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The Raw and the Cooked


by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in Surface, May 2001

Having been educated into the Modern Movement what is curious in retrospect is that, before full-colour printing was cheap enough to be ubiquitous, we were brought up on books which suggested that modern architecture was black and white. Philip Johnson’s book on Mies van der Rohe included the Barcelona Pavilion, a building that made an immense impression on me – it is a masterwork. But I had no idea that it was polychromatic. It is a pure work of art; it does not have a function. When I visited the re-creation, I was surprised at how colourful it was.

So there is much more colour in the Modern Movement than we supposed and I would have been really interested in what people like Hans Meyer of the Bauhaus would have thought about colour. One aspect of the Modern Movement that is still true of a lot of British high-tech architecture is that it is talking about itself; it is expressing construction, and colour is used only to clarify the tectonic quality of the architecture, That is why we all wanted to believe that the Parthenon was white and we were upset to find that it was originally very gaudy. Colour is about something else; it is allusive. If the term ‘post-modern’ had not been wrecked, it would be useful and colour might be thought of as a post-modern characteristic, in the sense that colour is saying something beyond describing the work of architecture itself.

I am interested in the idea that architecture should have a subject matter beyond itself. We set up two colloquia at the Royal Academy Forum called ‘The Return of the Subject’, held in July 2000. At the first one were a number of artists including Anish Kapoor, Charles Jencks and David Ward, at the second were four contributors: the sculptor Antony Gormley, the choreographer Siobhan Davies, Christopher Le Brun, Professor of Painting at the RoyalAcademy and Sandy Wilson, the architect of the British Library. This is not really to do with colour, but with the idea that colour may be part of a movement to make the subject of art and architecture more allusive.

How did I get involved with colour? I once reviewed a building by John Outram – a company headquarters – and his use of colour really surprised me. I had been brought up in the school where you declared materials as an expression of structure and utility. The title of Hitchcock’s book on Frank Lloyd Wright had always seemed to be very important – In the Nature of Materials. Oddly enough, FLW was rather rascally about the way he used materials which was unlike the European Modern Movement. It seemed to me that the way John Outram used materials, metaphorically speaking, is that he ‘cooked’ the materials and transformed them into something else. You take the raw ingredients, what my office calls ‘Scandiwegian’, like salad really, and then cooking transmutes the materials into something else.

One contrast in my work is that the Chapel at FitzwilliamCollege declares its uncooked materials: polished concrete, white render, brickwork and oak, and then the Ruskin Library, which in some ways is son of the chapel, is pretty highly cooked. Jocasta had an influence on me personally to become more alert to colour. She has perfect colour pitch which is like having perfect musical pitch; she is quite uncanny, and does very surprising things with colour and is good at talking about it. So the Ruskin Library is highly cooked, although the outside is not.

I go through enthusiasms for certain designers, architects, artists or whatever, about whom I feel passionate for a period of time. When I was working on the Ruskin Library, I was extremely interested in William Surges and those huge pieces of furniture that he designed like buildings with a Gothic roof and windows, unbelievably inventive and intensely constructed. They influenced me in three ways: first, because they are highly polychromatic; second, because they are mysterious objects full of little secret spaces; and, third, because they are ambiguous as to whether they are pieces of furniture or small buildings. So the Ruskin Library has a ‘William Burges’ small building inside: the archive itself is constructed from panels of red Venetian plaster set in oak frames with bronze fittings – quite Victorian. It is made like a piece of furniture but three storeys high. I have always wanted to make a three-dimensional Advent calendar and, finally, I did it with shutters which open views out of the archive.

The use of colour here is partly allusive. This is a building that has a subject: Ruskin/Venice, and the building is conceived as an island, isolated from the university. It sits there in isolation symbolising Ruskin, the isolated individual. The island is attached to the university by a causeway that passes through a special wavy grass symbolising the Venice lagoon. Inside, the metaphor is repeated; the archive at the centre of the space is surrounded by a glass and slate floor representing water. We had great fun in the office thinking up new metaphors: the corpus of Ruskin’s work, Ruskin’s body, Ruskin’s reliquary, an ark, a treasure chest and so forth. So the red is to do with Venice and the deep green bands on the outside are to do with a Ruskin watercolour of a Florentine church faced with green and white marble; he uses a beautiful bottle green tint.

