Hundertwasser wrote this text in Venice, November 10, 1981, as a speech on the occasion of a conference on „Colour in Urban Architecture“ in Zell am See, Austria, in December 1981. Hundertwasser finally did not hold the speech.
COLOUR IN ARCHITECTURE
Colour in architecture is a very simple matter. Precisely because it is so simple, like all things in our dead-end civilisation, the simplest things become the most complicated. We are complicating the notion of colour in architecture so much that it has become more unnatural and complicated than ever before in the history of human architecture. It is absolutely clear that colour in architecture has to do with nature and that the colours in architecture either have to adapt to nature or must be a counterpoint to nature or a contrast, but a good contrast to nature, one which underscores nature and underscores architecture. This means that architecture and nature should complement one another and by their juxtaposition set themselves in a good light. Just as, for example, red is not beautiful in itself. Red only becomes beautiful in comparison with another colour. But now it is unfortunately the case that colour is a foreign body in architecture. Architecture is neither adapting to nature nor is it a counterpoint to the colours of nature. Especially now, in the age of chemistry, colours (paints) are manufactured which in substance and appearance have nothing at all in common with nature, neither as adaptation nor as counterpoint.
This is a very odd development. You can mix every paint until you arrive at a certain shade of colour, and then it is not the shade, after all. For example, you can mix green, the green of leaves and grass and meadows, with chemical paints until this green seems to be the result. Or the brown of the soil. But then it is not this green or brown, after all. The new artificial chemical colours have no texture, no soul, no life, they are illusions. The fact is that the green manufactured by chemical paints does not correspond to the green which nature produces of itself. Now, the following is important:
At the forest’s edge, nature has mainly two colours, the green of vegetation and the black or dark brown of the soil and shadows. These two colours are very plainly in evidence, without any strain: the treetops are green, and under the trees it is dark, that is, black or dark brown. That is why it is significant that in our region the colours of the houses are kept dark. The white of farmhouses was framed by dark wood or had dark-tiled roofs. In southern regions, such as Italy, Africa, the houses are white. But this white is not the white of chemical industry, but a chalk white which has a completely different consistency, and it is applied differently, on irregular surfaces. When thinking about what colours the houses should have, you would really have to take the colours which occur in nature, i.e., soil, loam, brick, and other colours, too, which occur naturally, such as charcoal, chalk, etc. I don’t think that it would make it more expensive to use these colours. That black goes well with green has fundamental significance for architecture. Unfortunately the buildings built in our region, particularly modern buildings, are of loud, bright concrete reaching up to the sky and which is additionally reinforced by white, particularly in satellite towns. This is a white which is as such unnatural and which is then combined with other unnatural, bright colours resulting in candy colours: bonbon pink, bonbon blue, bonbon grey, etc.
The following is interesting: architects have no courage to use colour. I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’ll return to this once again. Architects are afraid of pure blue, pure red, pure yellow and tone them down to these bonbon colours. In the process this toning down has an even more alienating effect, it seems to be even more a foreign body than, for example, pure red. After all, the pure colours are as such dark, and dark colours are basically less painful because they radiate from within. They don’t reflect the light. They radiate of their own accord.
But the most fundamental point in the question of colouring is its uniform application, and that must be condemned. We build the buildings smoothly, the walls are smoothed off with a slat, and every contractor, every bricklayer, every architect sees to it and takes pride in keeping the outer walls of their architecture and houses as level and flat as possible.
But this complete flatness is devastating if it is painted in one colour, with one shade over the entire surface. Either this surface would have to be enlivened by varying the colour on this completely smooth, even surface or this surface should be livened up itself by making it uneven, so that the incidence of light would produce certain effects such as with a very slightly hilly landscape, like with old farmhouses, old farmhouses which are still nooked and crannied, crooked and with uneven rendering, where the surface beneath was already uneven. If paint was already on it, regardless of what kind, it didn’t result in this unpleasant harshness which results when paint is applied to a completely flat surface.
