Weathering as a Colour Design Factor

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as a colour as design a colour design factor


Giacomo Magnani Giacomo Magnani

0. A piece of contemporary architecture, before it can be considered complete, must go through one final, but essential phase: its being captured in photography. It is through this act that the identity of a building is split in two. The camera will capture and generate a flawless, neveraging twin of the built work, a frozen icon which from this point on will begin an independent life of its own. It is a common paradox that most people will only experience this mediated copy of the original piece of architecture, as it is this freeze-frame image that will receive the exposure of being published in newspapers and online magazines. At the same time, the physical building will slowly begin its journey through time, its destiny splitting from that of its own image.




1. Weathering and wear are unavoidable and inexorable. Once exposed to the environment, materials will undergo transformations induced by cyclical environmental processes. Deformations caused by diurnal temperature variation, acid rain corrosion, or the sole action of sunlight, will progressively alter the appearance, and damage the physical integrity of the building [1.1]. Deterioration is always accompanied with material failure and wear, caused by the routine usage of occupants inhabiting a space [1.2]. Signs of this phenomena are so normal that they often go unnoticed. Just to mention a few: the staining & patina on a door handle, the marks on walls of schoolrooms caused by the careless pushing of chairs, or the fading of zebra crossings due to the slow wear of repeated treading . Nonetheless, the most undeniable, the most instantaneous and aesthetic evidence of weathering is probably the alteration of a building’s colours over time. The pigmentation of an architectural element might be the property of a thin finish layer (such as plaster), or rely on the visible surface of a massive structure -which is the case with stone, brick etc. Weathering, as an entropic process, can affect the chromatic appearance of a building’s surfaces through mechanical, chemical or biological reactions and transformations. Its effects can vary from shifts of hue and saturation due to chemical transformation in the façade’s pigment (oxidation, patina), to macroscopic modifications when the coloured layer is progressively removed (eg. abrasion, erosion) revealing the layer beneath, or when the surface layer is slowly covered by a deposit of dust and dirt over time. Chromatic alterations of the building skin can also be produced as a side-effect of operations directly performed by man, for example the hues of verdigris-tinted walls which are the result of the spraying of fungicides to remove vines [1.3].

a b

Examples of peeling paint on different surfaces [a] metal [b] brick wall [c] glass

c d Lichen colonization and mineral deposit on concrete wall

2.1 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Saint Helena Mausoleum (engraving,1757)

2. Despite the scientific objectivity of these transformative processes, the aesthetics inherent in decay -and our responses to this aesthetic- tends to be very different, very much more nuanced -conflicting sometimes. Their perception is influenced by their specific cultural context, and depend on the specific kind of building in which deterioration occurs. This is a pivotal issue, since it involves the weighty value we all place on history, memory and specificity -a yearning for tactility and the marks of timewhich has largely emerged in our culture since the transition from craftsmanship to industrial production. Material refinements and the industrial production line made standardized building elements available, something which proved to be highly appealing to architects, engineers and developers, promising higher technological efficiencies, and the possibility of efficiently replacing redundant elements in a rapid and timely fashion. However, in the early stages of this transformation, both designers and builders, still culturally bound to traditional construction methods, couldn’t master the new degree of complexity with proficiency1. The Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart (1927), designed for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition by a group of architects directed by Mies van der Rohe, was meant to be a showcase of the new workers’ housing standards. Its history epitomizes many of the problems encountered in the realization of the construction and design industry’s new, innovative processes, those directly promoted by the Werkbund: building the more experimental houses (such as Mies’) was achieved with great technical difficulties, with significant increases in manufacturing costs, whilst -already in 1929- a research report on the experience of living in the Weissenhof units underlined tenant issues of inner climatic discomfort 2. Industrial-era architecture was soon equivalent to a disposable object of mass production, whose value is highest when brand-new, and which then inexorably decreases with time and wear, directly manifesting in fiduciary terms the lack of acknowledgement of any positive value in aging when occurring on Modern architecture. Gropius’ Bauhaus Building in Dessau, (1926) after being damaged during WWII, had to stand a relatively long period of abandonment (the Bauhaus was left substantially untouched until 19763): unlike ancient ruins, its state of disfiguration could be overcome only after an extensive restoration -and not conservationintervention, which obliterated any sign of aging. 1 See: Mostafavi, M. - Leatherbarrow, D., On Weathering: the Life of Buildings in Time, 1993 MIT Press 2 3

