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COLOURBLIND

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As a child I was never very good at the Ishihara Test for colour blindness and I’m no better at it now. I can’t pick the numbers in any of the below even though it’s usually screamingly obvious to anyone without a degree of male-pattern red-green colour blindness. These are the people who, when I tell them, tend to pick up the closest red or green object and insist on asking me “What colour’s this then?”

I accept that I can’t work as a policeman or fireman because of something to do with traffic lights I imagine but, truth is, I’m only ever aware of this impediment when a red and a green of the same intensity are next to each other and the light is poor – a situation that occurs most often with leaves and flowers.

I’m good with the reds and greens of Bougainvillea, Poincianas and the erythrina family if they’re in bright sunlight but, at dusk and from a distance, the more muted colors of the Crimson Bottlebrush or the Red Gum become invisible to me long before they do to other people.

There may be less colour in my life but this might have heightened my awareness of it. The first colour I remember is the colour of the kitchen cupboards in the house I learned to crawl and walk in so those kitchen cupboards were probably the most colorful thing at eye level. The name of the colour was Flamingo [approx. R197 G116 B123]. I don’t know how I know that. Preschoolers don’t invent words like flamingo so I must have been told – which means I must have asked what this colour was called because it wasn’t red, blue, green, yellow, black or white.

This next colour is a kind of greeny grey like the colour of the screen of an old television so perhaps it’s another of my early, formative eye-level colors. I know this as the colour Typhoon [R45 G60 B55] from a DULUX™ colour chart.

If I’m asked what my favorite colour is I usually say orange but I’ve never owned any orange clothes, never painted a room orange and or owned an orange car. My orange favoritism is limited to flowers such as Rununculus, poppies, zinnias, a dune plant called portulaca and a smelly Australian shrub known as lantana we had in our front garden. I’ve never liked Marigolds so it’s not just about colour.

I have however painted walls a colour something like this next colour I know as Banana Cream [R250 G250 B150]. It’s the colour of one of those banana flavor milkshakes that taste nothing like banana. And that’s it for me and yellows although, if I had to fill a vase with flowers, it would be yellow tulips or roses.

Still at this end of the spectrum is Burmese Gold [R184 G138 B87]. I was allowed to paint my bedroom this colour but then it was the early 1970s.

My colour history has few blues. I’m not a blue person – although once I did paint my apartment a pale blue throughout but only because nothing I had was blue. I’ve never understood the fuss about Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue.

THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

However, a couple of months ago I did save this next image which I suppose is a kind of blue. I don’t know. It’s too dark and too blue for ultramarine although the ocean can sometimes be this colour. I’ll call it Ocean [R48 G89 B111] and save it for future reference.

I once lived in an apartment on the first floor of a late-Georgian terrace on Gray’s Inn Road. I learned that this row of terraces was one of the last to be developed – about 1830. The floor originally had two rooms of equal depth and each with fireplaces. The stairwell opened into the rear room, reducing its width.

The layout that I rented probably dated from the 1970s but may not have been the first conversion. The apartment became an exercise in colour and materials when I was between jobs and with too much time on my hands. Below are the original 1830 layout, the conversion – which was quite decent planning – as I found it in 1995 with all white walls, and how I painted its walls.

The external and party walls were a pale blue colour that I rightly or wrongly associated with 1830. The original internal walls I painted that dark Typhoon colour I mentioned earlier, in memory of the plan that was. It was important to me at the time, but where the colors joined, the dark grey of the wall that came later came after – in order of paint and painting – the blue of the original wall. The wall that makes the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom probably came next and its pale green overlaps the colour of the existing walls it abuts. Finally comes the pink of the wall making the hallway, and the yellow of the wall separating the kitchen and bathroom. It turned out well, and I was particularly pleased with the beam in the hallway where the original dividing door had been. It doesn’t show in any of these photos but it’s there in the header sketch.

The sequence in which the walls were painted reflected their order of construction. All this housepainting (that, oddly, the British call “decorating”) was performed with a 4″ brush because the bristles are longer and more flexible. You can load it with paint and, by adjusting the pressure, roll a bead of paint down a corner to produce a straight line.

I threw away nasty carpets, and sandpapered and varnished the floorboards. I was defeated by the skirting boards and window frames that simply had too many layers of paint to remove. However, I did strip and sandpaper all door frames, using a blade to create sharp edges and making them look as if they were affixed to the wall openings afterwards, which of course they were. Heads of nails were exposed.

I stripped the many layers of paint from the living room radiator. Its natural state was the burnished steely grey you see below and this probably made it better at radiating. I removed and stripped all paint from all door furniture. You know you have too much time on your hands when you find yourself removing the paint from screw heads in order to replicate a sequence of construction. This, I realize now, what what it was all about: a built reality that is nothing more or less than the materials and the sequence in which they were put together.

This was all well and good, and I did enjoy it and teach myself something at the same time. However, all my efforts were at best a representation of a building as the product of the materials and sequence of its construction. The idea itself wasn’t an affectation – it remains an excellent one – but it was an affectation to expect such an unpretentious building to represent it rather than embody it organically. And so, after a while, I decided to paint everything that same pale blue, on the basis that nothing I owned or that was in that room was blue. It was okay, but too blue. After another while I repainted all the walls some dull green heritage colour called drab. Drabs aren’t what they used to be and the closest I could find is the middle colour in this next sequence collectively known as olive drab.

