Wayback Wednesday: Michael Webb on Living in Color

Among contemporary urban environments, Rio's favelas are getting a hefty dose from Dutch artists Haas and Hahn. Photograph courtesy Favela Painting

Among contemporary urban environments, Rio’s favelas are getting a hefty dose from Dutch artists Haas and Hahn. Photograph courtesy Favela Painting

Next week, our own Michael Webb, contributing writer to our print edition and frequent face here on the Web site with his pithy book and exhibition reviews, will receive a 2014 AIA|LA Design Advocate award at the ceremony. To celebrate his achievement, we thought we’d run one of our favorite recent features of Michael’s his 2013 story on color in urban architecture. He traces its history and offers a compelling call to bring more of it into city living.

By Michael Webb

Most cities have a distinctive palette. In London, the older residential areas are built of yellow or red brick, the monuments of white Portland stone. Some are still blackened from coal smoke, others have been scrubbed clean. Looking over Paris from Sacré Coeur, the expanse of gray slate and stone is interrupted by the multicolored Pompidou Center—much as the PDC stands out in West Hollywood. St Petersburg is a joyful symphony of pale blue, green, yellow and pink.

The further south you go, the more you’ll find brightly painted walls, ceramic tiles, and honey-colored stone. Intense blues relieve the chalky white of Greek island settlements. Some Mexican towns and villages provide a kaleidoscope of vibrant hues and that vernacular tradition inspired Luis Barragán to incorporate them into the houses, convent, and urban markers that he built in Mexico City. Color can be employed as urban therapy. When the Albanian economy collapsed in the aftermath of a huge Ponzi scheme, the government consoled the populace by distributing paint and encouraging them to paint their drab Soviet-era apartment blocks and rotting tenements. It was a bit like putting a bandaid on a flesh wound, but it lent variety to an otherwise depressing cityscape.

Los Angeles lacks the stately order of Paris and the cheerful exuberance of southern cities. As Lorcan O’Herlihy observes, “nine out of 10 buildings are painted beige for ease of maintenance.” This may be the preference of white-bread immigrants from the mid-West but one wonders why Latinos and Asians perpetuate such monotony, so at odds with their native cultures. It wasn’t always like this. In the middle decades of the 20th century you could indulge your fantasies—be it an Egyptian tomb or a Gothic spire, a mosque or a Babylonian fortress —without risk of censure. Sam Rodia spent 30 years building Watts Towers from scavenged iron and broken ceramic, creating a brilliantly colored masterpiece of bricolage. Commercial strips offered an entertaining mix of programmatic buildings and gaudy neon signs. These were created by individuals not franchises and had a naïve charm their corporate successors lack. New arrivals were alternately fascinated and appalled. Driving though LA for the first time in 1938, John Lautner felt physically sickened by the ugliness but he recognized the potential to build as he pleased in such a raw and untrammeled setting.

It couldn’t last. Orson Welles pronounced the obituary in a 1959 Esquire article, Twilight in the Smog: “Architectural fantasy is in decline, the cheerful gaudiness is mostly gone, the more high-spirited of the old outrages have been razed or stand in ruins. In the ‘better’ residential and business districts a kind of official ‘good taste’ has taken charge. The result is a standardized impeccability, sterile and joyless, but it correctly expresses the community’s ardent yearnings towards respectability.”

Welles blamed the decline on television and Madison Avenue, each contributing to the insidious growth of conformity. In the next five decades, the yearning for respectability grew even stronger. The rich retreated into gated communities that mandated an ersatz historicism–generally an inauthentic and inept version of ‘Mediterranean’—itself a mongrel style. Standardized suburban tracts metastasized across southern California, and Bunker Hill in downtown LA was obliterated and replaced by a dead zone of generic office towers. Neighborhood groups appointed themselves custodians of the status quo, opposing anything that challenged convention. In Santa Monica, Frank Gehry caught hell for deconstructing a dumb stucco cottage and daring to clad it in plywood, chain link and anodized metal. The affluent residents of Brentwood delayed construction of the Getty Center for seven years, demanding multiple changes that compromised the design. They would have much preferred a private enclave of plop chateaux atop that hill.

