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Entries in colour (12)


Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun.  Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.

There is, of course, controversy.  Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty.  He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party.  Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less.  This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.  

The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth.  He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s.  With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write.  As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.  

Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's.  The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating.  How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler.  Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery.   Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.

I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos.  It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean.  I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them.  The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance.  The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009


Terror Háza, Budapest, 2002

Attila F Kovacs, Architeckton RT, architects. House of Terror Museum, Budapest, Hungary, 2002. photographer: Janos Szentivani.

The Terror Háza in Budapest, where 'terror' is the same word in Hungarian.  The building was used by the Arrow Cross Party (National Socialist) in WWII, then in the postwar soviet sphere, headquarters of the State Security Department, ÁVO.  With both, the windows were either covered, blocked or painted over: a literal signalling of secrecy and opacity. Is this the first necessity of security systems – that detention, interrogation, torture and homicide be conducted without windows?  Evidently.  

The colour black is indubitably connected to such darkness, and not for nothing is there a whole collection of associated sites and actions: black ops, black sites of secret extraordinary rendition, black projects – rogue, but sanctioned, secret but documented, somewhere.

The Terror Háza, a museum about fascist and communist regimes, is a member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience; the building was bought by the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History; the exhibition hall and the treatment of the outside is by Attila F Kovács, who painted it black, embedded ceramic miniatures of victims at eye height around the base and added the cornice — what?  brise-soleil?  an extended plane that casts the word terror over each façade: a complex reading because it uses sunlight, light, enlightenment to cast an inverted shadow over something already historically shadowed. The word cast is not hopeful, despite the sunlight, it too is dark.  

There is ongoing protest and negotiation in Hungary about the proportion of exhibits and thus blame given to communism over fascism.  Which was worse?  It depends on who you are.  Or were.  Similar debates, angry and hurt, are conducted in our War Museum in Ottawa and the Imperial War Museum in London: was Bomber Harris a war criminal or a successful strategist?  Terror is a tool of war, whether hot or cold, civil or revolutionary, used by all sides.


another side of Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Méditerranée 1952 Collection of the artist © Ellsworth Kelly Oil on nine joined wood panels, three in relief 150.5 x 193.7 x 7cm (photo courtesy of:

This is a really interesting interview with Kelly and Christopher Grunenberg, about colour, originally posted on one of the Tate online magazines but no longer available.  It was re-posted on fARTiculate here.


Gabriola Island brick

Stacking brick at the Gabriola Brick and Shale Products, ca 1914. GHMS Archives 1996.040.006

So what are bricks made of.  Easy, I thought, clay. Ha. Not exactly. Gabriola Brick and Shale Products that operated from 1910 - 1954, used Gabriola Island blue and brown shale.  While fireclay, a glacial clay that produces a much harder brick, was found in conjunction with coal seams near Victoria and Comox on Vancouver Island, Gabriola brick used shale, crushed by millstones made from local sandstone, plus diatomaceous earth and sand.  There are perfectly round basins on Gabriola, clearly where the millstones were drilled out.  I leave that purposely vague because I don't know how they could do that.   

Cretaceous shales of ceramic value are from the Pleistocene era, are sedimentary, have a low fusion temperature and a short vitrification range.  All the deposits in British Columbia turn out pink to red building brick.  In the nineteenth century, every city had a brickworks, just as they had a lime kiln. Evidently there is either shale, clay shales, or clay throughout the western provinces, but it is only deposits near cities that were developed – it says something about the cost of transportation in the early to mid-twentieth century: punitive relative to the cost of developing a local brickyard.  China and stoneware clay, rare in BC, were the basis of the large pottery industry in Medicine Hat, Alberta, which, unlike local brick production, was given a national reach facilitated by the Canadian Pacific Railway. 