Somebody should go to the trouble of applying one and the same kind of paint to two different walls. On the left is an uneven wall with slight humps, but smooth in structure, just with slight humps and irregular edges, as with old farmhouses. And on the right is an absolutely perfect concrete wall of the kind which exist just perfectly, with perfect right-angled edges, by the million to the point of excessiveness; to these two walls the same paint should be applied, regardless of what kind, left and right, and the difference is spectacular. The same paint on an uneven, irregularly bordered surface has an enlivening, beautiful, human effect, and one feels attracted to it. The same paint on the smooth wall with perfect, straight edges has a cold and forbidding effect. The straight skyline has a particularly devastating effect on the colour, i.e., the perfectly straight closing off towards the sky.
In nature colours are infinitely varied: the green of nature, for example, the green of a single tree, the green of a single leaf is so different in its various parts, the veins, the point, and the whole thing is multiplied by the partial transparency and the play of light and shadow on the uneven surfaces. The problem of colour in architecture is in reality not a problem of colour alone, it’s a problem of the underlying surface the paint is applied to. The surface beneath must be alive before paint is applied. Then a major error in colouring is eliminated. A second error is thinking en gros. Something like saying “Cheaper by the dozen”, cheaper through efficiency, cheaper by prefabrication. The painting of houses is done quasi prefabricatedly. One doesn’t go to the site to see what buildings are next to it. The colour is composed according to a scheme, i.e., models. Paint companies that present a complete colour scheme for selection, and somebody who cannot really be responsible for this, because he doesn’t know anything about it, the building sponsor or perhaps somebody from the municipal government or the administration picks out a colour from the sample catalogue because he happens to like it. He completely forgets that the same colour will have a devastating effect on a large surface.
Now people are beginning to say, “Good, we need to do things colourfully”. So painters are painting tracts of buildings red, then green, then blue. These tracts are all exactly the same. They differ as to the numbers and their location. You often go in the wrong door because they are so exactly the same. And so they paint the different tracts with different colours. They are then distinguished by colour, for instance stairway no. 1 is red, stairway no. 2 is blue, stairway no. 3 is yellow. But colours have different values and cannot be used on identical spaces. And these colours are then next to each other with so little motivation and are so similar to beehives - but even worse. It’s like saying, “I live in the blue house”, like the bee says, “I live in the blue beehive.” That is a terrible enslavement and trivialisation of man, a slave existence. Man is really being treated as if he were an unthinking gregarious animal which needs colours to find its way.
It is unacceptable that one person design the colours of entire buildings and then other people live in them.
The window right that I have been advocating for a long time must provide that the colouring, at least in the narrow realm of the apartment and the outside wall, be left up to the person living there, regardless of whether he is the owner of the building or flat or just a tenant. Only by individual colouring can variety be achieved which is then humane and has positive effects on the public, and thus also on the people who do not live there, on the people passing by, on the community.
It is also entirely false, for instance, to commission an artist to paint a mural, which is being done in Berlin right now, for example, and has been done in America and here, too. A painter who normally paints pictures or designs posters or whatever makes a design for the entire building, a pattern, say, or a trompe l’oeil. He feigns, he simulates a landscape on a building wall or a fire wall, or another building in false perspective, or he enlivens it with some political slogans or other or aggressive pictures, as often occurs in Eastern Europe or Italy.
This is also an act which has been forced on people. The person who lives inside the windows where the façade is being painted by an artist feels left out. His world, his home, his feelings, his soul are in any case completely different. I think this is no improvement, the painter is just elevated to the dictatorial level of the architect and makes the same mistakes as the architect, a colour scheme for an entire complex for which he can never be responsible. Just as an architect can never be responsible for an entire apartment-house complex, where the various individuals have different feelings and worlds, the painter can also not apply one colour to an entire residential complex, for individuals always differ strongly in their fundamental natures. There is really only one possibility: that people decorate their immediate surroundings themselves, i.e., their walls. Just as I said in my Mould Manifesto 23 years ago. A person must have the possibility of leaning out of his window and painting everything pink as far as he can reach with a long brush, so he can be distinguished from his neighbours, the allocated slaves, the consumer machines in human form housed in the apartments.