2.2 Walter Gropius, Bauhaus, Dessau - in 1957

On the contrary, from the end of the XIXth century, the success of the idea of what Friedrich Nietzsche defined as the Antiquarian Method -that is the attitude of preserving and revering traces of the past 4- while leaving no space for the creative reinvention of the present, established the romantic attitude to ruination, when affecting pre-industrial, thus “ancient”, buildings. Stains and marks on monuments began to be regarded as the tangible memory of their history, a seal of authenticity and a sign of belonging to a bygone age. In the academic world, weathering subsequently became the subject of the discipline of restoration, de facto separating the problems of aging and maintenance from architectural design into a separate profession. Instead of taking into consideration the whole life cycle of a building, the profession of design – diabolically split from the professions of temporal awarenessreverted back to the realization of a process that pointed then towards a form of architectural completion achieved the very moment before the architecture entered the flow of time as a whole organism, the point at which it starts to be exposed to weather, worn by users, gathering the patinas of time. As an ironic twist, the more abstract the aesthetic qualities sought by the building’s architects at its conception, the more apparently vulnerable the materials often prove to weathering and wear. This is because, as an inheritance from the Modern Movement, all elements like cornices -sills that were used to protect a building from weathering- are quite often obliterated, without any serious consideration of alternative devices for slowing down disfiguration. The result of this tendency is that rather than welcoming signifiers of a noble aging process, early signs of decay are commonly pointed to as the unmistakable signs of poor design, construction quality, or the selection of cheap materials. 4 “Antiquarian history knows only how to preserve life, not how to generate it. Therefore, it always undervalues what is coming into being, because it has no instinctive feel for it, the way, for example, monumental history has. Thus, antiquarian history hinders the powerful willing of new things; it cripples the active man, who always, as an active person, will and must set aside reverence to some extent” Nietzsche, F. , Use and Abuse of History for Life , 1874

2.4 Eero Saarinen, Deere & co Headquarters, Moline, Illinois, 1963

“We sought for an appropriate material economical, maintenance free, bold in character, dark in colour. We located a certain high tensile steel, which has a peculiar characteristic: if this steel is left unpainted, a rust coating forms which becomes a protective skin over the steel. This rust coating - which does not develop beyond a certain point - is a cinnamon brown colour which makes a beautiful dark surface on the steel. We built a full-size mock-up section of the façade on the site to make sure the steel would act as we had anticipated. It has. I predict other architects will use it widely.â€? (Eero Saarinen on his work, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1962)


But what if the process of decay, which is so often seen as antagonistic to the architectural qualities of beauty and intent, were to be included in the design process? Le Corbusier himself, in his post-WWII production, abandoned the unifying, idealistic, whiteness celebrated in Vers une architecture for a re-interpretation of rusticated style. The exploitation of raw concrete (as in Sainte Marie de La Tourette [2.3] ) deals with the unavoidability of weathering, designing a surface whose finishing is enriched and completed by the effects of moisture and environmental deposits. Indeed, this approach involves a radical reevaluation of the idea-realization relationship. Regarding colour aging, some architects [2.4] began to feel the need to plan intelligent strategies for dealing with a form of chromatic palette that, upon a building’s handover, would immediately start to evolve in reaction to all the various elements in play around it. They designed buildings whose exposed surfaces were designed in such a way that the transformations instigated by the environment were directed towards a predicted, desirable, and aesthetic effect, adding value over time to the architecture itself. The following works are evidence of creative and technological research through building, led by architects who related to colour as a dynamic variable of the building skin, more than as a fixed attribute, whose characteristics are part of an open-ended process which evolves throughout the existence of the building itself.




3. The Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron were commissioned in 1995 by painter Rémy Zaugg to design his personal atelier [3.1]. The client’s artistic production is translated into materiality as a metaphor, a play of references between object and context, mimicking the natural process of aging through the intervention of technology. The key-element is the roof drainage system, conceived so that the water runs off in such a manner that it streams down the walls. Whenever this happens, the rainwater washes draws out iron dioxide particles from the concrete sand mix, which then form a thin film on the surface of the wall. Over the years, and with precise intention, this has created “rain paintings” -brownish-red strokes- that burst brightly against the neutral gray concrete background, adding a powerful contrasting note, a certain chromatic and temporal warmth to the stern composition of the pavilion. This kind of operation, not far from the one used also for the Ricola storage building in Mulhouse [3.2-3], expresses the theoretical view of the architects, which aims at once to solve the building-site relationship, and the dialogue between the content and the “shed”. The skin actually embodies the activity performed inside, suggesting to the beholder its function through its precise but environmentally and temporally contingent use of chromatic vocabulary.




