Francesca Valan, an Italian industrial designer, is internationally considered one of the most passionate and experienced colour experts. One of the key problems, when it comes to colour and architecture, is that colour is something that architects add at the end of the design. She strongly disagrees on such an approach and after telling us, with the bricks, of course, what is colour, I asked her about Architecture. What is Architecture?
She stares at the bricks for a while and then she starts building. When she has finished, she looks at me
and at the bricks and recalling the question – what is Architecture? – she simply says: ‘Rules. Geometric rules. Axes. Vertical and horizontal axes. But the main thing, it’s depletion of chromatic and material elements in favour of formal elements.’
I look at her model: it’s an interesting one, as there are a number of elements and they are all detached. ‘What are these elements you have built here?’ I ask her.
‘Volumes. These are volumes and not architecture. The yellow one, for instance, it’s a solid build following formal criteria I do not know, with improper chromatic criterion. Because colour in architecture is always impoverished. It’s kind of too obvious, if there’s any logic, this is a trivialising one.’
She stops for a while and then she goes on ‘For now, I see things like that. I see much more the colour than the shape. Therefore, for instance, don’t ask me what is that’ – she says while taking a grey volume in her hands – ‘ this is just grey for me…’
That is interesting, though I don’t see anything that could recall architecture in her model, so I ask her again ‘What is Architecture? What is Architecture made of?’
She firmly says ‘Volumes’.
‘Volumes?’ I repeat, to let her go ahead with her story. ‘In this moment my vision is rather negative, perhaps because in Milano, where I live, they are building a lot and they are stuffing volumes everywhere…’ I keep looking at her model and point her out that her volumes are all detached. ‘Does that mean that architecture is nothing else but a bunch of detached volumes, blocks of colour…?’
‘The Idea… the utopia is that these volumes are unified somehow, then when I read them, they are all detached. There are concepts that unify these elements, but in the cities it’s not always true that these elements are linked.’
‘So Architecture is linked to the city?’ I ask’
‘Architecture is linked to living experiences.’ she says. Though I don’t see any human figure in her model, which is made only by volumes. ‘When colour is not properly designed, there’s no human element’ – she admits – ‘I am extremely negative about architecture in this moment, because colour could link everything, but it’s not always adequately taken into consideration. So, at the very end, I think architecture is conceived mainly in black and white and the chromatic element is applied in such a formal way, that rather than unifying, it divides… I am sorry for being that negative, I am not an architect and architects will hate me!…’ she says with a smile.
I go on and move some of the volumes. ‘Does it change anything, if I move these elements around?’ I ask her.
‘No. Nothing changes’ she says.’So, what would you do to unify and link these elements and make architecture something harmonic?’ I ask. ‘Harmony comes from dialogue… these elements should dialogue…’ and by saying so, she starts playing with the volumes. She takes the bricks apart and rebuilds the volumes so that each volume is not made by a single colour, but it includes several colours.
‘Each volume should have something of the others… Like in any harmony’ she says. ‘Beyond proportions, we need emotions and emotions are designed through colours and materials, this is the the new goal of design, I think. Therefore, the idea is that of linking spaces visually. After all, colour gives space its visual structure. Look… ‘ – Francesca points me out the volumes which have each a colour in common with others - ‘you can link these volumes visually now. You can follow a visual path, the eye may follow the green, then move and look for the yellow… Colour is a unifying element… it can divide and unify. And the same goes for materials…’
I need to challenge her more and ask again about the human element.
‘But we can imagine the human presence! Human beings are here, between things… if this is architecture, here there’s a whole living world…’
‘Architecture as space then?’
‘Sure!’ – she says – ‘architecture it’s space, it’s spatial circumscription and it’s colour, when properly employed… but if you want, here’s a human figure…’ and by saying so, she builds a human figure and puts it in the middle of the landscape.
‘So, who is that human figure?’ I ask her. She stops and thinks for a while. Than she smiles checky and starts telling the story of the little human figure. ‘This is Ms Constance. She goes to the market and buys lemons. Ms Constance then goes back home, and, if the architect designed a kitchen with the right lightening, she will see a beautiful lemon…’ – she laughs, she is having fun. ‘But if she ends up in an architecture where lightning is poor, she will perceive the lemon poor as well…. ‘
Francesca has been talking about architecture without mentioning architects. ‘What does the architect do?’ ‘Architects are essential! They design our living spaces’.
‘But this space seems poorly designed… all volumes are disconnected…’
‘Volumes are detached, not disconnected. There’s nothing negative in that. Indeed, they are shorter now, had I built only one – very tall – volume, we’d miss the sense of the proportions. This way, with many volumes, balanced with human heights, it’s ok….’
I look at her model and ask about the green flag: ‘What is that green flag?’
‘Green is the complementary colour of red. And this is not a flag’ – she points out – ‘it’s a green that is shaped as a flag… and this – this is a yellow that is trying to become an eye’ she says looking at the yellow brick with a shape that may remind of an eye.
‘So, by looking at your model, would you be able to give a definition of what is architecture, or what it should be?’ Francesca stops for a while, thinks for a moment and then adds more bricks to her model.
‘You see’ – she says when she finished – ‘ there’s a lack of green, there’s only one flower and there are many bricks… we should have fifty flowers and less bricks… this brick’ – she says showing me the green one – ‘it’s just a building coloured by green, but has nothing natural in it… there’s very few natural elements left. And this is very meaningful, if we think about contemporary architecture. In this moment, in Milano, for instance, trees are now on private balconies…’.
Francesca keeps playing with the bricks. ‘ Lego has deactivated my rational part… I am not sure I’ll be able to make anything meaningful…’ she says while building.
When she is ready, she says :’I am not sure this is Architecture. This is a composition of casual elements that might last 10 minutes and can be destroyed with no regrets… I have built is to make a volume that had spaces… proportionate spaces… In this case the human figure’ – she says showing me the minifig – ‘… he is a student of the Montessori school who is going to Lambretto, a blue building that we have in Milano – a beautiful, big blue building where they used to produce Lambrette [a kind of motor-bike produced in Milano]…’ Francesca refers to one of the buildings she worked at – in fact she defined and studied the colours to be applied to he renewed Lambretto building. ‘In that case I suggested to build big walls made by huge LEGO bricks, so that children could build and rebuild their own school… But it was not possible… So this one’ – she says referring to the minifig – ‘is the happy child attending a Montessorian school when we imagined that he could build his own space by himself…’.
There’s a flag in the model, and I ask Francesca about it.
‘It’s always the green. In this case is green as natural element. It’s a wish… what we miss, is the green element, which generally is always added at the end of the design process. Green for me, just because I live in Milano, is added as justification and to present architecture as ‘green’, but it’s never an experienced green… Perhaps architecture should be build the other way around…’ - and by
saying that, Francesca again, builds - ‘we start planning from the green and we build architecture all around the green, with a huge respect… Unlike what happens today, where green and all colours are attached at the very end, after the architecture is done… Architecture should be much more emotional space, rather than rational space’.
The original audio recording and the complete Italian transcription of this interview are available on www.b4bricks.org