It seems obvious to say it, but the colour of local brick gives a specific and often unique colour to a city that derives directly from the kind of shale or shale clay the city sits upon.  Today, in Canada, all brick comes from one source of brick manufacture in Ontario.  Even I-X-L of Medicine Hat, the once dominant brick manufacturer in Western Canada, is gone.  According to the 1952 BC Department of Mines bulletin (No. 30): Clay and Shale Deposits of British Columbia, clay and shale are everywhere in abundance – it is impossible that it is mined it out.  There must be some other economic equation in operation that makes one vast centralised brickyard with extreme delivery costs more efficient than a local industry.  Personally I don't get it.


urban archaeology

9th Avenue, Inglewood, Calgary Alberta 2011This barber shop sign sat on this wall for at least 30 years until it was painted over in the general gentrification of its building.  Following Business Redevelopment Zone colour guidelines which recommend maroon and olive, the wall is now repaired and painted a flat sludge green.  Who would choose such a colour combination, and worse, why would anyone follow it? And why are handmade signs seen as rubbish anyway?

The great affection for Fred Herzog's photos of Vancouver includes nostalgia for an era when signs were hand-written or else made by sign-painters.  It was a time when there was not a lot of money: one could be house-proud, which meant clean, but city pride, city branding, city marketting – why would one bother?  You lived in cities and towns, they looked like how they looked.

Now we endure the militancy of neighbourhood design guidelines and BRZs that insist neighbourhood main streets look harmonious.  Can one legislate cultural harmony? My neighbourhood association has long inveighed against having a Tim Horton's although they let in a Starbucks, and the old hot pink/lime green Korean restaurant is flagged regularly in the newsletter for its 'inappropriate' colour scheme.  The message is clear, we are all going upmarket and somehow must have better taste than we did before.  Curiously, paradoxically, this average Canadian neighbourhood might have taste, but it's lost its flavour.



Winston Churchill demonstrating a British V for victory against Nazi Germany.

V for victory is how it was used by Churchill in WWII.  We know now how very close Britain was to defeat; it was important for Churchill to show indomitable surety that victory was nigh.  
It is a combination of the hand of solidarity and the letter V.  It is also the two-fingered Cub salute: the two fingers are the ears of Akela, the wolf cub.  You remembered that didn't you?

Victory and peace.  We also know now that victory does not automatically mean peace.  Nixon used to hold both hands up in a fractal of two-fingered Vs at the end of a two-armed V – this where the V for victory in Vietnam was at odds with the V meaning Peace, man.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 70s peace meant withdrawal, not victory, an absence of victory as the battle was given up rather than waiting for defeat.  

The V hand sign has emerged again in the Arab Spring, where valour, valediction, validity and victory has been signed by every child, every woman, every student and rebel in each country as entrenched power structures were dismantled.  Tunisia and Egypt's demonstrations were non-violent resistance movements; this didn't work in Libya and isn't working in Syria.  Here V stands for a victory not of the individual who as he is rushed off on a stretcher manages to lift a hand and weakly flash two fingers, no, here the victory is for a people who will never go back, no matter what it takes, even if it takes generations.  

A young Libyan girl flashes the "V sign" with her two fingers painted with the old national flag's colours, during a demonstration against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi outside the court house of Benghazi.Shockingly, in looking for the images here, I found recent pictures of Ahmedinijad in Iran and Saif al Qadhafi both complacently saluting their audiences with a V: here they are indicating their roots in revolutionary movements from a long, long time ago.  The green flag of Qadhafi's revolutionary movement, the target in the Libyan uprising, represented the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya: green is the traditional colour of Islam.  Green was the colour of protest in Iran in 2009, one sees on the news Palestinian coffins draped in green.  The V and Green seem to be very specific in their applications depending on which people are using them, where and at what stage are their revolutions.

There is something about all these symbols and signs that coalesce around peace, non-violence and solidarity, and revolution, war and victory.  These conditions seem to be all very closely linked and the symbols oscillate between them.


signs of revolutions betrayed

Bolshevik Revolution: hammer for the industrial proletariat bonded to the sickle for agricultural workers; red from the red banner of the Paris Commune, 1917

No letters here, just action: the hammer as the tool of industrialisation, the sickle the tool of agriculture.  They are wielded by hands, neither of them are weapons.  One could be writing in the world of synecdoche here, and perhaps that adds depth to a symbol, but one can also write about hammers and sickles, factories and ploughs literally, without losing any meaning.  

In pre-revolutionary Russia Orthodoxy, red was the colour of Easter and the resurrection: how easy it was to elide that with the resurrection of the Russian people, the peasants and serfs, over the European aristocracy that ruled Russia.  And how simple to equate Christ's blood with martyred revolutionary blood.  