Apparently similar is the tonal variation designed by Gigon / Guyer into their extension project for the “Villa am Romerholzâ€? art gallery. However, upon looking closer, the reasons behind the planned colour alteration appear here to be very different, and connected with the surrounding context. The original mansion was built in 1915 in French Renaissance style by the architect Maurice Turrentini, and bought by art collector Oskar Reinhart in 1924, who commissioned the first gallery. Now a public museum, the architects renewed the villa and designed the extension which was built from 1993 to 1998. The new rooms are perceived from the outside as a sequence of large prefabricated slabs of concrete [3.4]. The cladding mixes ordinary concrete components with the dust of Jurassian limestone and copper (materials used in the original villa): these additives react with water enriched with copper ions running down the façade, accelerating the process of oxidation. The result is the fast colouring of the gray surfaces with rich and deep shades of green and blue, painting a thin pattern of vertical strokes and adding chromatic vibration to the complex. In this case the process of controlled weathering was conceived with the intention of harmonizing the new addition with its context, and this was achieved not only by allowing, but actually by accelerating the oxidation of the material, causing a compressed process of patinization which, still ongoing, conveys the idea of an architecture which is very much alive, and integrated in the environment [3.5-6].




These projects have in common the use of a reaction between the components of the building skin, and water as an oxidizing agent. Are there other possible strategies of façade design that would allow one to control & positively anticipate colour alteration? From historical buildings we notice the importance of eaves and mouldings in the evolution of the discolouration of the exposed surfaces, protecting some areas from sediments and water [3.7]. In the Bijenkorf [3.8] department store in Rotterdam (M.Breuer, 1956) the interaction between three-dimensional façade elements and weathering is scaled down with surprising results. The plain travertine marble skin is composed of hexagonal tiles, whose surfaces are scratched with the directions the stone was originally cut in: the tiles’ shape, combined with these superficial patterns has caused pollution sediments to form unexpectedly dynamic and ornamental compositions, giving a strong visual patternation, and singular aspect to the building, a plastic and powerful, one could say Brutalist, architectural patina. Besides weather, a common threat to a building’s conservation consists in biological colonization. Lionel Billiet, a bio-engineer and designer, aims to challenge this opposition/antagonism, with an ongoing research project called “Concrete lichen – Living pigment”, which is being developed with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation. Taking steps from the examination of the growth of lichens on artificial surfaces, the project aims to learn how to propagate a specific lichen, Xanthoria parietina, and then implant it on existing concrete walls, consequently studying the results [3.9]. The idea behind this cross-disciplinary experiment is to view the lichen as a self-reliant living pigment, providing -together with chromatic variation- a tactile surface. The ultimate aim is to control the creation of patterns over time by influencing natural growth process. This is done by altering parameters such as light intensity, orientation, moisture and air quality.




4. We have seen examples of skillful control of tonal variation in a building’s surfaces, but what would happen if we relate this design approach towards the design of public spaces? In 2010 the Brussels-based collective Rotor conducted some enlightening research on the wear of materials in public space, underlining how the sensorial transformation of surfaces due to repeated use is not only caused by the way people move in space, but also influences them in turn at the same time. The archetypical manifestation of this behaviour is the formation of a trail: the trodden path induces more people (or animals) to tread the same way, marking the ground depending on their weight. But there are also some more particular applications of this principle. The copper kiosk exhibited in the 2012 Venice Biennale, part of the Republic of Common Ground project by studio VOGT, was initially meant to be an iconic double of the actual kiosk, located in a calle nearby the Arsenale, as the core of a reflection on the city’s public space evolution. At the end of the exhibition period, the copied artifact showed a totally stained surface. The original shiny orange turned dark brown, marked with handprints of visitors, whose skin’s acidity caused the copper to oxidize [4.1]. In this case we can observe an example of induced or emulated wear which was procured through the involvement of the public leaving visible traces of their presence on the architectural object. The market square designed by studio Vora Aquitectura in Badalona (Spain), is a keen intervention of the refurbishment of a residual space in a multiethnic and heterogeneous neighbourhood. In the architects’ intentions, the need to plan a functional and simple surface coexists with the necessity to underline the new centrality of this public space, which is meant to represent the social diversity of the local inhabitants as well as being a coherent and legible public space. Every element of the project was designed to encourage freedom to move across the open space: the triangular pattern chosen for the paving does not suggest any kind of hierarchy of paths. At the same time –unawares- people crossing the space collaborate to transform the colour scheme of the square, because through walking across its variously hued surfaces, they are actually acting as mechanical eroders and diffusers, mixing the various hues of red together with their stride [4.2].

