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KfW Westarkade, Frankfurt, Germany. By Sauerbruch Hutton Architects. (Jan Bitter/Jan BItter)
KfW Westarkade, Frankfurt, Germany. By Sauerbruch Hutton Architects. (Jan Bitter/Jan BItter)

An architect speaks out for cities in colour Add to ...

Toronto has a smattering of colourful houses and skyscrapers. Most of them went up during a vogue for rainbow-hued façades that suddenly dawned, briefly flourished and quickly faded some 30 years ago. Since then, architects in Hogtown and other cities have tended to avoid striking chromatic plays altogether.

One architectural firm committed to injecting smart, effective colour into the city is Berlin-based Sauerbruch Hutton. Toronto will get a chance to hear what this interesting and critically celebrated office is up to at 11 this morning, when Matthias Sauerbruch, co-founder (with Louisa Hutton) of the 100-person company, is scheduled to speak at the IIDEX/NeoCon design exposition and conference in the Direct Energy Centre.

Why do cities need colourful homes and buildings? I asked Mr. Sauerbruch this question during a telephone conversation last week.

“We see colour, most of all, as a stimulation of the sensuous perception of the environment,” the Berlin native told me. “It’s an element people almost always react to. Sometimes the reaction is negative. But it’s hardly ever the case that people go by and don’t take notice. Colour makes a structure something more than just another building standing by the wayside.”

Mr. Sauerbruch’s fascination with what architectural colour can do goes back to 1989, when he and Ms. Hutton established their office in London. (The move to Berlin took place four years later.)

“Our first commissions were conversions and residential renovations with no budget. We were looking at how to convert an 1890s Victorian terrace house into something that suits a more modern spirit. Many of these spaces were tiny. But if you coat a wall in a certain colour, the visual experience of the space suddenly changes. You can use the effect of colour – a blue colour might be more distant, a red colour might be closer and so on – to make spaces that look generous, but are actually quite restricted.”

The opportunity to deploy on a large canvas what he had learned about colour from the office’s small London projects came in the early 1990s, when Sauerbruch Hutton designed a 22-storey tower in the heart of reunited Berlin. The warm rose and orange hues of the building’s west façade introduced a very fresh, forward-looking element into a city that was just pulling itself together after a history of urban injury and brutal division – and relentlessly monochrome development, especially since around 1970. (Berlin’s architects, in both east and west, occasionally took more risks with colour in the first post-war decades.)

But if Mr. Sauerbruch is a crusader for colour – the firm’s next book, due out in November, is a treatise on this topic – his campaign is part of a larger struggle to change basic attitudes toward the ways we inhabit cities. His firm’s recently completed KfW Westarkade banking tower in Frankfurt, for example, represents both a strong, effective use of colour in an urban setting, and an argument for changing our beliefs about one of the most fundamental features of modern building: air conditioning. Unlike almost all other high-rises, this one allows for cross-ventilation on all floors.

“It’s considered totally normal to live in air-conditioned spaces,” Mr. Sauerbruch said. “In this banking building, people expected air conditioning as well. But we came forward with an option to have naturally ventilated spaces. We knew that people would see this as a downgrade, something from the old days. To convince them that it’s the opposite – that it’s a luxurious, deluxe step forward – takes design intelligence and skill. Architecture plays a role in at least giving the opportunity for a change of lifestyle that will be inevitable if the predictions we are confronted with at the moment are correct. If you cut this down to very simple terms, people will have to consume less. The field of architecture itself – space, materials, the way things are made – can act as a compensation for what is perceived to be a loss of comfort.”

The task Sauerbruch Hutton has undertaken is the packaging of such perceived “losses of comfort” inside building envelopes that delight the eye and animate the city skyline. Mr. Sauerbruch is under no illusion that this packaging will be quickly accepted by mainstream architects.

“In postmodern times” – roughly 1970 to 1990 – “there was a lot of colour in a Pop Art sort of way, garish sometimes. The use of colour was meant to be a shock, a departure from the good manners of modernism. Then there was a reaction against that, in neo-modernism and minimalism, in polite white surfaces. Now colour is slowly, slowly coming back, as a way of tuning buildings, almost like you would tune an instrument – slightly shifting their appearance, their identity, their atmospheric quality. Like music, colour can be horrible, it can be noise. But it can also be a symphony.”

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