Coloring Outside the Lines

As an architect trained in the modernist tradition, I believe in the tenet, “be true to the material.” But a recent trip to Mexico broadened my understanding of what it means to be “true”. It also changed my thinking about paint – in particular, painted exterior masonry and concrete.  Kahn, Ando, and my current fave, Rick Joy, embrace the purity of concrete. So do I, at least in the beautiful and serene compositions of these architects.  But in Mexico, I formed a new relationship to exterior concrete. I learned that the price of purity can be too high.  And I learned that color – not subtle impregnated color, but bold painted color, has value distinct from the material it covers.

California, Kahn’s Salk Institute. Photograph by Naquib Hossain

In Mexico and in much of South America and Southeast Asia — where the cost of materials trumps the cost of labor — poured concrete, concrete masonry units (CMU), and stucco proliferate. The Mexican folk craft tradition and pervasive poverty throw both an expressiveness and crudeness into the architecture.  Mortar bulges out of CMU joints, stucco slathers roughly over surfaces.  Few buildings exhibit the perfection of craft (and associated costs) of high modernism.  However, the crudeness is overcome by a sophisticated color sensibility and given expression through paint.  Mexicans paint everything:  rough CMU walls, groovy geometric gates, park benches, lampposts, and trees. Yes, they paint trees!

Walking around in Mexican towns, I saw bands of municipal painters re-coloring city buildings and park furniture; I saw home-owners freshening up their patio walls.  The labor of beautification signaled civic pride and social cohesion.  Mostly, I saw a riot of color – bright, rich, imaginative, compelling color.

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Mexico, painted concrete graves. Photograph by Michael Onofrio

And I saw it pealing off.  I saw a lot of dirty peeling paint.

The modernist in me used to feel that painting concrete despoiled the material–inherently durable and pure–both structure and finish.  In my new hometown of Philadelphia, we love using brick, and sometimes we paint old brick facades.  I still look at a painted brick façade and get a sense of “coating”.  Ideally, I don’t think brick should be painted.  It’s a good material and it weathers well. A dirty old masonry façade looks significantly better than a pealing painted building face.  But now I believe that paint has a place–in the real world.  Not everyone can afford to maintain their property.  Painting a masonry façade is cheaper and takes less skill than re-pointing and cleaning it.  Paint helps prevent water infiltration.  While it is a finicky coating that masks a surface and requires constant maintenance; it is also cheap, fast, and limitless in hue.

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Mexico, abandoned houses. Photograph by Michael Onofrio

Concrete can be drab and depressing.  Yes – I’ll say it again.  Concrete can be cold and ugly.  A respected colleague who spent a lot of time in Bangladesh witnessing pealing and molding surfaces says of painted CMU and stucco: “They are an economical way to finish the exterior surface, hide the inelegant masonry, and give a building character.  I like to think that being true to the material also means knowing its limitations.  Painting over CMU is definitely one way of respecting its characteristics!”

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Dhaka, Bangladesh, dry peppers.  Photograph and quote above by Naquib Hossain.

Juliet Whelan owns Jibe Design in Philadelphia, an award-winning firm that creates architecture which weds profound design with environmentally responsible solutions.

On 6/7/12, Khan was corrected to Kahn in the first paragraph.

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