FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions / 4


















Why are your buildings so colourful and so highly decorated?


Nothing in building is cheaper than the physical manufacture of decoration, and nothing is more costly than the acquisition of the knowledge needed to design it in a fresh and modern form. My sense of the matter is that if the Architectural Profession continues to refuse this subject, as it has for the whole of the 20C, it will be displaced by one that masters its techniques.

All of the original Architectures of History were colourful when they were invented. The buildings of Egypt, India, China and Meso-america were painted and polished. We have known for 150 years that the Ancient Greek Temples, from which we descend the 'Classical' style of Western Architecture, shone like waxed automobiles. Not a square inch of raw stone was visible. If one had written a poem to White Marble, the Ancient Hellenes would have thought one a Barbarian. The quarries of the Pentelicon merely provided a good local stone to the Architects, Sculptors and Painters who made the Parthenon. It cut well and accurately, taking stain, densely coloured pigment, complex superficial patterns and a high polish. The Hellenes would have found our worship of its raddled old stones as distasteful as necrophilia.

Decoration is the only purely intellectual part of Architecture. What else could colour and pattern be but the occasion of mental exercise? Colour keeps out no water and protects no valuables. Yet decoration was banished in the 20C. Why? Why was Architecture condemned to a merely physical service, like a slave with no brains and no personality? Why was Architecture demoted, in the 20C, to the status of supplying only mechanical, physical, functions?

We can begin by recognising that Western Architecture, since the 15C Renaissance in Italy, has not founded its authority upon the patent force of an imagery of symbolic colour and form. The Renaissance introduced a rather 'new' idea. This was to rely upon the Authority of the almost unimaginably 'old', in other words the Authority of the 'Antique'.

Antiquity was a mythical place set in mythical time in which Nature, Truth, Authority, Freedom and Reason were one. Antiquity was the Golden Age. One had only to evoke it, and to learn from it, for a new Golden Age to be re-born. This was the simple task which Alberti set his Painters, Sculptors and Architects, and the reason he wrote his design manuals. "On Painting" and "On Architecture" were the simplest of Alberti's many books. The underlying purpose for the installation of Antiquity was never revealed in them. It is futile to analyse these two books and expect to unmask Alberti's cultural project from them alone.

To understand the purpose behind this peculiar 'Architecture of Antiquity' one must try to cast oneself back into Fifteenth Century Europe. One might imagine that a few people, talking over a glass of wine, realised that they had all grown very tired of a life governed by religous superstition and dynastic politics. Talking this over they began to understand that they all dreamt of escaping into a 'ideal state'.

This state would have a single boundary, instead of being scattered all over Europe, and even the Levant, by the picturesque quarterings of an heraldic shield. In its centre would be a city with a port. This city would contain merchants and craftsmen. Their trade, both local and overseas, would be facilitated by the banks of the kind being invented in Florence. This circulation of goods and money would make taxation easier. Instead of stealing corn and chickens from farmers, gold could be extracted from the merchants with whom the farmers traded.This 'ready money' would make it easier to pay for the protection of the city walls, ships and state boundaries. The Revenue would both pay for, and be protected by, the political negotiations, and ultimate military force, of an effective, rational, essentially 'professional', ruler to whom the title of 'Principe' would be given. The Prince would organise a 'Court' whose purpose was not narrowly political, but also aimed to cultivate Philosophy and the Arts in which its ideas are embodied. The function of this aspect of the 'ideal state' was to improve the quality of the ideas driving the style of the manufactures. A Court of good quality elevated the reputation of the state in the eyes of the world, and its competitors.

Petrach, Alberti, Machiavelli, and their contemporaries were united in an ambition to create a political entity of this sort. One may ask, from this distance in time, why these thinkers did not simply pursue such an ambition 'directly'? Why did they not invent a 'Rational Style' for their 'Court' and City? Why did they need to clothe this vision of a state, that seems eminently 'rational' to us, in the fiction of 'Antiquity'?

Every State has always had to present itself clothed in a 'rationale'. Our current rationale is the universal suffrage. The electorate periodically elect their rulers into existence. Then, equally periodically, we dismiss them. A radical alternative to this is rule by dynastic succession. Machiavelli merely wanted a rule that was as efficient as a 'professional' could provide. However the reliance on naked power, power exercised by 'professional politicians', that this brought to the fore, threw the state into an even worse state of political turmoil.