In keeping with the period but out of place with the accommodation’s status of the period, I placed a timber framed print of a racehorse above the doorway – an affectation yes, but a good idea from some English, Italian or German tradition. And then I moved somewhere the other side of town but closer to my new job.

It’s odd for me to be now remembering my colour obsession and this old apartment I lived in when I was in London between jobs. Here I am in Dubai and waiting for a new job to start and once again I’m looking at my walls and wondering what colour they are.

I’m partial to Chartreuse the liqueur but these past couple of months I’ve grown to like chartreuse the colour after having seen it every day against these walls the dull green of an olive tree. It’s an elusive colour that, like any muted colour, depends upon the light and, during the day, this one changes from a greenish kind of grey to a blueish kind of green. I have a feeling most any colour would look good against it.

It might be another of my television screen colours but I’ll call it Dark Sage [R80 G90 B80].

Sometime in 2003, on the first day at my fourth new job since the multicoloured apartment, the design director tasked me with devising four different colour schemes for the reception area of a small London clinic. This is them. I devised them around the colour of some kind of architectural feature in the waiting area and gave them the names “Rose Garden”, “Mexico”, “India” and “New Mexico”. I particularly liked the “India” scheme and its combination of purple, mango, mint green and white I’d seen in many Indian restaurants.

Only last year, after explaining to students the principles of the colour wheel and its various combinations and effects, I gave them copies of the same blank image and asked them to devise a scheme of colors that are thematically linked, and to then give that theme a name. It’s an easy yet enjoyable class that reminds students that things like buildings are made of materials that either have a colour or are given one. Architects are supposed to have a preference for making things white but I’m not sure why, or if this is healthy. Making a model out of the one material is definitely simpler, quicker and less expensive, but it also means you don’t have to think about what materials it’s going to be made of or how they’re going to be put together. It reduces architecture to mass and openings to patterns.

Somehow this is acceptable because the building has probably been thought of and deslgned like that, with the development gain of massing satisfied first and the perception management of surfaces and cladding coming after. This is also the process by which design is communicated via vizualizations. The first thing produced is a white model onto which textures are then mapped by someone possibly not even in the same company. [c.f. Architecture Myths #23: Architecture]

CAD program features such as “white model” are only developed because architects use them to comprehend and communicate buildings. In a project file such as the one this next image represents, the materials may even have been designated as the file was created, as they’ll link to the specification and bill of quantities.

The trouble is that it communicates only the massing which is the easiest thing to communicate, reinforces the belief that architecture is predominantly about shape, and normalizes a culture of thinking it is no longer important what a building is made of.

Last century had brief moments when buildings were the consequence of the materials and processes by which they were constructed. The materials didn’t even need to be of the highest quality if they were well put together. It was called honesty. That this sounds quaint now suggests we live in times when honesty is no longer a virtue. The built evidence suggests so. And so does the written evidence such as Sir Peter Cook’s legendary 2013 Architectural Review article in which he wrote 1,800 words telling us how wonderful Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku was, but neglected to tell us what the building was made of. Denying the materials and construction of a building is a very expensive thing to do and something we should really be more suspicious of than we are. But the fact such a phenomenon exists means there must be some problem it’s solving and maybe we should think more about what that could be and in whose interests it is to not have us think about it. Thinking the future is white and made out of some plastic substance that has no name is so 1920s.

LEGO has its Architecture version with nothing but white pieces. It all seems to promote the thinking that colour is an afterthought and, by extension, the materials that have that colour.

Today I bought a copy of a book that shows the buildings of Tōgō Murano as architectural models made by students at Kyoto University. I’m in two minds. I’ve had my moments of enthusiastic model-making but never the technique or knowledge to follow through. I’m prepared to be awed by the precision and detail of these models.

The Prolific World Of Togo Murano Architectural Models 

Hiroshi Matsukuma, Publisher Seigensha ISBN 9784861525520

Togo Murano was born in 1891 in Saga prefecture. He graduated at the Faculty of Architecture at Waseda University. After working for the architecture office of Setsu Watanabe Architects, he established his own architectural practice. In a current trend of rethinking the modern architectural history, Togo Murano’s designs have been re-evaluated. This edition contains 80 models, based on his drawings and blueprints, of his still existing buildings, the ones which have been destroyed, as well as the buildings in renovation, in order to tell the whole story of this innovative architect.

I have some issues with the blurb’s grammar but it’s nothing compared to “… in order to tell the whole story of this innovative architect”. Sorry, but it’s simply not possible to consider a Tōgō Murano building as something separate from its materials and how they’re put together. It’s nowhere near the whole story, simply not right to say so, and not only does this wonderful architect a severe disservice, but the rest of us as well.

Whenever I’m perplexed, I always try to imagine the object of my perplexity as being the solution to some problem. What problem is this book solving? Is it rectifying some over-emphasis on materials and construction in Tōgō Murano studies? Or, more generally, is it intended to counter some unhealthy resurgence of student interest in the possibilities of materials and their selection and combination? Or, perhaps more likely, prevent then from thinking about it? If so, then this book is probably part of the solution even though one more nail in that particular coffin is hardly going to make any difference.

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