‘the art of mixing grey’

 

The wonderful book by Bente Lange on The Colours of Copenhagen has a section on the pigments used to make grey paint. On historic buildings in the city the range of greys used is amazing from soft stone colours through dark steel grey to warm greys tending almost to dull green. Of course the pigments used are never simply black added to a white base but might have touches of Prussian blue or ultramarine or even Italian red.

Bente Lange describes the “grey of the Baroque” as “a cold heavy colour made by mixing carbon black into white” and she refers to a painters’ handbook from 1799 that “contains recipes for mixing … silver grey, linen grey and ordinary grey” and there are evocative gems just dropped in to the short account of grey pigments that ground black was made “by charring young shoots from grapevines”, linen grey was with white lead, varnish and Berlin blue “ground separately before mixing” and stone colours might include “shavings” from cut stone in lime putty with “brown ochre as needed.”

Bente Lange, The Colours of Copenhagen, published by The Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture Publishers in 1997

Copenhagen blue II

Torvegade and Christians Kirke from Overgaden Over Vandet

 

Having said that for me blue is the colour in the urban landscape of Copenhagen that seems to be strong and reflect how I see the city, there are very few buildings that are actually painted blue. 

There are several reasons for this and not least it’s that early blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli for ultramarine were incredibly expensive and the cheaper Prussian blues that were available from the early 18th century onwards were fugitive so they not only faded but could decompose in the air. Although Cobalt blue, an industrially produced blue pigment, was stable and lime proof, even that paint was considered to be too expensive for use across a facade.

Also, I have read somewhere that Danish architects and painters considered blue to be a very strong and dominant colour … ‘stronger’ than red … so to be used carefully.

Some historic buildings in the city are now painted blue in shades that vary from cornflower blue to blues that are much closer to purple and they certainly lift and brighten a line of buildings but there really should be a rule that one blue house in a street is fantastic but two is too much so once one owner has gone for blue that should be it.

 

Det Blå Hjørne / The Blue Corner

The infill building in Christianshavn by the architectural studio Vandkunsten known as Det Blå Hjørne or The Blue Corner (bottom right) dates from 1989.

This is - as the name implies - a corner plot which can be difficult for both the plan of a building and for the design of the facades but here the corner is not even a right angle as Dronningsgade and the side road of Store Søndervoldstræde meet at an angle of about 120 degrees.

In addition, making the commission for a new apartment building here more difficult, this is a part of Christianshavn where relatively modest historic houses have survived so it gives an important impression of what domestic areas of the inner city must have been like in the 17th and 18th centuries before ordinary houses were replaced with grander or more commercial buildings. The building is at the quiet end of a beautiful and complex courtyard that retains more old courtyard buildings than in many blocks. 

But Vandkunsten were bold, dividing the new apartments between two buildings to leave a narrow view into the courtyard at the corner and played with all the rules so the roofs are mono-pitch - the older buildings have pitched roofs with a ridge - and the choice for wall finish is metal sheet so it almost feels like a final parry with convention, that the cladding is deep blue. The total effect works well as it gives the building a semi-industrial feel and if there is any single aspect of the historic centre of the city that has been lost or changed with too little appreciation of the consequences it is that Copenhagen has lost far too many of the workshops and early industrial buildings that once filled many of the back streets and courtyards.

 

A Visual Inventory by John Pawson

 

 

This is not so much a review as a simple signpost to an important book.

A Visual Inventory is a collection of annotated images with the photographs taken by the British architect John Pawson when travelling. The book is about colour and about light - so how colours change with different qualities of natural light - but the images are also about the photographer being aware of and sensitive to shape and form and texture and pattern and of age or how buildings and landscapes and materials change over time … those basic elements of all architecture and all design. Above all, the photographs invoke a strong awareness of place as different latitudes and different climates can be associated with what are often distinct colour ranges or tones and with specific patters and forms of building.

Above all the book is an insight into how an architect and designer sees his world and what draws his attention and what, specifically, he looks at and records for inspiration in his work.

