There is even a book now with the title Donald Judd: Colorist .

Introducing an Albers exhibition that he organised at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, in 1991, Judd described at length one of the Homages, noting not just the way that colours varied according to their neighbours but also to the area that they occupied on the masonite ground: 'The identity of the color is not separable from the expanse of the areas or from the texture or transparency. The intensity of the color varies according to the expanse. . . 'His analysis brought this conclusion: 'The painting is one single whole and as complex as a metope.'

In both his practice and his texts, Judd managed to reconcile 'truth to materials' with an expanded sense of the possibilities of colour. 'I don't like plain plywood or plain concrete or plain metal to be considered without colour. To me they are coloured. It's best to consider everything as colour, ' he wrote in the catalogue for his exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden in 1989.

With plexiglass, for instance, Judd exploited to the full the inherent colour potential of a material, but he also roamed the spectrum in choosing colour finishes for his works in metal; though with a preference for methods such as enamelling, anodising and galvanising, that would not obscure the nature of the material or its surface quality.

Also pertinent is Judd's resistance to the idea that colours have predictable psychological effects on the viewer. In his typically abrasive last essay, 'Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular' (Artforum, 1994), he says: 'No immediate feeling can be attributed to color. Nothing can be identified. If it seems otherwise, usually, the association is cultural. . . If there were an identifiable feeling to red or to red and black together, they would not be usable to me.'

Two contemporary architects, both now establishing an international reputation, have a comparable attitude to Judd's - the Swiss practice Gigon Guyer and Sauerbruch Hutton of London and Berlin. Both respect the particular qualities of a material while wanting also to explore a wider realm of colour. Both, too, are very Albers-like in their discriminating, methodical, but inventive approach. Neither resorts to a formula: in questions of colour, each project is considered anew.

Gigon Guyer's Liner Museum in Appenzell (1998) is clad entirely in stainless steel panels, overlapping like the wooden shingles of traditional Appenzell houses. In their '2000 Charles and Ray Eames Lecture' at the University of Michigan (AJ 5.4.01), Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer compared the look of the metal to 'the silver colouring of weathered wood on fences and old barns in the region'. Sandblasted, these panels subtly diffuse the light.

There the intrinsic colour of a material is central to the scheme. In the extension for the Reinhart Collection at Winterthur (1998), by contrast, Gigon Guyer wanted to modify the material in a colouristic way, accelerating its patina of age to adapt the building quickly to its historic context.

'We started by mixing copper dust in prefabricated concrete panels and then observing how they weathered, ' says Gigon.

'Almost by accident we discovered that the combination of limestone and copper dust in concrete oxidises into a subtle greenish colour within just a few months.'

There was a similar approach at the switching station by the railway tracks in Zurich (1999), on which Gigon Guyer collaborated with the artist Harald Muller.Given its situation, the building was bound to be affected over time by the dust from passing trains, so Gigon Guyer decided to anticipate the process, colouring the concrete with brownish-red iron oxide pigments.

'For us it is important that the use of colour is so strongly connected to the concept of a building that the building can no longer be conceived of without this use of colour, ' says Gigon (El Croquis 102) - and, if an artist becomes involved in a project, it is only when that initial concept has been determined.

The most exuberant Gigon Guyer building so far is the Sports Centre at Davos (1996), executed with the artist Adrian Schiess.With three colours for the facade, and nine for the interior (including turquoise, orange and raspberry), and no wish simply to signpost different functions of the building or accentuate its structure, the decoration seems thoroughly wayward; but a logic emerges when you realise that each colour is assigned to a different-sized element (the panels on the walls and ceilings that conceal services and provide insulation).

The colour combinations are surprising nonetheless, at times almost bizarre, and from photographs one cannot say for sure that they always work. They are counterpointed by untreated larch cladding on the outside and lateral walls of bare concrete within. Just one side of the second-floor corridor is painted, in a sequence of changing colours that are reflected in the white stucco of the ceiling and the opposite wall.

Schiess presented several different polychrome schemes mocked up on wooden panels for the design team to consider: an Albers-like exercise in looking and evaluation of the sort that Mathias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton describe in realising their buildings.

'Josef Albers coined a term - the 'actual' and the 'factual' fact - which I think is a precise description of what we are playing with, ' said Sauerbruch in a discussion with Mohsen Mostafavi of the Architectural Association (WYSIWYG, 1999).

This refers to a passage in Interaction of Color where Albers distinguishes the 'factual' - eg data on wavelength obtained by the optical analysis of light spectra - from the 'actual': all that we perceive as a result of colour's relativity and instability, the illusions that Albers' exercises illustrate.

'We certainly are interested in the natural colour and particular characteristics of many different materials, ' says Hutton, 'but we enjoy combining their idiosyncrasies with those of flat or textured planes of colour. Colour is a fantastic medium to address the senses.We use colour actively as a means of generating atmospheric and sensuous spaces.'

Sauerbruch Hutton's Photonics Centre in Adlershof, Berlin, with its spectrumwrapped sinuous forms, was described as 'magically coloured and eerily lit' in the AJ building study (AJ 3.9.98). Last year's Stirling Prize finalist, the GSW headquarters (also in Berlin), includes among its five distinct volumes a curved 'pillbox' perched at one corner - neither circular nor oval but constructed from several radii - whose form becomes still more ambiguous by being clad with multi-coloured bands of corrugated metal, the colours dancing erratically around to destabilise perception.

But the colourist tour-de-force at the GSW headquarters is the west facade of its high-rise slab, whose array of shutters, conceived as 'a family of reds', are highly nuanced, and make an ever-changing composition as occupants adjust them.

'Our colour selections are made more intuitively than with any scientific rationale - although we test endless variations of chosen colour groups in a quasi-scientific method, ' says Hutton. (This sounds very Albers. ) 'We have been reluctant to use the computer for colour work, partly because it is so frustrating to work with colours on the screen which always look completely different once you print them out. So it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience.'

'There is nothing like trying the colours out in situ, at full scale and with the right natural - or artificial - light, ' she continues.

'For GSW there was a full-size mock up of the shutters in the colours we had selected, and we subsequently continued to modify the shades with large-scale coated paper samples until we were satisfied.'

With its atmospheric and spatial effects, its fluctuations as close-neighboured colours advance or retreat, this GSW facade is like a huge fragmented Albers Homage - a shifting mosaic. In both its final appearance, and the way in which that was arrived at, the spirit of Albers is very much alive.

As too is an early Modernist readiness to treat colour as an architectural resource. But is it still largely neglected and misunderstood? Do, for example, any UK schools of architecture take colour seriously enough to include it on their curriculum? A random survey of a dozen or so suggests not. Is computer technology, as Hutton implies, a hindrance not a help?

Ofthe recent buildings featured here, it would be most interesting to know Albers' response to the interior colour scheme of the Davos Sports Centre. Certainly, given his emphasis on practice not theory, on actual experience rather than preconceptions, he would not dismiss it out of hand. It was 'vision - seeing' that counted, and 'seeing is coupled with fantasy, with imagination'.

Midway through the text to Interaction of Color, Albers writes: 'Good painting, good coloring, is comparable to good cooking.

Even a good cooking recipe demands tasting while it is being followed. And the best tasting still depends on a cook with taste.'

Whether by seeing his paintings en masse at the Bottrop museum or in isolation elsewhere ('They are always inspiring, ' says Hutton), or by working through the exercises in Interaction of Color, Albers still makes you a more discerning and adventurous cook.

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