The  Phrygian cap of Liberty, le bonnet rouge of the French Revolution: Phrygia – today's Anatolia in Turkey.  Paris, the cause of the Trojan War, was a Phrygian and wore what we could now describe as a soft Turkish fez.  Red as the colour of liberty dates from the Roman Empire when freed slaves wore red Phrygian caps. It is interesting how involved ancient Greece was in what we consider today to be the hotbed of the Middle East.  It is contiguous by land and shares the eastern Mediterranean.  Modern Greece's default from European values, as it is being put, is perhaps more deeply rooted than the EU can accept.  

In 1976 Andy Warhol did a series of silkscreens called Hammer & Sickle where he photographed an actual hammer and a hand scythe in various collaborations. No one will ever be able to convince me that Warhol and pop art were not political.  One can say Warhol valourised the American commercial landscape and endorsed celebrity, but this does not allow him a deep anarchic sense of irony, if that is not an oxymoron. 

In the depths of the cold war, by de-coupling the symbol from the tools, he referred to the Soviet Union as industry and agriculture, not nuclear bombs.  After the fall of the USSR when many previously inaccessible 'ordinary' people were interviewed and we were able to read literature of the era from the other side, what was revealed was a fear of the west and its weaponry, precisely what we had been taught to fear about the east.  What a waste of the twentieth century it all was.  So many died.


Andy Warhol. 
Hammer & Sickle, 1976 
 acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas (182.9 x 218.4 x 3.2 cm.)
 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh


the colours of protest

WSPU medal for valour, 1909.

Badges of honour, medals, ribbons, rosettes: delicate little things that carry great meaning.  The Women's Social and Political Union was founded in 1903.  Its priority was to somehow get British women the vote.  The decoration, above, was given by the WSPU to women who had been imprisoned for demonstrating, for 'occupying' the railings outside Parliament.  Once imprisoned, they would go on a hunger strike and then be force fed by very primitive means.  Their tactics were to be noticed, to be seen, to escape somehow the patronising male gaze that preferred them to be angels of the household.  

The colours, green, white and violet, stand for give, women and vote.  Other noble qualities were ascribed to these colours: hope, purity and dignity, but their earliest incarnation is as an acronym.  And it wasn't a secret society, it was to the WSPU's advantage to have this tricolour everywhere.  

At the time, in the early 1900s, violet was also the colour of half-mourning, that period after two years of full mourning in black crepe.  Green was one of the colours of the aesthetic movement, and peridots were re-discovered in 1900 when, after 2000 years, the island in the Red Sea that had peridot deposits was rediscovered.  The combination of violet and green was often seen in Liberty style dress – a combination of the aesthetic movement and art nouveau.  So the WSPU colours were very current, aesthetically, culturally and politically –  violet and green were not the robust primary colours found in military banners and flags.

The art nouveau pendant below is another version, less overtly militant than the medal on a ribbon, but no less powerful in its declaration of belief.


Suffragette jewellery: peridot, pearls and amethyst, ca 1900

In the ex-colonies of the British Empire, New Zealand's women had been givne the vote in 1893, Australia in 1902.  The UK gave it in 1918 but only to women over 30.


Pedro Gadanho: Casa em Torres Vedras

Fernando Guerra, FG+SG, photographer. House in Torres Vedras, Portugal, by Pedro Gadanho

Another package of beautiful photographs from Fernando Guerra in Portugal: Casa em Torres Vedras by Pedro Gadanho.  This is a nineteenth century house with a massive renovation that owes a lot to utopian visions of the 1970s: plastic, colour, capsules, re-inhabitation where modernism bumps up against plaster mouldings, pre-fabrication, James Bond and Star Trek done by Zefferelli.  There is a kind of sentimentality here, not for a pre-modern costume drama past, but for a pre-cynical view of the future.   

Clearly Lisbon of the 2010s is the Barcelona of the 1980s.  Its architects seem particularly free to break from any kind of deference to any kind of thing.  Although Guerra's photographs strip out all signs of inhabitation showing just the abstract space and surfaces – this in itself a high modern tradition – this folio led me to Gadanho's blog, shrapnel contemporary: completely exuberant, messy, articulate, provoking, graphic, self-serving, terrifically interesting.