To sum up, I can name several main points. Colour must be in harmony with nature. If grass roofs are the roofing, if the roof has trees or if the building is situated close to nature, it must be kept dark, in dark colours, brown, dark grey, etc. so that it is not a foreign body. Particularly bright colours are an anachronism in our region. Whitewashing outside is as precious as a gem on old farmhouses. When aggressively bright, particularly in a rectangular concrete silo, colours clash horribly and are a visual pollution with far-reaching effects, because this also affects people psychologically. An anachronism for the eye is transposed to man’s nervous system. And if these things keep happening and people constantly have to see them, this produces a discrepancy in his brain, which then unleashes a certain discomfort and lousy feeling which our civilisation is suffering from.
There is no straight line in nature. There are also no colour clashes in nature, no absolutely contrary and lethal dissonances. Man himself has no dissonances of the body, only of the soul. Man consists of cells, each of which is different in structure as well as colour. If in contrast the optic nerves transfer a dissonance to the brain cells, be it a straight line, be it a dissonance in colour, these brain cells react negatively. What the optic nerves recognise is a dissonance. And this dissonance then fights with the brain cells and cannot be properly assigned by them, and these disturbances are what can lead to depression, for which the person has no explanation. On the other hand, the irregular cells of man, including the brain cells, perceive the irregularities and the harmony in nature with a sense of well-being, and this makes him feel good.
So the optic nerves transfer either dissonances such as the straight line or harmonies such as organically developed forms and colours.
That is why it is important that the colour scheme is either adapted to nature or a house can be covered with vegetation, so that the colour doesn’t stick out of nature unless the colour is part of a work of art, a very colourful one, but precisely dosed and precisely justified and a counterpoint to nature. The patina on the dome of St. Paul’s in Vienna is not dissonance to nature, even though it is a different green from the leaf green of nature, because the dome is a formed work of art, with grooves and patchwork, not flat; also because the copper colour is not one produced by the chemical industry. It is the copper itself which produces the colour.
The main point here is that the dome is a work of art. And a work of art can be different. The colour must either be adapted to nature, be absorbed by nature, so to speak, almost be a camouflage colour in nature with the aid of earthen colours and colours which occur in nature. Not faking a camouflage with chemical colours. That won’t work. Or the colour must be a counterpoint to nature, and it can only do that when it is a work of art, a cathedral, something special, a gateway arch, a dome, an onion-shaped tower, a particular wall or special shape - a work of art. If it is art, colour and form can be a counterpoint to nature. Art is characterised, inter alia, by the fact that it is rare, seldom occurs, that it is present now and then. It isn’t that everything is full of onion-shaped towers and cupolas. They only occur now and then, and that makes them precious - although this is a poor comparison. If art is present you can’t have enough of it. Venice, for example, where every house is a work of art, doesn’t become dreary because so much is there, because art is beautiful when it is varied and doesn’t repeat itself stereotypically according to one pattern. Any art ceases to be art if it is repeated time and again, particularly in architecture. The colour on it also grows ugly. Every colour, even the most beautiful, even gold, would be unbearable this way.
The second important point is that the surface of the wall to be painted must be irregular so that the colour can be vibrant. Or, if the surface must be flat, it must be varied in design by means of colour and not use one colour on the entire surface. This monoculture, this monotony and this inbreeding of colour, results in dissonance. If the undersurface is dead, then the colour on it is, too. If the undersurface is alive, the colour on it is, too. If the surface is flat and sterile, then the colour on it is also flat and sterile. If the undersurface is alive, hand-shaped, like in old farmhouses, the colour on it is alive, too.