Single images are printed on each page with short notes but are set in pairs across each double-page spread and linked by shapes or subjects or location. None of the photographs have been cropped or altered so the process of taking the photographs is clearly considered with care so they reflect, in a straightforward and honest way, the reaction to the subject by the photographer at a specific moment.  

John Pawson also has an Instagram site that should be bookmarked by anyone trying to appreciate and understand our landscapes and our buildings in terms of colour and tone and texture.

 

A Visual Inventory, John Pawson, Phaidon (2012) 

John Pawson on Instagram

Anatomy of Colour

 

 

The Anatomy of Colour begins with types of paint - from distemper to lime wash to milk paint and more - and then Patrick Baty sets out the sources of pigment for those paints so through white paint, black paint and then on to each colour through the blues, the browns, greens, reds and yellows - so, generally, for each colour, he traces the development from natural pigments, from plants and minerals, to the by-products of emerging industries and then on to the first pigments by industrial chemists. 

Historic practices and techniques for house painters are discussed; there are fascinating reproductions of historic catalogues for the paint brushes and the tools of professional painters and the author looks at the early organisation of guilds and paint companies. However, for designers, the important contribution of the book comes from the extensive number of historic colour charts reproduced along with summaries of early colour theories and detailed discussions for each major period or each major style and fashion, that helps set historic design within the context of colour. He combines longer sections of text with carefully designed double-page spreads and uses longer captions effectively so you can sit and read the book cover to cover or you can use the book and its images as a reference encyclopaedia seeing where cross references take you.

We tend to describe styles and the relatively distinct periods of interior design in terms of the forms and types of furniture that were popular in a certain period and we also recognise distinct patterns that appear on furniture or are reproduced on textiles but certainly styles or periods can have distinct preferences for colours or, and more interesting, for the juxtaposition of certain colours. Even the choice of materials can be determined by what are fashionable or unfashionable colours so distinctly orange Oregon Pine was popular for a relatively short period and Formica was as much about having a wide selection of deep strong colours as it was about having a smooth clean surface for food preparation.

Reproductions from historic paint charts and books or articles about colour theories by contemporary artists and designers show how the presentation of colours and any general discussion about colour can influence our choice of colours for our homes. We may not even realise we are being influenced because, of course, although we feel now that there is almost infinite choice, what we see clearly here is that what designers select and what companies produce and make available and what they advertise all influence that choice.

It is absolutely right to describe this book as an anatomy of colour because, in a careful and scholarly way, the technical development of household paints and the theories of colour and the preference for certain colours in certain periods is dissected. It feels, in a good way, like sitting in an old-fashioned lecture theatre with high banks of seats to watch someone with skill take something apart, with care, to say now look at this … isn’t it fascinating … and this is how and why it works.

 

The Anatomy of Colour, The Story of Heritage Paints and Pigments, Patrick Baty, Thames & Hudson (2017)

all in the detail

 

 

There have been several posts on this site about the stone cobbles or setts used for roads and pavements in the city. This is obviously far from being a cheap option but it is hard wearing and it is practical … unless you are wearing stiletto heels or you are trying to control a suitcase on wheels … and almost impossible if you are doing both. 

The first photograph is of the old meat market just to the west of the central station. There are no longer carts with metal hoops on their wheels clattering and bumping over these lanes and they no longer get covered with blood and gore - or at least not often - but the cobbles form a fantastic foil for the buildings.

Cobbles in the city range in colour through greys and dull purples and form an appropriate base for the buildings and create a texture that concrete paving or tarmac really cannot match.

The cobbles are laid with blocks of stone and together they form pathways that are used to direct the walker and cobbles can also be used on more prominent features to form embankments or gullies for drainage - as in front of the warehouses on Holmen. Cobbles are laid with considerable skill - part of the cost - for changes of level or to direct away water as in the example shown here which is at Højbro - the bridge over the canal from Christiansborg - where the curve of stone steps and the slope of the cobbles are necessary where the levels change dropping down from the bridge and round to the lower level of the quay at Ved Stranden.