Color might have played a larger role in L.A.’s architectural landmarks. R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, who introduced European modernism to southern California, were exposed to the experiments of the first generation of modernists. In Vienna, Otto Wagner clad two apartment blocks in boldly colored ceramics; in Berlin, Bruno Taut articulated a succession of social housing estates with vibrant oranges, blues, and yellows. Le Corbusier used a subtle palette on the Villa Roche in Paris and his apartments for the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, before adopting the primary colors that were favored by the De Stijl movement (notably Gerrit Rietveld and Theo Van Doesberg) in Holland. The Bauhaus masters were equally adventurous and the house shared by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky in Dessau employs more than a score of strong and subtle hues. In fact it’s hard to think of a modernist pioneer who didn’t make some use of color, except for the two who practiced in LA. With a few exceptions, Neutra stayed loyal to white with silver trim through his long career. His preferences tied in well with the cult of the white cube that was central to the International Style, as codified by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock. Even Schindler, so expressive in many ways, made very limited use of color. The Eameses used primaries in the manner of Mondrian in the cladding panels of their iconic house and studio, but the other Case Study Houses were monochromatic, relying on the materiality of wood, stucco, and steel.

A few contemporary architects are ardent colorists. The German firm of Sauerbruch Hutton makes every building an abstract composition of multi-toned bars. In France, Jakob MacFarlane have employed a single intense color on perforated steel structures that become points of attraction in new developments: the green City of Fashion on the Quai Austerlitz in Paris, and the Orange Cube on the banks of the Saone in Lyon. Jean Nouvel is a maestro of color, mostly in his interiors, but he created an all-red pavilion in a London park two years ago, and his Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is a celebration of blue. Odile Decq uses scarlet as her talisman on public buildings in Paris and beyond.

In LA, Moore Ruble Yudell enhance their buildings with subtle tones, thanks to color aficionado Tina Beebe. “I think color enlivens the city,” she says, “creating points of reference and giving buildings a sense of identity. People are often scared of bold colors, but it’s only paint and easy to change”. Beebe takes her cues from the context and “used color like exclamation points” to animate MRY’s parking structure in Santa Monica. O’Herlihy uses bold hues in several of his recent condo blocks, notably the fiery reds in the Formosa apartments, which were inspired by the eponymous West Hollywood café. “Light and color shape space,” he declares, “and white changes through the day”. Black stained wood grounds the block he built alongside the MAK/Schindler house on Kings Road, and white and green emphasize the lightness of the upper stories. Koning Eizenberg have always used color in a playful manner, but, as Julie Eizenberg explains, “we struggle to make the right choice and we try to look beyond those colors that are currently fashionable and will quickly go out of style.”

Nelly Galan, a Latina television producer, chose Caribbean colors to transform and unite three cottages on the Venice canals. “I wanted to cheer everyone up following the 2008 Crash and, being Cuban, I love vibrant hues.”

These projects demonstrate that color can serve like spice in a stew, not to overpower but add flavor and character to a sober neighborhood. It would be unfortunate if everyone were to follow the example of Tirana, and wield a brush with abandon. A cacophony of clashing colors would be worse than the present monotony of Los Angeles. People have strong likes and dislikes in their choice of colors, and the street is a public space that needs to accommodate a wide range of tastes. However, it doesn’t have to be boring. A vivid splash here, a subtle shade there, can highlight an exceptional building or enhance a plain one.

Color is one (easily reversible) ingredient in a lively cityscape. Professional murals flourished in the mid 1980s, encouraged by the 1984 Olympic arts program. Terry Schoonhaven and Kent Twitchell created memorable work, most of which has been painted over or vandalized by mindless taggers. It’s time to restore the surviving work and encourage a few exemplary artists to do more, on blank walls and freeway embankments. As head of L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Al Nodal organized the relighting of rooftop neon signs on the apartment blocks of Wilshire Blvd and Hollywood. He’s no longer around, but the Museum of Neon Art could supply the expertise to restore some of the better street-level signs, and create new ones.

The forces of inertia are strong in any community, and the new is always perceived as a threat to the status quo, disturbing familiar patterns. But carefully plotted interventions can swiftly win acceptance and shift the balance of the cityscape, especially if they are an integral part of innovative architecture. Public-private partnerships could upgrade selected thoroughfares, as West Hollywood and Santa Monica have done, and these demonstration projects might inspire developers and homeowners. We can hope that a few enlightened individuals will take up this challenge.

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