colour in architecture 3

In looking through images for posts about colour in architecture I came across these photographs of three staircases that in date are spread over a period of nearly two hundred years.

They are all in important public buildings and are all of their period and they demonstrate different approaches to the way that colour can be used in the design of interiors. The important point is that these should not be seen in terms of interior decoration, as in paint and wallpaper interior decoration, because these staircases, through the deliberate choice of materials, were given permanent colour schemes by their architects.

The first is the main staircase in a building in Oslo designed by Christian Grosch (1801-1865) and completed in 1830 for Norges Bank. It was restored at the beginning of this century and since 2008 it has housed the National Museum of Architecture.

This staircase is matched by a flight on the opposite side of the entrance hall giving a grand double access to an upper landing and to the board room of the bank on the first floor. The form of the handrail and its support is a stripped down classical style that continues the form of the facade which has a pediment over the centre. The impression created in the entrance hall is a sense of solid reliability: well built and built to last but not extravagant. The use of colour with the tile effect on the walls is restrained but confident.

The broad white staircase with a yellow floor is the main stair in the Sanatorium in Paimio in Finland - one of the first major buildings designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1933. 

Aalto designed not only the building but also fittings and furniture for the hospital and natural lighting and colour schemes were very carefully considered. The yellow on the stair is an original feature and gives a sense of it being clean without being starkly clinical. This was a tuberculosis hospital where patients were isolated, often for long periods, and spent much of their time on the balconies and roof terrace in the fresh air resting. 

The style of architecture and the concrete construction of much of the building relates it to contemporary work elsewhere in Europe including, most obviously, work by Le Corbusier, ten years older than Aalto, and the style, sometimes called the International Style, with plain white walls, large wide windows, often with metal rather than timber frames, and balconies, can be seen in works by Arne Jacobsen such as the Bellavista apartments north of Copenhagen completed in 1934. Jacobsen was ten years younger than Aalto.

Bright strong primary colours are found first in works from the Bauhaus group in Germany and the De Stijl group of architects and designers in the Netherlands and is a rejection of the use of heavy, rich or dark colour and ornate decoration in the previous century that was felt to be unnecessary. Colour, style and materials are all used to indicate a new start in this period after the Great War.

The concrete and steel staircase on the right is in an addition to the Royal Library in Copenhagen by Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen that was completed in 1999. The main way to upper levels from the main entrance to the building is by moving walkways or ramps so this is a secondary staircase but never-the-less it is of an extremely high quality in terms of both design and materials.

Concrete, glass and steel are robust and now of course common building materials and we tend to perceive them as “natural” colours.

In fact concrete can be coloured and glass for windows is invariably tinted - usually grey or soft blue or even light green. Clear glass is not only dangerous where people are walking around but it actually looks flat and lifeless - from the exterior sharply clear colourless glass can make windows look like blank holes punched in the facade - and from inside sunlight through very clear glass can be so bright that it is painfully unforgiving. 

Elsewhere in the stair halls and circulation spaces of the library, natural timber and high-quality leather are used to soften the design and add warmth but also reinforces this feeling of natural colour. The colours and tones of the staircase in the Royal Library were as carefully considered as the colour schemes of the other staircases.