On each side of the archive, there are two alleyways separating it from the surrounding ancillary accommodation; above that there are two exhibition galleries. A glass bridge goes through a tunnel inside the archive connecting the galleries on each side. Contrasting with the Venetian red of the archive, we wanted the surrounding walls black. The black render kept drying out grey and someone suggested that we paint it with linseed oil that has a kind of furniture polish smell. It is a smelly building as well as a colourful one. The oil produced a rich black and also looks slightly grotty, slightly distressed, like some Venetian alleyway beside a canal. The staircases come down from the side galleries and the steps continue below the glass floor as though going down into the water below the aqua alta. So the game with colour is a story-telling one and that was important because Ruskin keeps saying in “The Lamp of Memory” that architecture must be “historical” and the way that I was able to come to terms with that idea was with the notion that architecture has a subject – in this case Ruskin and Venice – and that the historical aspect is fulfilled through metaphor and allusion.

The internal walls to the reading room were finished with a lime render with an ochre lime wash. Jocasta belongs to the Lime Forum, a group of people who meet and talk about lime. Apart from the fact that I liked it, the choice of colour was inspired by a trip to Potsdam on a grim North German winter’s evening. We saw the Baroque palace Sans Souci. A great deal of European, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architecture is finished in lime render with lime washes, in this case an ochre lime wash. On that very dull evening, it was almost as though the ochre wash had absorbed sunlight during the day and was giving it back again at night. In fact, it was giving a terrific amount of reflection from what little light there was around, so much more vivid and resonant than a coat of conventional opaque paint. Strangely, the contractor found it very difficult to come up with a white lime render. I made them achieve white, but then I decided that a mix I had refused before, which used a pink sand, was better; it was slightly dirtier, white was too clean. Again this was like cooking, experimenting with the ingredients.

Other finishes for the inside of the library included panels of oak-veneered ply stained a very dark green and then coated with a graphite varnish – an invention of mine. Mixing graphite with varnish gives an extraordinary effect, a transparency, a translucency, while at the same time, it is very dark and lustrous. The primary concrete structure remains unfinished, uncooked, in a raw state, and the primary beams in the roof are grit-blasted, perhaps referring to eighth-century Italian church interiors. The framing to the archive is also uncooked in contrast to the red plaster of the infill.

This project led to an exhibition at Tate Britain that Jocasta and I did with Dutch lighting group Hollands Licht. We had never done an exhibition before. The commission came through Robert Hewison who is a trustee of the Ruskin building, a Ruskin scholar, and one of the two curators for the ‘Ruskin, Turner and Pre-Raphaelite’ exhibition. We decided to see if there was a way of making the colours of the galleries enter into a dialogue with the subject matter chosen by the curators, the themes that they were trying to get across, as well as making the colours work together as contrasts with each other to create a dramatic narrative of colour and space. The centre of the space contained mostly Ruskin’s own small drawings and paintings on paper, illuminated at 50 lux due to conservation requirements. Here, we used a kind of graphite paint that Jocasta calls a metallic varnish over dark grey in response to the largely monochromatic work. Around this dark and lustrous centre was a series of galleries. Because the roof has very strong diagonals, we designed the galleries so that they were open at the corners, something that had not been done before. If you stood at these interstitial corner places, you could always see several galleries at once, which enhanced the polychromatic experience.

The first gallery was conceived as a black space. We found a totally non-reflective black paint. Putting a light meter against it, there was virtually no reading at all. This was the background for two absolutely marvellous pictures: Millais’ Christ in the Workshop of his Father and Turner’s Storm at Sea. We ‘barndoored’ them, and lit them at about 180 lux, so only the works were lit, not the walls. The effect was dramatic. The next room was about Ruskin’s childhood. For this, we found a nursery yellow which would have also been a fashionable yellow at the time of his childhood, the same yellow, although slightly less intense, as in Soane’s Drawing Room at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. So the colour had a double significance, deliberately childish, a happy, innocent colour and also a popular Regency colour. It felt right and was right in relation to the pictures on show.