At the top, two photographs show the corner of a street in Christianshavn … not an old surface - because until the 1990s this was the site of industrial buildings of a large engineering works - but cobbles have been used to respect the importance of this historic quarter of the city.

A trench was dug across part of the road fairly recently but with the cobbles back there is now no trace of the work so not just stylish but also practical … as long as you don’t insist on wearing those stiletto heels.

 

Liquid Life - Biennalen for Kunsthåndværk & Design 2017

This is the last two days of the Biennalen ... an exhibition of some of the very best of Danish craft work.

What is astounding here are those very qualities that are not normally associated with Danish design … or at least not with common preconceptions about Danish design from the late 20th century. So here there is strong, bold use of colour and texture and the exploration of ideas that challenge perceptions and preconceptions. 

The theme Liquid Life - about how precarious modern life can feel - is from a text by Zygmunt Baumann and taken from his book Liquid Life that was published in 2005.

“Liquid life is the kind of life commonly lived in our contemporary, liquid-modern society ... The most acute and stubborn worries that haunt this liquid life are the fears of being caught napping, of failing to catch up with fast moving events, of overlooking the ‘use by’ dates and being saddled with worthless possessions, of missing the moment calling for a change of tack and being left behind.”

With an amazing diversity of both materials and techniques - with works in ceramic and glass, with textiles, jewellery, furniture, book binding, fashion and photography - and with many of the artists combining several materials and in some works several specialist skills - these works are the response that these observations by Zygmunt Bauman inspired in thirty seven artists, designers and makers ........... a response and an antidote.

 

Liquid Life - Biennalen for Kunsthåndværk & Design 2017

Museumsbygningen, Kastelsvej 18, Copenhagen until 27 May 2017

 

 
 

note: select an image by clicking on it and that will take you into the gallery where the title of the work and the name(s) of the artist(s) can be found

more photographs

Hal C Arsenaløen - Christianshavn sports hall

 

from Værftbroen - looking along the canal towards the sports hall

On the opposite bank of the canal to Kids' City in Copenhagen - the school designed by COBE - is a local sports hall called Hal C that was designed by the architects Christensen & Co and completed 2013.

There is a large sports hall open to the roof at the east end that is lit by large tall windows on both sides - to the canal and towards the playing field to the north - arranged in pairs. All these opening have large plain shutters that open outwards and these and the deep red timber cladding are inspired by the 18th-century mast sheds nearby.

The west end of the sports hall is on two floors with an entrance lobby at the corner, glazed on two sides, and offices and changing rooms on the ground floor and a small hall or meeting room on the first floor.

In keeping with the beautifully simple exterior the interior has large area of plain panels much pierced and a very simple straight staircase with a plain solid side panel but the railings of the landings are rather more complicated open grill.

The building makes really good use of natural lighting inside. The sports hall has areas of top lighting. On both sides of the sports hall are wide wood step where spectators can sit and on the canal side there are steps along the length of the building where people sit and a series of landings down to the canal.

 

Christensen & Co

a new bridge across the canal from Kids' City

the windows and shutters of the main sports hall from the other side of the canal

entrance at the south-west corner

large windows to the sports hall on the side towards the canal with pairs of shutters

windows and shutters of the main sports hall from the playing field to the east

testing the alternatives

At an early stage in a building project, a trial section of wall can be constructed on the site to get a clear sense of the colour of the main material in the actual location and it is also a chance to judge the effect of different colours or different textures of mortar which can have much more of an impact than many people would expect … dark mortar tends to act rather like the black leading in a stained glass window by making the colours of the main material, stone or brick, darker and will certainly emphasise any pattern in the bonding.

