Monday, 30 April 2012

Gut Reaction: New Materials of The City

^Hugh & Catrina's whisking bowl
This is the first post of three that will document the journey of Hugh McEwen and Catrina Stewart's research & design project for Saturated Space, with this post laying out their topic, aim and approach, the second post being a romp through their exploration process, and the final being a wrapped-up presentation of their findings and proposal.


Field : Lucky dip

Financial institutions surround us, especially in the city of London. Yet so much of the money that is traded and made on digital stock markets has no visual representation. Concurrently, the institutions that work in these areas do so in more and more invisible buildings. The Rothschild HQ becomes see-through; the Shard disappears into the sky. This surreptitious consumption seems totally at odds with the pop culture of bling and TOWIE.

^left to right: the bank of England, the Shard, the Rothschild Bank HQ

These buildings are made of steel and glass and stone. Incommunicative materials that have always been given ascribed meanings. The materials have been selected to represent confident and strong buildings that are in control; but they neglect any reference to the precariousness of the financial systems that are built within their walls. They have no reference to the thrill of gambling, the joy of winning or the humiliation of losing. Following the global financial crisis the public’s attitude towards the banking sector has changed vastly, yet banks have done little to appear any more accountable than they ever were. This bullish PR strategy is not working, as can be seen from the growth of the Occupy movement many years after the initial crash. Banks must engender trust for social, political and financial reasons.

^Occupy StPaul's
Proposal : Hunger for success

If simple changes were made to the material of the institutional buildings, then their meanings to all parties would be made more tangible. The structures could celebrate glories and failures, rather than squirreling them away in basement server rooms. At the same time, more humanistic buildings would help to allay the fears of protesters camped on their steps, or at least provide a less esoteric report than the end of year losses from state owned institutions like RBS.

We believe that the only appropriate material to solve the banking sector’s architectural muteness is cake.

Only cake allows such a range of colour, build up and surface treatments as is necessary to talk about the activities that go on inside these institutions. Cake relies on chance. It is an untameable material, and no matter how hard one tries it will still quickly melt, decompose or be eaten if left exposed to the environment. The colours of these saccharine materials are changeable in different atmospheres and lights. Their organic sheen will flake off, or can be wetted on in a moment’s notice. Their layered and mixed effects combine to form gross warnings or delectable treats. The characteristics of these colours, especially their malleability, have similarities with activities within financial institutions. These coloured materials will become the method by which they are celebrated, rather than being hidden behind the hard and impenetrable materials of current facades.

The severe materials applied to the surface of The City are designed to appear unaffected by their surroundings. These are buildings that want to be seen as being solid and unaltered by the weather, time and the markets. By making building elements out of cake we are allowing for their colours to continue to evolve once the building has been completed. To initially explain the ways in which the materials of financial institutions may be replaced by cake we will illustrate three structures, the inwards facing Bank of England, the transparent Rothschild HQ and the tapered Shard. Initially the process involved in re-making these buildings out of cake materials represents the fragility and elements of chance within the banks and financial buildings, and tackle their solidity and standoffishness. Further studies will examine how fragility and mutability will allow the colours to change over time.

The walls of the bank of England will be made from marble cake. The heavy, thick walls that front the Bank are unnecessary and detrimental to the public realm. Neither the protection, nor the facelessness is required in the modern age. The transmutation of these facades into cake will allow for the building to be more sensitive to its surrounds.


The slick glass of the Shard is designed to look like it is unaffected by the weather. Making the fa├žade of the structure from marbled icing allows it to submit to the elements and celebrate its vulnerability.  

The new face of the Rothschild HQ will be made of reflective sugar coated almonds over a soft layer of sponge cake. The glistening surface exposes the excitement of the internal accrual of wealth while also revealing a softer and more tactile identity.

As the project progresses, new materials will add to this pantheon of cake components, and begin to suggest physiological ways in which the institutions can be reframed.

Critical Tool : Colour and Communication

We are aware that there is the danger of jumping on the bandwagon of banker-bashing, and want to make sure that the project doesn’t slip down that slope. The intention is that the solutions we discover are useful to both the institutions and to their critics. To present this research into cake components, and to sell it to both investment organisations and protesters, it is not the cake that will change, but its framing. The notion of a ‘gut reaction’ becomes very useful to explain this different framing for each party. The language of grey glass and steel may seem solid to investment companies, but it is incommunicative to protesters. A pink suit is humiliating to prisoners in Texas, yet a source of pride for a rower at Henley. The source of information on this ‘gut reaction’ comes from market research. At the same time, physiological research and hard science back it up. We will utilise colour’s ability to change purchasing patterns, eating habits and mood swings.

Research currently being carried out within marketing and advertising companies shows that people have physical and psychological reactions when exposed to different colours. Will the reds in our materials cause the same reactions as the fiery reds used in the fast food restaurant McDonalds? The use of warm colours, according to market research, can be used to increase blood pressure, anxiety and even, make people hungry. Or would blue be more appropriate?

The colours of the new materials will be used to communicate and respond to investors as well as the protesters. They will no longer be dull and inconspicuous; instead they will talk about the exciting events happening within the buildings, allowing for a more humanistic approach to the outside world. Blue, which according to market research and colour psychology, is a calming colour will mean different things, and cause different reactions, from different people. Can it be used in resting areas where the protesters can take a break from their daily activities? And can it be used during harder times to encourage the bankers to be more cautious with their gambling?
^coloured caramel
The colours used on the building will need to change to best reflect the changing financial markets. An orange may cause two very different reactions during prosperous times and in times of economic downfall. Through the changing colours, the materials will react to the passing of time, the changing weathers and the pollution wearing down the surfaces of the buildings.