The next room was Turner, including Slavers from the YaleCenter for British Art. We chose a colour that we knew Turner had wanted his pictures to be against, but which he has subsequently been denied, a Pompeian red. We then did something quite risky: we threw some red light around the top of the room but it was strong enough to make the floor quite pink. The next room was Gothic with beautiful pen-and-ink Ruskin drawings in extraordinary detail. We made the room very silvery and the silvery grey colour graded upwards into a sky blue using blue-filtered spots, as though you were standing in the open air, quite Kaspar Friedrich, very ethereal. A theme of colour contrast had been set up in the series of galleries, going from black, to yellow, deep red, pale grey blue.

The next room contained Ruskin’s own collections of. Renaissance and nineteenth-century paintings. We did this in ochre and threw a russety red light across the top. We realised when we were doing this exhibition that the trick, that is quite extravagant in terms of lighting equipment, is to separate lighting the pictures from lighting the walls. Because the space in Tate Britain is six metres high and hardly any pictures were hung above two to two and a half metres, there were three and a half to four metres of free wall to be washed with coloured light above the pictures. We set the Pre-Raphaelites against a mauve colour and where the mauve went into shadow, we reanimated it with blue light. That was very beautiful and responsive to the colours of the Pre-Raphaelites.

In the gallery opposite the Turner red, we originally chose a deep purple but, quite Iate in the day, we decided to go for what Jocasta calls an antique white, a ‘dirty-white’. We matched this as exactly as we could to the whites used by Whistler and Leighton; Leighton’s women in white and the whites and greys of Whistler, a very different kind of art to the Pre-Raphaelites. What was quite interesting was that the white took on a startlingly fresh character in the context of all the other colours.

For the penultimate room, representing Ruskin’s decline into madness, we produced a deep, deep purple as a background for his quite disturbing, little mad drawings of the sky around Cumbria. Ruskin kept a meteorological record that claimed that the world was getting darker and darker, as he was getting madder and madder. It actually was getting darker because of the
pollution of coal fires and chimneys of the industrial north.

On the strength of this exhibition, we have been commissioned to design ‘Desire Unbound, Erotic Surrealism’, an exhibition at Tate Modern in October for which we have been developing an equivalent narrative of colour and light. The endeavour is to respond to the circuit of themes created by the curators. Again, we are working with the Dutch lighting designer’s team, a really interesting group of people with a technically sophisticated studio in Amsterdam. They can give you just about anything you want in terms of coloured light. Mock-ups of the galleries have been created at 1:10, very simple, just three walls and a ceiling in foamboard and then we put 1:10 images on the walls to see what can be achieved with the distinction between lighting the pictures and the walls. The models give you a certain amount of security so that you have a pretty good idea of the real installation. It is not perfect but it gets you quite a long way, otherwise it is pretty scary. Again we aim to create a rhythm of contrasts. The traditional way of doing exhibitions says that the environment should be neutral. Our argument is that the environment should be in dialogue with the works, involved in an interpretive role. This is more demanding for everybody.

At Southwark Underground station, which is the station for Tate Modern, we took a course that was different from other architects. Our station is not a declaration of construction; it is a narrative achieved with non-structural linings. This is about artifice — theatre. Here, we created a second skin; there are good reasons for doing that in the British construction industry because it is difficult to achieve quality in the finishing of the primary structure. Whereas stations such as Ian Ritchie’s and Michael Hopkins’ express going down into the ground into great concrete caverns, which I think is great, ours is a paradoxical station where you still feel you are under a sky, even at the lowest level — deliberately contradictory.