The appearance and the character of a facade will be modified by the light as it changes through the day and materials will certainly look very different from their appearance in the studio or even as seen on an another building. And colours and textures look different if they are in shadow, on a side away from the sun, or face towards the sun and are brightly lit and architectural details can look very different in bright light reflected up off water… bright light can make even strongly-projecting features look thin or flat or bleached out.

ATP Pakhus by Lundgaard and Tranberg on the Langelinie Quay in Copenhagen has just been completed but trial sections of wall were built at the construction site on the quay. Clearly two very different colours of brick were considered. Perhaps the deep orange brick was chosen rather than the very dark brown because a heavier tone, for such a large building, could have looked oppressive. It is interesting to compare the brickwork on the finished building with the appearance of the historic brick warehouses along the inner harbour and in Christianshavn.

ATP Pakhus, Langaliniekaj (2016)

Nordatlantens Brygge, Strandgade (1767)

texture and tone and growing old gracefully

 

warehouses in Christianshavn in Copenhagen - there is a mixture of materials and colours in the building materials but a uniform colour of paint for woodwork helps link the buildings together and the use of stone paving and simple areas of gravel provide a neutral landscape

Generally, until the 19th century, the visual character of towns and cities was determined by the use of relatively local materials unless a building was particularly important and then the cost of importing materials over some distance might be justified.

But today materials can be transported easily and relatively cheaply so one obvious problem now is that new buildings in many cities have lost any specific sense of place.

When choosing materials, rather than understanding the local topography and specific geology, the architect has to consider cost and factors like the sustainability of materials or their insulation properties so, with many new buildings - particularly commercial buildings - there is a feeling that economics or engineering have determined what the building looks like as much as specific aesthetic considerations.

And with some buildings, the design appears to be more influenced by ego … either that of the architect or the client … or at least there appears to be a clear determination to be different or novel rather than having any strong empathy for the location and for neighbouring buildings.

And often there appears to be little consideration for the texture and the tone of materials or for how materials will wear and weather over time.

on the main warehouse the bricks, the stone used for the plinth and the setts used for the road surface all have a mauve or purple/grey tone. The black and white photograph shows that the darkest tones are actually the doors which helps suggest depth to the arcade and, rather surprising, the trees and the water of the harbour basin. Although the clay tiles of the left-hand warehouse looks very different in colour the black and white photograph suggests that actually the depth of colour of the roof is appropriate for the wall of the building below.

early modern ... Vesterport, Vesterbrogade, Copenhagen

 

Vesterport on Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen, close to the central railway station, was designed by Ole Falkentorp and Povl Baumann and was completed in 1931. It is surely the first truly modern building in the city but if anyone notices it today then it is probably for the striking green colour of its copper cladding which, with patina, has turned a sharp but acid-pale tone. When new, before the copper changed colour, the building was known as the penny.

It was the first steel-framed building in Copenhagen with reinforced concrete floors and was built as an office building. The principle tenant was an English insurance company but the open-floor construction meant that it could be subdivided with non-structural partition walls depending on the requirements of any tenants. It is not just the method of construction but the scale of the block with its flat roof line and the grid-like division of the facades with continuous lines of windows above panels of cladding that is distinctly modern.

Vesterport fills a complete city block - although there is a large service courtyard - and at street level there were shops so, again in a modern way, this was very much a commercial building and it was in what was then a new and growing commercial area of the city.

The building has an important place in design history for another reason ... a significant and influential design gallery and furniture shop, Den Permanente, opened here in 1931 but closed in the 1980s.

 
 

cladding in Copenhagen … ….

 

the south end of the harbour in Copenhagen looking across to the Gemini  building by MVRDV and JJW Architects converted from silos to form 84 apartments in 2005

 

There are so many large new buildings in Copenhagen that the city could claim to have the International Reference Collection of Cladding

At the very least, if architectural students want to look at what is possible with different types of external wall for new concrete or steel-framed buildings then the city would be a good starting point.

I'm not saying that many of these examples are bad … no value judgements were intended … as they say … to avoid litigation. But some are curious in a bad way and many are curious in a good way … quirky or challenging or very revealing about what the architect or the planner or the client was trying to achieve.