The idea of 'Antiquity' was a device that combined the rootless reliance on reason and professionalism with an ultimate foundation on something that was as real and concrete as the Architects, Sculptors, Painters, Poets and Musicians could make it. Antiquity was literally brought to life and life was projected into the timeless, golden, reality of 'Antiquity'. The 'professional politician' once he had seized power, threw himself into a frenzy of 'reification'. He commissioned a whole 'courtly landscape' of buildings, paintings, sculptures, masques and events-all designed to 'prove' his descent from Hercules himself. This was not a cult of the blood-dynasty, but the collective rehearsal of a fictive genealogy. This descent from the Golden Age of the true, the good and the real was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Prince must be descended from the Antique heroes because, after all, he is a very successful Prince.

It has to be credited to the power of the Hellenic Myths, and their supporting Arts in general, that they served to clothe a series of increasingly 'rational' States for so many centuries. Moreover, and this is less incredible, the Post-Mediaeval Italians had, all around them, the Latin (and, more remotely, the Greek) language together with the 1,000-year old ruins of their Arts. It was therefore possible for them to put this project into motion, from what are, when seen from this distance in time, small beginnings.

One should not be too forward in condemning the courtly culture of the Renaissance, and its successor states of the 'Ancien Regime', as being no more than the collective celebration of an elaborate fiction. Are we entirely certain that our contemporary politics is wholly rational and free of fantasy? What of the High-tech 'futurism' that periodically grips the British Labour Party. Is this not merely a mirror image of Antiquity: a fictive future when we will all live in aluminium domes and fly around on elevated trains? Both are fictions in which it is thought necessary to clothe the Rational State.

We will never escape from this 'necessity for 'clothing'. The reason is that although we have minds, they are supported by bodies that were prior to them, and which demand that which is 'due to Caesar'. The 'ideas' that govern the governance of the 'rational state' have to be 'clothed' in an embodiment that has its own inexorable 'natural' imperatives. It must be possible to 'live' the ideas, if not the ideology, of the 'State'. This 'living of the ideas' is literally their embodiment, not in the 'fictive space' of theatre, but in the 'true space' of the quotidian, the everyday. The traditional intermediary between these two extremes was 'Architecture'. The agency of this medium was, traditionally, a 'Court'.

The 'difficult fact' that all these pecuilar visions of an 'ought to be state of 'Architecture' is that evolution on this planet began, some 10,000 years ago (to give a round figure) to be Cultural rather than Natural. I take here my cue from Hannah Arendt who stressed the notion that Novelty is not a fiction. The greatest Novelty was, perhaps the Big Bang itself. Coming on a bit, Culture, in the sense of a Medium exclusively manufactured by Homo Sapiens, and manipulated by him without a 'natural' interface with Nature, is a manifest Novelty on Earth. It is not to say that its arrival was without natural cause or natural effect, only to say that in never existing before, it is New. Of late, and mainly alerted by Scientists who were Women-like Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs-(rather than poets, artists, architects or politicians) everyone has become aware that this New Cultural Dimension to 'evolution' has grown to alarming dimensions and is changing Nature in ways that have a potentially 'cataclysmic' quality. Perhaps this is why so much interest is shown, today, in the impact of asteroids and other cataclysmic aspects of Nature.

Thus, today, as always, burdened with bodies, we have to find a way of 'living our ideas'. But we have to do this without recourse to Fictions, either of a golden past or a platinum future.

This is the project pursued by my Architecture.

This where I have come to rely on colour and decoration.

I have always argued that there is nothing novel or surprising in the plans of my buildings. Just as our bodies have changed little during the last 10,000 years, so I enter my buildings in the middle and hollow out a big space in their centre so that people may meet and then repair to smaller spaces around them for privacy. These structures are as simple in large concept as they may become complex and sophisticated in their detailed design. This dividing and ordering of space is mediated by the device of an Order, which is an novel sort of 'Ordine' that I have developed over the past 35 years. I deal with the nature of this 'Working Order' more fully elsewhere. It serves, as do all 'Trabeated Architectures' to empower the 'room-spaces' it frames.

Its function, with respect to colour and decoration, is to 'empower', that is to say 'powerfully frame' and 'virtually' bring into being, the planes of the otherwise merely 'built' ceiling, floor and walls, raising them to the conceptual status of a 'view'. I have also dealt, elsewhere, with the origins of Modern Architectural Composition in the final collapse of Perspective Space.