The painter may not, as I’ve said, structure large spaces all alone as happens now: a painter is commissioned and paints an entire building. The more eminent the painter is, the more his work is subject to protection as an artistic monument, as it were. Imagine a painter doing a mural on a building, interrupted by windows. So the Huber family in the third storey looks out of the window where a giant bear paw happens to be. Why should they have to put up with that? And this painting is then under art-monument protection. That must not be allowed to happen.
That is, by the way, exactly the opposite of what I would have in mind if I were to design a house. Then I would insist that window rights be respected at the same time; I would demand window rights. This means that everyone who lives there can redo his living space as to colour and form if he likes. My design, as I see it, through the artist, is actually only a preliminary to window rights. There is nothing to do with a sterile, barren surface. The sterility is so forbidding and so inhibits creativity that you don’t do anything at all. If there is a blemish anywhere on it, it is immediately removed.
To combat this, the artist should actually furnish a certain irregularity in advance in which the occupants can muster the courage to get creative themselves and add new irregularities or redo the original forms and colours.
It’s about like nobody having the nerve to sing when nobody else is singing. That is a very well known psychological problem. Somebody says, “Come on, sing, let’s sing!” Nobody has the nerve. Until somebody starts singing, regardless of how well. Somebody sings off key, wrong notes, it’s a catastrophe. Still, that breaks the ice, and the others say, “Well, maybe I can sing better than that!” And then more and more have the nerve to start singing. By furnishing irregularities in advance, people lose their inhibitions about being irregular themselves. In the protection of the irregularities you can become irregular yourself.
If the wall is bare and smooth and forbidding, in the satellite towns, wherever, and people say, “Paint something on the wall,” nobody has the courage. Nobody wants to be first. Everybody is ashamed in front of his fellows. Shame in front of one’s fellows is an even worse handicap, an even worse obstacle, than any ban by the authorities.
The authorities want to get out of this mess. They want to get out of this unbearable condition: on the one hand pessimism, mental illness, suicide, escape into drugs, to the countryside, to television; on the other hand vandalism, terrorism. The authorities want a solution to be found, and they would be absolutely willing to grant people window rights. But the fear of exercising window rights is so deeply rooted among the occupants themselves. Everybody keeps his eye on everyone else, and nobody has the courage to be the first to do it. And at that the colouring of the city and buildings cannot be done right by anyone except the people who live there.
But not by having the occupant commission a house painter to exercise his window right. That would be completely wrong. That is the reason why in rural areas, where window rights and the right to paint one’s house are guaranteed, everything is so ugly anyway - because the individual farmers and the people in the country don’t do that themselves, they pick up the telephone, just like the city folk, and have a painter, a window maker come to enlarge their windows and install prefabricated aluminium pivoting windows. It is exactly the same with the walls of the house. They call up the painter, who applies coarse plaster which is so perfect as if it had been done by a machine: smooth and bare and desolate. If the house was humpy before, it is straightened out. Where the house was beautiful and hand-shaped and the colour was beautiful on it, it is made straight and smooth. There are more and more perfect machines that make things even flatter, with even less soul; moreover, if the house was not rectangular in form before, it is put into a rectangular form. Then they paint it, thoughtlessly and coldly - and then they are surprised. That is, I am surprised that people don’t realise that that is ugly, terribly ugly. You drive through the countryside and see only ugly, smooth walls. If I look at Burgenland now, it’s exactly the same there. In Burgenland the walls were formed by hand, and the colour, in this case whitewash, was beautiful. Now everything has been straightened out, and there is no Burgenland anymore.