Gadanho's discussion of the Casa de Carreço (below) is a brilliant little text about making architecture: a miniature manifesto, and all the more powerful for its throw away form.

Fernando Guerra, FS+SG Photography. Casa de Carreço, Portugal.


Vancouver colours

Found this on the Canadian Design Resource site with a long list of carping comments from designers, then went to its original posting on YouTube with a long list of enthusiastic comments from everyone else.  The graphic design package for the Vancouver Olympics was launched in 2008; every town and city in Canada has a stretch of banners where the torch was run, and we see it all in action with each Olympic event.

The iron grip of VANOC has ensured that there is no detail and no opportunity missed to implant Vancouver 2010's graphic identity – even the kleenex box handed to the figure skaters last night had a lovely little abstract fir tree on it.  The boards around the ice sheets are blue and green banners rather than clashing sponsor advertisements; if a surface can be blue, it is; the colours of the landscape dominate these Olympics.

A car count in a coffee shop parking lot last week, on the coast, showed 8 blue or green cars, 8 white and grey cars, 2 black or charcoal cars, two red.  Al Donnell did a similar count in Calgary which showed 15 grey, 10 black, 7 white, 5 red and 5 blue. 

Places do have colourways, and while it has been codified in the Vancouver 2010 graphic identity palette, it can also be found in ordinary life.  It is blue, green, white and grey out here, and it is beautiful. 



Eric Ravilious. Spitfires on a Camouflaged Runway, 1942. watercolour on paper 45 x 62 cm. Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon

Ravilious, above, shows a camouflaged air field, with an added stream, road and shading to indicate topographic variation: complex patterns for a complex landscape.  If the RCAF training field in Vulcan had been under threat from the Luftwaffe it would have been painted to look like a wheatfield with rectangular plowing lines. 

Aisling O'Carroll wrote about military camouflage in On Site 22: WAR.  In her section on deception she outlines the array of dummy trucks, tanks and airstrips elaborately laid out to divert attention from real trucks, tanks and airstrips all cunningly camouflaged with paint, netting and big boxes.  She tracked down some great pictures from the National Photographic Archives at Kew – one showing a tank lurking under a very crude truck form as part of the grand counter-installations for el Alamein.  The scale of the deception is staggering: an entire army was recreated in a part of the desert far away from the real army. 

Camouflage does not seem to be as much about veracity as pattern recognition.  The scale worked at is the texture of the landscape with objects, including shadows.  It is an activity at once huge and intimate.


UN blue

United Nations blue:
The UN emblem started as a publicity button for the 1945 San Francisco Conference where the UN Charter was drafted.  It was designed by Donal McLaughlin (1907-2009), an architect by training and head of graphics and visual material in the OSS (US Office of Strategic Services, later the CIA).

The original insignia showed the globe, centred on the north pole, with North America on the central axis.  In 1947, this orientation was changed by 90° so that the Greenwich meridian is at the centre, and all of South America is included.  

The blue colour was meant to represent peace, the opposite of war which has traditionally been red.  Blue was also the colour of the US Army, a relationship that started with the guerrilla nature of the War of Independence (1775-83) where blue uniforms offered more protective colouring than the opposing red British Army tunics.

PMS 279 is now the official UN blue colour, however Pantone system was not developed until 1963.   At the time the flag was adopted, in 1947, the background colour was US Army gray-blue.

How curious and conflicted is the iconography of the UN, with its headquarters in New York and Geneva, its flag which at first privileged the United States and then Europe but now most significantly west Africa, its colour which came from a traditional US Army uniform colour but is now considered a universal cerulean blue, its globe wreathed in olive branches as Palestinian olive orchards are bulldozed to build a security fence ignoring dozens of UN Resolutions, the optimism of its original goals and the cynicism of the Security Council.  In theory the leaders of every country can address the United Nations Assembly, but only if the United States gives them a visa to enter the US.  It has, from the beginning, had a global reach based on the nation-state, which globalisation ignores.

However, its colour, especially when you consider its CMYK values, is extremely optimistic: the colour of sky on a sunny day, no black in it, so no shadows, no clouds, no pessimism.