My project, for the last 13 years, has been to invent a form of 'painting' that could recover the use of these 'viewing screens' to Architecture. It has been a long research, with many difficult and damaging rebuffs. But it has met with some success, at last, in the Shaper ceiling of Duncan Hall, in Rice University, Houston Texas. This ceiling, together with its terrazzo floor, and a fully coloured, 100 M (300'0") long, interior, was commissioned on December 12th 1995, half way through the construction process itself. It was designed in London and vetted by the University 'Interiors Subcommittee' that flew across the Atlantic. It was manufactured by a process, that I call 'Video-Secco', involving painting, photography and computer-processing in London, canvas materials from Ohio, mechanical spray-painting in Skelmersdale, ceiling tile-manufacture in Toronto, and erection (taking only two days) in Houston, by July 1996.

The aesthetic character of this 'painting' ,which I call 'Iconic Engineering', rather than 'Art', is derived from the commonplaces of 20C graphics which one finds in every supermarket as derived from Leger, Juan Gris, Picasso et al. It is our common heritage from the invention of non, or anti-perspectival, 'cubist space'. There is nothing 'exceptional' in this and I do not see it, or my own work, as entering the field of research and invention characteristic of the 'Gallery'. My relation to 'Art', as 'Fine Art', is rather that of the practical engineer to the 'pure laboratory scientist'.

After many failures, involving the development of huge schemes involving the use of 'Fine Artists', such as David Hockney (who declined, I am sure rightly, to work 'to commission') to paint ceilings and the marshalling of a team of Artists to make a great buon fresco ceiling for the Judge Institute (as recommended by the Royal Fine Art Institute), I have succeeded, if only at my own, relatively modest, 'architectural' level, by relying on an iconological culture derived from my own discipline, Architecture, and a graphic design culture that is equally native to the 20C Architectural Medium. Although it is clearly unusual for an Architect to 'paint a ceiling' today, the precedents are all there in the past. It became very clear that no 'fine artist' of major reputation relished the prospect of lowering his status to that of a mere 'craftsman' by 'working to order' and following an iconographic programme-such as recounting of the 'novelties' of some particular Institution, like a University.

Nor is it sufficient to merely pin various pieces of Artistic Craftsmanship, or Craftsmanly Art, onto the dull bodies of contemporary buildings. This project, of 'x' percent for Art, serves only as an inadequate figleaf to cover the iconic nakedness of contemporary architectural culture. The Mother of the Arts, driven out into the real world, needs a more persuasive wardrobe.. This is not to say that there is no place for the craftsman-designer-consultant in contemporary Architecture. It is to redirect their interest away from handworking small fragments into considering how they can serve to clothe the huge expanses of a building's fabric in a some more cost-effective way. In short anyone who seeks to be of real use to my project will only succeed by bringing an ability to deliver an iconically developed surface at a much lower cost per square measure than any 'straight' handicraft can manage. Our ceiling for Texas, manufactured all over the world, cost one tenth that of its buon fresco equivalent. This is the difference between the fact that in Houston there is a ravishingly beautiful, as well as densely intellectualised, vault, whereas in Cambridge there is a somewhat arcane and purely architectural 'joke' (although 'decorative'enough) veneered in English ash. Neither could any 'craftsperson', that I know, been of any use to either, in helping to improve their cost-effectiveness.

So far as I am concerned, the 'iconic engineer' has no higher or lower status than any other member of the project team. The Architect is the originator and the final arbiter of the project. In between, in my favourite way of working, that I call 'rock and roll design', everyone plays a more or less creative part. The 'Fine Artist' from his own 'job-description' is prohibited from working as a part of a 'band'. He is a solo-artist whose stock in trade is an absolute detachment from any taint of co-operation. He must manifest the purity of his inner-directed freedom, up until the bitter finale, as with Rothko, of suicide. No contemporary Artist of repute could merely 'paint a ceiling', and certainly not under the direction of a 'Committee for the Interior and their mere Architect!

The Artist Craftsman finds it less of a problem, within his 'job description', to 'jam in a group'. His problem is that, for most cases, his work is ineffectively costly. I have never felt sympathy for the idea that 'handworked' artefacts have a special quality due to their handworked quality alone. Quality is quality, however it is arrived at. A machine is only an enlarged kind of tool. Is a painting more of an 'artwork' if the painter has mined his own pigments and used his own hair to make his brushes? All that is needed in my team is an additional 'engineer', one who has trained as a student of iconology and all the techniques of the graphical and inscriptional media. He, or she, is like a heating and ventilating engineer, mediating in another dimension, that of the 'conceptual environment'.