Over the following period of research, we will use cake to build a different component for one of the three selected buildings. These will be recorded very precisely through photography and each piece will be accompanied by a detailed recipe, with the ingredients and cooking methods of the specific components. This will lead to a compiled recipe book of approved cake components for banks. Once the recipe book has been compiled, we will use it to design a proposal for a new bank within the city. This will work in the other direction to the initial research, since the materials we have discovered will generate the building. This will be investigated through a number of drawings. We will end the project with an exhibition in September where we will present the research into cake components and the designs for a new bank.

We look forward to publishing our next post in which we will begin to detail the cake components that will herald a new financial architecture that is appropriate, communicative and colourful.

Post and Project by Hugh McEwen and Catrina Stewart

Monday, 23 April 2012

White House

^The White House by Pierre D'Avoine Architects

In England colour is used to accentuate elements very intensely and randomly, but in India, where I was born, whole surfaces are coloured, and gradually the colour fades and peels off, in the monsoon and the hot sun. I’m used to both sides and so I’m not frightened of colour. I can use it in quite a garish way or quite carefully. Because my work is quite planar, colour can be used almost symbolically to give a piece a certain place and importance, or to make distinctions between materials, so that you get a tactile and aural distinction as well as visual. Sometimes materials are used for their intrinsic colour – copper which becomes patinated, steel left to go rusty, mill-finished aluminium or fibreglass. You make discoveries, take chances and the project becomes something else as a result.

With the White House, white was given in the name. Everything was painted white except the hallway which was yellow, containing the stair. Lit only from above, it was like a tower at the centre of the house. Then there was the green garden. In the new project the garden became an outside chamber and the only new applied colour was the grey-green of the window frame and lintel, which was to do with symbolising, not dissolving, the connection between the two spaces: the most potent connection in the house.

In the end, the whole point was the quality of the light on the white of the walls and ceilings. The various openings were designed to open the house up in different directions – north, to the garden, west to the courtyard. Tinted light from the garden reflected green on the walls. Warm orange light came from the south and west. So from the kitchen at the heart you perceive all the different spaces and the actual colour was never white, because it was always reflecting and vibrating with other colours, activated by the light.

“Colour: the sensation produced by waves of decomposed light upon the optic nerve.” (Concise English Dictionary)

this text was originally written for Colour and Architecture, an exhibition curated by Clare Melhuish at the Heinz Gallery in 1993, which set out to reveal the nuances of colour usage in contemporary buildings designed by a range of architects from different countries, and different climates, around the world.  The exhibition was designed by Pierre d'Avoine, and included his scheme for the White House.  In this text, he explained how the prevalence of white surfaces provided the means of orchestrating a rich but subtle array of coloured hues.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Paint My House

^Impression of an Adzookie House

‘The colours of marbles must relate as much as possible to the character of the subject. It would be equally as absurd to use marbles in green, red, yellow or any other brilliant colour for a mausoleum as it would be to use black marble on an altar’.
- Abbe Laugier, Essai sur l'Architecture, 1753.

With this statement, French architectural theorist Abbe Laugier issued a call for honesty in his influential treatise. ‘The artist must be able to justify by reasons everything that he does’, preached the Jesuit priest. It was a sticky doctrine that continues to feed off of architects’ anxieties today, particularly when it comes to colour. One could speculate that the colour-drought of the past decades, evidenced by the monochromatic tones of glass, concrete and steel, is a consequence of our earnest search for honesty; honesty as it relates to the technology available to us and to our ideals of transparency.

Then, in 2011 Godialing presented us with the most distilled form of honesty yet. The California-based advertising company offered to pay 10 homeowners’ monthly mortgage in exchange for having their houses painted with advertisements.

‘We’re looking for houses to paint. In fact, paint is an understatement. We’re looking for homes to turn into bill­boards. In exchange, we›ll pay your mortgage every month for as long as your house remains painted’.
- Godialing (formerly Adzookie), 2011

Additionally, after a year, or whenever the owner decides they’ve had enough, the company re-paints the house back to its original colour free of charge. By late afternoon on its first day the ad received 1000 applica­tions, including one from a church. At the time of writing there have been 33,000 applications and counting.

If we were to apply Laugier’s ideals here, the ‘character’ of a bankrupt home is justifiably expressed in the crude tones of Facebook-blue and Braniacs-green. Do these colours relate to the character of the subject? Yes. But it’s a difficult pill for architects to swallow. We want so badly to be honest but the as the threat of foreclosure continues to creep, relentlessly, through America, England, Greece and Spain, the image of discordant symphonies of colours bearing no relationship to one another or to the form on which they are painted terrifies us.

So we ask, do unpleasant truths such as the mortgage crisis qualify as an appropriate driver for the way we colour our neighbourhoods, or are there boundaries to honesty?
The wonderful thing about colour is its capacity to tell stories. We want to choose our colours based on our own definitions of honesty that express what we opinionated people want to say. There is no room for story-telling in the Godialing model; the story has already been told, painfully stripped of all subjectivity. Like highlighters marking all the houses that should not, in a perfect economic model, exist, the colours signal a broken system.

But is that which is not honest automatically a lie? This is where the importance of the word ‘character’ comes in. Although Laugier illustrated his belief with an example intrinsic to his understanding of colour, he chose a word that seeks specificity yet leaves enough room for interpretation, for the character of a thing can appear differently to different people. Just as red to me can mean green to you, through our quest for honesty we can (and should, now that Adzookie has shown us what honesty can look like) continue to use colour to tell our individual stories.

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Post by Dalia Hamati