Some are actually amazing and outstanding and tell us much about how and why architecture developed so rapidly in terms of both engineering and building technology through the 20th century and most might be worth looking at because they are interesting to think about … if it's not raining and you are not in a hurry.

images and comments

new Normann

Tea Strainer by Böttcher Henssler Kayser, Nutcracker by Ding3000 and Peeler by Holmbäck-Nordentoft

 

With such a large number of people at the party last month for the relaunch of the Normann store in Copenhagen, it was a bit difficult to judge exactly how much had been changed. You could see the main alterations to the space but obviously it was difficult to see how and where furniture and so on would be displayed and impossible to get any sense if it would really feel like a different shop once the partygoers had left and it was all arranged for a more normal day.

So a trip back over to the store on a weekday was fascinating.

 
 

It has always been an unusual store because at one stage in its past the building was a cinema and that had been built immediately behind earlier shops on the street frontage. There is a relatively narrow and simple frontage from the street … simple in the sense that several shops along the street retain original or at least early fronts with heavy wood-framed windows and traditional display areas but Normann has large sheets of glass with minimal frames and a discrete name above. Inside there is a long and relatively narrow corridor running straight back into the building to get you to the main shop area in the old cinema. Until recently this corridor had a fair amount of display, in part to draw you into the store, but it is now much more dramatic with a solid and stark block of terrazzo forming a sale counter or reception just inside the doorway and some carefully-chosen items on display and then the corridor itself has been given a grey but glossy floor and the ceiling has ranks of neon strip lighting with the walls covered in large sheets of reflective metal. Along one side is a long long line of upholstered seating, rather like the Swell range from the company but squared off, less rounded, and, at the moment, along the side facing the seating is a long line of vases, the Nyhavn Vase, standing on the floor and all the same colour, so the effect is dramatic and sort of glamorous but glamour carefully restrained.

 

Just Chair from Iskos of Berlin with Slice Table by Hans Hornemann and the Onkel Sofa by Simon Legald

Ace Sofa by Hans Hornemann and Sumo Pouf by Simon Legald with Solid Table by  Lars Beller Fjetland

 

The large main shop space opens out at the end of the corridor and previously had a first part with a low ceiling, under an upper gallery that is an office and studio space, with steps and slopes down with parapet walls enclosing the area before the lower main display area and then at the far end there was a large raised area that was used in part for display and in part for meetings and exhibitions. The steps down are now the full width and in a dark terrazzo, so much more architectural, and the stage area has been removed completely to open up the space. Historic architectural features, including fairly grand and ornate arcading along each side, have been kept but given a sophisticated colour scheme in grey and white.

What was an open staircase in the centre to get down to a basement area has been in part covered over, again with the reflective metal sheet, and the stairs carpeted in pink. Clothes for men and women that were originally shown in that lower basement level have been moved up to the main floor and to glass wardrobe-like display/storage - that in part makes the items seem rather more special and even more carefully selected and in part these cabinets and other display features, taller and more solid than any previous display, divide up the area and enclose parts that suggest something much more like room settings for the furniture than was possible before.

Below, in the basement area, there is still some display but vaulted areas towards the back have been glazed in to create well-fitted meeting rooms and it is this that appears to be a key to the remodelling. It is just from observation rather than from talking to the team at the store but this all seems like a very careful move to take the whole brand up a level. For both the customer and the commercial buyers.

 

Nyhavn Vase designed by Simon Legald

Cap table lamp by the German design studio Kasch Kasch

 

The shop was always more a design store anyway rather than simply a main shop … most Normann furniture and design is sold through independent shops and department stores. So this means the Østerbrogade store is now the place to come for inspiration and not really the place to come to buy one more chair like the ones you bought last year although I’m sure they would be happy to sell it to you. 