I would like to get back to chemical paints. Chemical paints are bad because they have no character. They aren’t paints like earthen paint, clay paint, iron oxide, ultramarine, cobalt, mineral paints or whatever. They are chemical mixtures without character. With tar or oil, aniline, chemistry can synthesise any shade at all with the same chemical mixture. It is perfectly obvious that these colours are unnatural. They are like an empty mirage which does not exist. From this chemical mixture you can seemingly imitate any colour. You can imitate the soil, leaf green, the sky. And still it is not the same. There is a kind of curse on it. A house that you paint with it is just dreary.
Variation is very important to colour, be it that the colours are varied, be it that the surface is varied. The individual person, by invoking window rights, must have the possibility of reshaping the outer façade in his area himself. If several people do this, or even if only one person does it, it would relieve the façade’s monotony so much that it would become beautiful. Just one spot which is different in a dreary, uniform wall of colour would be something that the eye can get a hold on to keep from slipping.
It is just about the same thing as a monochromatic cell, a torture chamber painted all in one colour, where you lock somebody up to make him go crazy. The door closes so perfectly that you can’t see the slits anymore. There are no windows, there is no bed, no wardrobe, no picture on the wall. Nothing. Everything in one colour. And it is completely beside the point if it is white, red or blue or yellow. A person is sitting in there and has only one colour all around him. He will go crazy if he can’t make a spot somewhere on the wall, with his blood or with a fingernail or with a pencil. And because of this spot, this small, tiny bit of difference in this monotonous, monochrome wall - because of this spot he will survive.
That is the way it is in a satellite town. The people go crazy from this monochromaticity, the monochromaticity of colour which underscores the monoculture of the prefabricated, constantly repeated type of architecture. If the architecture is already completely identical, at least the colour should be varied. But if the colour on this sterile architecture is also sterile, the whole situation is hopeless.
Who can create irregularities? Naturally, man himself, if he is capable of it. The artist. But nature is best of all. There is no better teacher than nature, because nature creates non-regulated irregularities, genuine barriers of beauty. You have to intentionally let nature have a share in handling the colour. That is very easily accomplished. A wall only needs to weather. Slowly it weathers, and these images come about which man is completely incapable of making so beautifully and perfectly. An old wall is beautiful. An old church, an old house are beautiful precisely because of the weathering of the surface. Nature decorates the surface by letting moss form, by forming little cracks, by making trails of dust and rust form somewhere, by forming a wind pocket somewhere, by dust settling, by fading of the paint in the sun and not on the shady side, or where there are window bays that the sun can’t get to, because under the bays it is shady, so the radiance of the colour lasts longer there than elsewhere. Or that the plaster is irregular and breaks off randomly and you get new colours and forms free of charge from nature. In any case the wall slowly begins to live and get more varied. And what does man do then? He regards nature’s painting activity as ugly and dirty. We have a completely wrong concept of beauty. That has developed slowly, I don’t know how, probably only over the last 100 or maybe 50 years, that non-regulated irregularities are regarded as ugly.
This is a completely macabre, perverse situation. I think it has to do with the machine age, with dictatorship and egalitarianism and with a certain brainwashing to which people are constantly subjected. You’ve got to be clean. Cleanliness is identical with sterility. Cleanliness is identical with monochromaticity, everything the same in one colour, egalitarianism. A table is only beautiful if it is clean, i.e., if it is smooth and if nothing else is to be seen but this one colour. Unless a colour pattern was planned from the beginning. If you buy a table and it has the wood grain by design, and if imitation-marble texture is on it by design, that is acceptable. But heavens! If ink is spilled and spots are formed, all of themselves, they are removed immediately with a zeal that is pathological. With incredible industry every manifestation of nature is removed, although it doesn’t detract from the stability at all. People should be glad that nature paints for us.
This notion, that completely flat and monochrome things are beautiful, must be refuted. It assails our life principle, our vital nerve if we go on thinking that monochrome is beautiful and monochrome is good and monochrome is healthful. Quite the opposite. For we are signing our own death sentence. Monochromaticity is sterile. Sterility is death. If we worship sterility, death, we will die ourselves, and that will be the end of our civilisation and ourselves.