Thus it is that the cheapest way of obtaining an iconically complex surface, such as we used on the Martell Hall ceiling and planned to use on the Judge Gallery Columns, is carried-over from the 'printing' industry. We use digitally-sprayed acrylic paint, or 'decal'-transferred laser copy dry pigment, because these are more light-fast than bubble-jet printing ink. Next is the use of inlaid concrete and concrete used in the way of sgraffito, being ground back to reveal another colour below. Inlaid terrazzo is a flooring technique that is as durable as stone, but is more cost effective in providing a 'scriptable' and colourable surface. We will go on to develop others, no doubt.

All of these techniques result in a coloured impression whose physical penetration of the substrate varies from 200 mm to a few microns. Although yellow lichen grows on alkaline concrete in ten years (if given clean air), none of these finishes is intended to give the impression of being 'Antique'. They escape from any such interpretation because I deliberately use colour, even on masonry. I rely on the fact that when left out in the wind and rain all materials tend to grey. But what is not generally known, because based on the invention of new ways of making old pigments, like cobalt blue, economically available, is that colour today , having been tested externally over the past 30 years, is more light-fast than it has ever been. A strongly blue concrete, for example, is possible that will remain blue for at least 50 years. Moreover, because its colour is fixed into its whole body, its surface is easily refreshed by a gentle hydrochloric acid etch, maybe every half century.

We had a petrological analysis of a mis-shapen blob of a coping stone on a 19C brick garden wall in Welbeck Abbey, the seat of the extinct dynasty of the Dukes of Portland. It started with an estimate of its age, as a material. It was some 2,000,000 years. How can one be surprised that all 'Antique' structures came to be made of raw rock? What could be more incontrovertibly 'authoritative' than a palace carved from the pre-lapsarian accident of limestone? Could anything be more 'authentic' than these exhausted sediments of the life of our planet at the time of the dinosaurs? Could it be, even, that the current cult of a 'Grey Futurism' is the fag end of 'Antiquity'looking for a new 'Authoritarianism' to impose on us, this time of a mythic 'Future'to replace an equally fictitous 'Antique' past?Instead of waiting for the return of a train that passed 2,000,000 years ago we are abjured to wait for the arrival of an equally unlikely 'Future'. Today, buildings are becoming a 'carve-up' between two distinct races of Architect: those that will not touch the Future, and those that will not touch the Past. Presumably if they mingled further than the stainless prostheses and neoprene washers that normally insulate their contact, a lively Present might be born that would show them both to be the bloodless paranoias that they are.

Bearing in mind the desire to reject the Western Tradition of Antiquity that one finds in Modernism, from its earliest beginnings, why did colour not become the prime technique that marked this rejection, and the mark of a design method that had faced-up-to the fact that there was no more authenticity, or authority, to be had from 'Antiquity' of any sort, whether Classical or Mediaeval? All such appeals were accepted, at the outset of 20C Modernity, as fraudulent and founded on fictions. The only authenticity is to openly show that one's invention is precisely that, a 'novel' thing. This is done by colouring it. Firstly this shows that it is artificial and man-made. Secondly it shows that it is new and fresh and not old (especially not deliberately 'antiqued'). It is not bleached beige, white or grey by a fictional age, as were the new Greek statues that the great sculptors carved, buried and then dug up, only partly as a joke, during the Renaissance.

Secondly the authenticity of an Architecture must derive from telling the 'Beauty that is Truth' about the Cosmos and Ourselves, in so far as we have yet established it. In short my 'muse' is Science. My Order is set-up to allow this to be done. The huge columns and beams frame-out the Shaper Ceiling in Duncan Hall. The Shaper Ceiling is a microcosm of the 'space and time' of the Cosmos, the first 'Novelty'. Nor is its 'novel' an unitary one. The oppressiveness of an incontrovertible 'truth' is avoided by rehearsing as many versions of the 'first event' as I found intellectually and aesthetically (that is formally) available. By telling it in as many versions as possible one avoids the accusation that one is imposing one's own version.

St Augistine said that God, before he Created, created Nothing. The Lie is the partner to the Truth, and both are needed at the level of Theory, which is the sum total of all that can be represented, and communicated, tout court, as an Image. Knowledge is the result of the working out, the navigation, of the foggy greys that lie between white and black. My ceiling is the black and white. The 'fog' is the fertile conceptual activity behind the eyes that gaze up at it.