The blue glass wall at intermediate level is a complete piece of artifice. Working with artist Alexander Beleschenko, there was no question it had to be blue but I cannot tell you why. It reflects daylight. When seen obliquely, it is highly reflective and, at the same time, very dark, But when it is seen straight on, when you are coming up the escalator, it is entirely different and goes transparent. There is something else happening here: daylight is falling down the back of the wall and the 630 triangular glass panels have millions of tiny fragments of glass fused on the back which are acting prismatically, bringing light into the surface of the glass itself so that the glass actually glows.

This theatrical idea of architecture may have something to do with Schinkel’s stage sets for The Magic Flute that I saw in Berlin in one of the best opera performances I have ever seen, incredibly good. Schinkel’s cyclorama is a dark sky with little holes representing the stars. The Queen of the Night is lowered down and sings suspended before it.
When we made our competitive submission for the Wellcome Wing at the ScienceMuseum we titled it ‘The Theatre of Science’.

At the west end is a huge deep blue window. Why did we choose blue? Perhaps it represents infinity and uncertainty, even the sublime. Richard Gregory, the perceptual psychologist, told me that he thought blue may have been the first colour that we identified in our evolution. What we found was that blue is such a limited part of the spectrum that it has some extraordinary properties; it cuts out a lot of light, which is a very good first move if you want to make a window that can reduce light levels from say 70,000 lux on a July afternoon down to museum and gallery standards of around 50 lux.

Blue gets you quite a long waybut it still left us in a state of permanent anxiety as to how to get the rest of the way. It was an absolute cliffhanger. We tried lots of things. Eventually we cracked it with a combination of interpane solar louvres and a 40 per cent perforated metal screen on the outside. What was really unexpected was that the blue window does not cast much blue. I am not quite sure why that is. What you do see, of course, are blue reflections in other parts of the museum. Chris Wilkinson designed the exhibition that leads into the Wellcome Wing and he had the idea of the orange-lit threshold that works well.

We discovered something about the way the eye works very much at the last moment. It was quite alarming in some ways. When we were developing the side screens, again with the Dutch lighting designers, we mocked these up at 1:5 in their studios in Amsterdam and gradually developed the idea of a scrim stretched between battens. The biggest panels of scrim are 7.5x5m and they are very taut. Then there are specially designed reflectors with blue filters which light the walls; the scrim is not lit at all. The light emission of the whole system is only about 15 lux but, as we are very blue sensitive, it looks quite bright. The level is so low that if you throw a polychromatic image on to the scrim, it is virtually perfect except that the shadows are slightly blue.

We discovered another very interesting thing in the last test we did in Architen’s warehouse in the Mendips. As I went down on the train to Bristol, prayed that there was not going to be some new surprise with this system and, there was a surprise, an acceptable one, although initially alarming. In this big warehouse space was a great blue screen rather like a James Turrell. Two exhibitions at the Hayward had influenced me: the Yves Klein exhibition – Klein blue and so on, and the Turrell exhibition with his dramatic light installations.

Looking at this great blue screen, we found that the blue died away over a period of 20 minutes until it was washed out to a silvery grey. Someone then put a spot on an imagined exhibit at about 200 lux. We looked at the spotlit object for a few seconds and looked back at the blue. It had come back. The eye adjusts to get rid of the predominant colour and then, as soon as you look at normal light, particularly very bright white light, it is refreshed. So something very curious happens when walking through the Wellcome Wing. If you go up to one of the brightest areas, where the restaurant is, and you look back, you find that the blue is intensified.

The other characteristic of the interior is that all the linings are diaphanous. We specified a very economic industrial lining to the underneath of the exhibition floors that forms a walking surface for servicing within the space of the two-metre deep trusses. So you can see the structure as an exhibit through the lining. Part of the inspiration for the Wellcome Wing came while talking to Steve Bedford who does our computer images for competitions. I looked at his screen that was blue and thought, why don’t we do a blue building? In contrast to the Making of the Modern World exhibition, where the exhibits are physical objects to do with force, steam engines, aeroplanes, rockets, that sort of thing, many of the exhibits in the Wellcome Wing are not physical objects but light emitting, mostly with screens conveying information. So the interior of the whole building is dematerialised; all the surfaces either emit light or are reflective.

What one does after doing blue? I don’t know.