I heard this great story about Mike Davies of Rogers Stirk Harbour, a distinctive chap who wears his hair long and is never seen without a red suit. some years ago he was discussing a new job with Canary Wharf that they wanted to keep under wraps and so they asked him not to come in his signature whistle and flute for fear he be recognised. Davies agreed to break a habit of a lifetime, and duly turned up in canary yellow one. Apocryphal perhaps, but it highlights the practice’s interest in colour which has been a key element of Richard Rogers’ work ever since the built a bright yellow house for his parents in Wimbledon in the 1960s.
I was reminded of this recently when visiting the Matisse exhibition at Tate modern - the gallery was festooned with the primary colours of the artist’s famous cut-outs while outside Piers Gough’s 15 storey Bankside Lofts designed for Harry Handelsman (yellow again) seemed to sing along nicely with the multi coloured structure of RSH’s Neo Bankside apartments. Pity, I thought that Herzog and de Meuron were going for boring old brick on their Tate extension.
Then a walk across the river to the City to enjoy the undercroft space of RSH’s Leadenhall Building where you are greeted with huge nautical ventilation funnels in blue and red and, to the north, a whole facade of brightly coloured lifts speeding up and down in the world’s largest kinetic sculpture.
One of the most successful uses of colour by RSH is at Barrajas Airport where the columns of the kilometre long terminal building are coloured in a graduated rainbow - in stark contrast to the airports of Foster and Partners which tend to prefer the monochrome look and brings to mind a comment made by Alan Fletcher, Pentagram’s graphic designer who was doing the signage on Stansted Airport. Interviewed on television he showed his frustration over attempts to put a bit of colour into his work: “the problem with Norman is that he thinks grey is a bloody colour!” he exclaimed.
James Stirling of course liked lots of colour. Not far from the Leadenhall Building is No 1 Poultry with is deep blue tiled atrium walls and yellow, red and aquamarine reveals to the punched out windows. At this Staatsgalerie in Frankfurt huge hand rails of bright pink and blue lead the eye to lime green mullions of the sloped curtain walls. Some of his colour mixes took a bit of getting used to!
You have to be careful with colour. I’m a big fan of the work of Sauerbruch Hutton. Their GSW building in Berlin is a great building, and illustrates how colour can enliven a facade. But the idea has been recycled on too many low cost residential blocks in recent years where spattering coloured glass fins across a building seems to be used as a substitute for design and a mask for indifferent elevations.
But when properly integrated into the architecture it can be magical. David Walker’s design for Riverbank House in the City of London, overlooking the Thames is a great example of flamboyant but subtle use of colour, the yellow undersides of the balconies, slightly upturned so they can be enjoyed form the South Bank, seem to bring a bit of sun to the City even on the dullest days.
First published in On Office Magazine