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Forget biscuit-beige, put away the Wiltshire loam: ours is a world of colour

Colourful provocateur Peter Cook returns to the AR’s Opinion pages

The mind becomes dimmed by exposure to unmemorable lobbies, passages or subways, surviving in a world of standing in line, or at best scanning a blandly lit supermarket shelf in search of cheap optical fun. I have been reminded of this as I slither around the world from Clerkenwell to Santa Monica, from Seoul to Grenoble – or wherever.

Some stopping points are agreeable, especially Nordic airports, which enjoy a mixture of comfort, cultural self-confidence and developed ‘eye’ that appears to understand the value of light, view, glass, texture and piquant colour in respect of mass surface. Compare with even the best North American terminals: grey, beige, beige, grey. Washable (maybe), memorable (never), delightful (hardly) and aesthetically lost somewhere in the period of the Second World War.

Experts on the subject tell me that America’s corporate world eschews challenge and hates particularity. So Nordics are, presumably, too arty and too weird. Yet a one-hour line-up in Helsinki is no less tiresome than the same one in Buffalo: simply sweeter to the eye and mind. In particular this issue of colour hits me hard. Even if the architect who I miss the most – Enric Miralles - had the most abysmal taste in colour and the most miraculous taste in form.

The Smithsons’ took delight in toys and brightly coloured trinkets, as did Charles and Ray Eames… and then, somehow backed away from it in later life. Perhaps it is no coincidence that current British worthies draw attention to the austere position of the Smithsons’ ‘Without Rhetoric’, steeped in the piety of biscuit-beige, and a penchant for dark stained wood.

Hurrah then, for Mart Stam’s attempt to provide a blue house among the white of Stuttgart’s Weissenhofsiedlung … way back in 1927. Hurrah for the serious-butnaughty example of Sauerbruch Hutton infiltrating various parts of Germany right now, with vibrant but still discriminating colour - especially fine in their Brandhorst Museum.

There is of course the question of the dreaded ‘pastel shade’. At best, as seen in the mountainside hues used by Norwegian ‘funkis’ (functionalist) architects in the 1930s and 1940s. At worst (and we have seen a lot of this recently) when a pale green or pale lilac (and probably slightly curved) wall is introduced to add a touch of ‘interest’. So perhaps we have to come to grips with a new challenge.

All of us who design things are beginning to notice how the ‘1,000,000 colours’ that are digitally possible - always end up in a slightly acidic corner of purple-blue-green-acid yellow. So we tone them down. Or you get the ‘earthy’ brigade emptying a packet of Wiltshire loam all over your desk as inspiration.

We live in a world where chemistry and artificiality exist to challenge the memories of mud and lime and baked clay. Yet colour is there to delight. Perhaps it is the delight itself that scares us?

Read the Editor’s pick of Peter Cook’s columns from the archive, where he compares Suffolk with Dubai, ponders a tricky Dutch conundrum, tells us what makes architecture interesting and who he’d most like to meet.

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