Video stills of the performance, watch?v=N1AHBZybjW4

In Vora’s intervention we can observe some innovative attitudes towards urban landscape materials: the use of wear as a colour design factor for public spaces is something which can cross the boundaries between architecture, art and placemaking actions. With a particular combination of pigmented materials, for example, the unavoidable process of wear in a paving material could be transformed into an open, collective art performance, where each passer-by, with his sole physical presence, collaborates to modify the features of public space. In April 2010, Dutch artist IEPE transformed a major Berlin intersection into a multi-coloured canvas by spilling 500 liters of water-based paint [4.3]. With the help of an anonymous crew, buckets, hinged on rented bicycles, were carried on site: at a given sign their content was poured on the asphalt: the red, yellow, blue and purple pigments immediately spread with the flow of moving vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians creating a visible, dynamic map of their paths. A similar kind of interaction, even if at a smaller scale, is the one explored by the “Ridiculous Pool” artwork (2011), realized by British street artist D*Face in Los Angeles. Here, the blank surface was obtained by a former pool adapted to skate ramp, “painted” by skaters using a modified board which carries on its rear side a remotely activated can of spray-paint: the result is a web of curvy paths which symbolizes but a dramatic-coloured depiction of wear [4.4]. Experimenting with this kind of design approach at an urban scale could eventually give a new dimension and importance to the role played by colour in enriching the qualities of the built environment.



>| These collected pieces of architecture and art prove how intentional weathering is something much deeper and meaningful than just a decorative choice. The pigmentation of a surface, and its geometric pattern, isn’t simply a finishing layer, but the result, the product of the interaction between the way a building is conceived, how its parts are assembled, and the natural environment interacting with it over the course of its existence. This elevates the chromatic values of architectural skins to being the most effective expression of an atmospherically sensitive, and environmentally site-specific project. Hues and tonal variations, designed according to a predicted aging process, convey the sense of an architecture which doesn’t withdraw itself from the material world, which on the contrary wants to be perceived as a living and evolving part of it. To architects, the challenge lies in not accepting the notion of a building standing like a rock in the river of time, of not adhering to standard construction practice that emphasizes permanence-as-visual-constancy. Creativity can and should be achieved through a deeper sensitivity to what industrial products have to offer in their various forms of transformation and decay, and how these pre-produced elements can be combined with each other, with various climatic conditions, in time, triggering off new “reactions”, expanding the potentialities of colour design. Architecture could aspire then to become an absorptive sponge5, quoting James Wines , in which entropy is embraced, and intelligently managed. 5 James Wines, Interview on Green Architecture, Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi, 18th November 2012

Bibliography Benevolo, L., (2005), Storia dell’architettura moderna, Laterza Born, M & al. , (2012) Dirt, MIT Press Mostafavi, M. & Leatherbarrow, D., (1993) On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time, MIT Press Rotor & al., (2010) Usus/usures Etat de lieux – How things stand, Brussels Herzog, J., The Hidden Geometry of Nature, from Herzog & De Meuron 1981-2000, El Croquis 60+84

Figures [cover] Plastered wall, Castell’Arquato, IT (2011, personal work of the author) [1.1,1.2] Examples of wear and weathering on traditional architecture, Northern Italy (2012, personal work) [1.3] Verdigris on rural building, Forlì, IT (2007, bertiste) Source: flickr [a] Peeling paint, (Redteam) Source: flickr [b] Peeing paint, (dubris) Source: flickr [c] Peeling paint, (lighthungry) Source: flickr [d] Lichen, (Mr-numb) Source: flickr [2.1] Saint Helena Mausoleum, engraving, G.B. Piranesi (1757) Source: [2.2] Bauhaus, Dessau, D (1957), Source: Benevolo, L., (2005) Storia dell’architettura moderna, Laterza [2.3] Sainte Marie de La Tourette, FR (neil mp) Source: flickr [2.4] John Deere & co Headquarters, Moline, Illinois (Ezra Stoller) [2.5] John Deere & co Headquarters, Moline, Illinois (alec thornton) Source: flickr [3.1] Studio Rémy Zaugg, Mulhouse, FR (Margherita Spiluttini) Source: [3.2,3.3] Ricola Storage Building, Mulhouse, FR (yunsunkwon) Source: flickr [3.4] Villa Am Römerholz, Winterthur, CH Source: [3.5] Villa Am Römerholz, Winterthur, CH (12 sept. 2011, Roland zh) Source:,_ Haldenstrasse_95_2011-09-12_14-29-54.JPG [3.6] Villa Am Römerholz, Winterthur, CH Source: alterations-to-the-oskar-reinhart-collection-gigon-guyer/ [3.7] Weathering and mouldings, Venice, IT, (2012, personal work of the author) [3.8] Bijenkorf, Rotterdam, NL (hescansdarkly) Source : flickr [3.9] Visual simulation “Concrete Lichen”, Lionel Billiet Source: vaste-tentoonstellingen/onderzoek-uitvoering/designers-artists-4-genomics/ [4.1] Republic of Common Ground, installation by Studio VOGT at 2012 Venice Biennale, Venice, IT (left: personal work of the author) [4.2] La Salut, Badalona, E Source: [4.3] Painting Reality, Berlin, D, (2010, IEPE) [4.4] Ridiculous Pool, San Bernardino, USA, (2011, MRZ) Source: dface-ridiculous-pool-paint-attack.html/dface-ridiculous-pool-paint-attack-24