Over the last five or ten years the main furniture and design companies in Denmark have ended up too much alike, too bunched together in the middle of the price band, trying to match each other in price and ending up matching each other in style too … the simple consequence of the consumer driven pressure for ‘value’. With the recent opening of a Fritz Hansen store in Copenhagen and the proposed merging of Hay with &Tradition and with Gubi still going very much it’s own way there seems to be a really healthy and new sense of divergence. 

At Normann, rather as with Muuto, what has always been interesting is that they have distinguished their designs by choosing very distinct ranges of colours. There really is a Normann style and although they would say, quite rightly, that their furniture appeals to a wide range of customers, this change to the store and the very character of the launch party itself would suggest that, at least here in Copenhagen, they are aiming for the 30 plus urban professional who has a real interest in fashion and design and this really does mark a move away from the pale wood and grey or muted colour palette normally associated with Scandinavian design and a move towards something still very sophisticated but maybe, as said, a bit more glamorous and a bit less clam. Minimal meets Art Deco revival … or is that me trying to be too clever?

normann Copenhagen, Østerbrogade 70, 2100 Copenhagen

colours for this blog and its logos

 

With recent changes to this site there was a reason to look again at the typography and the layout of its pages and a chance to use some different colours. That meant thinking about which colours for me stand out in Copenhagen with a clearer appreciation of the city now I live here year round through all seasons.

Water around the city - the seascapes of the sound - and water in and through the city - the water of the harbour, the lakes and the fountains of Copenhagen - along with the strong clear light, means that clean, deep blues are a strong influence on design and architecture here along with the softer distinct slate green colours found in the work of Arne Jacobsen and in many of the more recent buildings in the city with opaque panels of blue or green or with acres of glass picking up the tones reflected up off the water. Cream and sand colours, of many of the historic buildings, are important and, of course, greys tending to purple of the cobbles and setts contribute a lot to the colour and tone of the townscape but in the end, to my surprise, I realised that it is the dark yellow and deeper colours, from ochre through to the deep oranges and darker reds of iron oxides, used for so many of the painted buildings, that has made a real impact.

Of course, these strong earth colours are not unique to Copenhagen but are found throughout Denmark and in Oslo and Bergen and from Malmö to Stockholm and beyond, so they are truly Scandinavian colours and part of a strong colour palette that designers and architects see around them every day.

 
 

Fredericia at northmodern

 

With such a large number of designers and manufacturers showing their work at northmodern it is a place where you actually have to revise a few of those myths about Danish design. For a start Danish design is not all about white walls or, when colour is used, all safe, soft and muted.

Fredericia took the opportunity at northmodern to show their work with Uffe Buchard from Darling Creative Studio to create the ‘Double F Hotel’.

Shown in May in their city-centre store as part of 3daysofdesign, the spaces created represent a bar, a hotel lounge and a dining room. Publicity material from Fredericia talks about the ‘bright colours, unexpected textiles and … homey atmosphere, which today’s traveller demands … A home away from home.’

All the furniture is from the current Fredericia range but here shown against very strong colours and with dramatic use of lighting and plants and some furniture is shown with new textiles.

The concept is inspirational. 

Design hotels all over the world are a target market for any major design or furniture company, not just for the contract itself, but of course many travellers now seek inspiration from where they stay on holiday or business trips … a stay in a hotel is a chance to actually try out a new design or discover a new idea for fittings or decoration or use different and sometimes outrageous bathrooms … and then try to reproduce the look or track down the furniture for their own homes. 

Colours chosen by Uffe Buchard and the very confident juxtaposition of certain classic designs could certainly be copied in larger apartments in Copenhagen or Oslo or Sweden and particularly in older buildings with higher ceilings and large sash windows but would be equally theatrical in the new harbour-side apartments with their dramatic light reflected back up off the water. A large apartment only because in a small or cluttered space the use of such strong dark colours can be claustrophobic but maybe I'm still too cautious about using colour in this way ... maybe all that’s needed is inspiration … and maybe a little courage … or conviction.

Fredericia