The role of the Order is mainly an 'enabling' one. The penetrating intellectual dimension lies in the patterned and coloured surfaces of the 'picture planes' that an Order brings into being. The floor of Martell Hall is inscribed with the footprints of the absent, or buried, columns of the Hypostyle of the Time of Infinity that both precedes and encompasses the Time of Novelty, out of whose cataclysmic epiphany flows the Time of History which courses across the footprints of its absented mural encasements in the form of the tridentine Delta, and the snaking infinity of the Ocean. These are some of the Event Horizons of the metaphorical Narrative-Space of the 'flow of time' that is 'somatic time', and the secondary Novelties of the 'arrow of time' that is History. The giant columns themselves were to bear patterns and colours iconically engineered to rehearse the five stages of the Ontogeny and Phylogeny of our Species, from the replication of the first amino-acids up to the curved, black, fields of the 'trans-visibility' of thought.

All of these patterns and intellectual structures are inscribed, like marquetry or pietradura, into the pure, unmoulded, superficial surfaces of my Order and its framed-out Fields. They hang in the air like solid light.

For five hundred years Architectural form in Europe was authenticated by reference to a bare, bleached, uncoloured, 'Antique' original. For four of those centuries the 'original' was 'Classical', or Hellenic-Roman. During the 19C this original was abandoned but a substitute was called forth: the Mediaeval. At the end of the 19C the search for an 'original' antique model became frivolous. Scientific, factual, archaeology finally destroyed all hope of the recovery of such an authentically 'Platonic' original. Every Doric order, every Ionic capital, every Gothic exfoliation, was 'originated' in a living, willing, timebound, mind. There was no 'platonic parent'.

Since then there has been 'truth to structure', or 'truth to construction', or 'truth to clean, clear, rational and simple geometric form', or truth to function', or 'truth to materials'. All of these routes to an authoritative authenticity have been tried. Today the mood is to revel in the idea that the only route to a truly authentic, naked, truthfulness is via the disorder, meaninglessness, chaos and contrariness of 'contra-functionality' and 'counter-formalism'. Needless to say that all of this muddle has to be invented using elaborate rituals to ensure 'true accidents'. Nothing in Architectural design requires more artifice, it seems, than the imitation a 'Artless Nature'.

My own route is to propose a new Order, in its narrowest, purely Architectural sense. This is an Order that functions in the new ways that suit us today. The architectural members of the Order frame 'viewing screens'. These enable an iconically literate culture to rehearse complex ideas. The authenticity of my architecture comes from its roots in all previous Architectures. It is clearly 'of the authentic medium' and no other. The authority of my Architecture does not come from the 'power' of its framing members. There are far greater 'powers' loose in the World today than even the fattest column!. A fully laden truck could plough right through many modern buildings, and we have seen what a cruise missile can do to a building. Architecture is no longer an imperishable 'physical' presence.

Such power and authority as an Ordered, trabeated, Architecture can have today derives from the 'truth-content of its 'painted fields': those great framed-out views into the 'reality that lies behind appearances'. What are these but mental exercises in a new, unfamilar, yet primordial intellectual language? And what is their Medium but colour and pattern?

In Architecture today the physical no longer authenticates the intellectual. Today the intellectual validates the physical. With my technology the colours and patterns of purely intellectual structures soak into the solid, hard, heavy members of my hollow beams and columns. For the first time in Architectural History solid dark matter and weightless light and colour can become totally synthesized in my material of choice: through-coloured, non-fade, cast-it-any-shape-you like, 'concrete'. To build with 'solid light' is to build with 'ideas' themselves, casting them into eternally durable matter, all the way through.

Then, in order to embody the ideas themselves, as ideas fully-fleshed in natural space, I remove their solid 'bearer-wave'. The idea remains, like an after-image, a memory and a concept, literally 'enfleshed' in the space previously occupied by its impregnation inside the solidly durable architectural element. This 'grand finale' of the Architectural Dance is the highest achievment of the Architectural Medium. It is to walk into an idea that is literally present, yet nevertheless impalpable, existing in natural space. This final turn can be achieved in no other medium. With this technique one can achieve, for example, the ambition of Husserl, which was to reify Time.


End of FAQ No. 4: "Colour and Decoration",

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John Outram