If we want to survive, we must bring nature into things, i.e., let other energies do their work besides just us. Just as we must let spontaneous vegetation grow again, we must also be capable of being glad that a wall becomes something of itself, that it takes on new form of itself with the aid of nature. Nature is the best painter.
If something happens and moisture gets into the dwelling, it isn’t nature that is bad, but the contractor, because he did a poor job of building. The old farmhouses, the old walls, have beautiful, romantic, irregular shapes and offer nature in addition a surface for painting in the form of weathering effects of all kinds, and still no moisture gets in.
Our cities are so ugly because we don’t let nature paint, because we want to kill off nature the minute it manifests itself somewhere because of an error or for whatever reason. It’s funny the way we run off to Arab countries, to Italy, Sicily or out in the countryside and love to see old farmhouses and say how beautiful they are, how irregular they are. But when we come home, everything is polished smooth, smoothed over, especially in Germany. With German madness and German thoroughness everything is made monochrome again the minute the slightest irregularity in the colour manifest itself. If a hole or a spot crops up somewhere on a wall, an effect of the war, say, or erosion or soiling, people don’t think of the most obvious, reasonable thing to do - just leave the “damage” alone if it won’t ruin the wall or simply patch up the hole, even if the patch in the wall does not match the colour of the rest of the wall. The difference in colour and structure is an enrichment, the monotonous uniform colour is an impoverishment. You have to be grateful for every spot on the wall. Unfortunately, now people like to do the wrong thing: if there is a spot or a hole in the wall somewhere, the whole wall, the whole house has to be repainted! That is a typical pathological symptom of the perversity our civilisation has come to. That has to change. And if we know that and if a new goal and a new feeling and new principles of beauty and life come about here, then we have almost made it. That’s the solution.
I will live for seeing to it that this change comes about. That I see as my task. I will fight to help nature gain back her rights, including her part in colouring architecture.
If we let nature paint the walls, the walls will become natural, the walls will become humane, and then we can live again. We need barriers of beauty. These barriers of beauty are uncontrolled irregularities. We must conclude a peace treaty with nature. We must give territories back to nature which we misappropriated long ago. Spontaneous vegetation, spontaneous weathering must be reinstated in their old rights, particularly on the walls of our houses. This I stated already in my Mould Manifesto of 1958: if moss grows in a corner of the wall, rounding off the geometric angle, people should be glad that life is getting into the house with the dirt and the erosion and the weathering, allowing us to witness architectural changes from which we have a lot to learn.
Hundertwasser wrote this text in Venice, November 10, 1981, as a speech on the occasion of a conference on „Colour in Urban Architecture“ in Zell am See, Austria, in December 1981. Hundertwasser finally did not hold the speech.- Published
protokolle. Zeitschrift für Literatur und Kunst. edited by Otto Breicha. Jugend und Volk: Vienna/Munich, 1/1982, pp. 117-126 (German)
ISELP (ed.): Environnemental 12-13, L’art urbain en Europe. Brussels n.d., pp. 30-32, p. 60-61 (in French and English, excerpts)
Das Hundertwasser Haus (The Hundertwasser House). Österreichischer Bundesverlag/Compress Verlag: Vienna, 1985, pp. 152-157 (German)
Hundertwasser Architecture. For a More Human Architecture in Harmony with Nature. Taschen: Cologne, 1997, pp. 62-67 and Edition 2007, pp. 48-53
Schurian, Walter (ed.): Hundertwasser – Schöne Wege, Gedanken über Kunst und Leben. (Beautiful Paths – Thoughts on Art and Life) Langen Müller Verlag: Munich, 2004, pp. 248-259 (German)
Hundertwasser. Parkstone Press International: New York, 2008, pp. 143 - 152
© Hundertwasser Archive, Vienna
Power by Mad-logic.com