Monday, Feb. 16, 2009

Building in Color

By Aisha Motlani
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Milwaukee's not a city that immediately conjures up a riot of colors in the mind's eye. That said, a number of architects and developers seem intent on challenging that outlook. Colorful new developments are popping up in different corners of the city. For a start there's that uncompromisingly yellow building next to Alterra in the Fifth Ward (with the pastel-colored cluster of apartments behind it serving as a sort of insipid echo), the red, white and blue London House apartments on Farwell, the big blue building perched on the slopes of Park East and its vibrantly-hued neighbors. Then there are the splashy light effects commissioned to breath new life into older structures like the Domes and the Marcus Center. What, I wonder, has prompted this broadened palette? What has spurred this multihued gesticulation?

The so-called "Milwaukee Renaissance" might be too facile an answer. Then again, perhaps the same kind of optimism that underlined the rampant condo development also felt the urge to express itself in a more celebratory spectrum of colors. It’s definitely something worth looking at, for its helping to form an incremental transformation of the cityscape.

The use of color in architecture has always been something of a divisive issue. Architects who wield a lavish palette often have something of a stigma attached to them. At best architects like John Outram and Will Allsop bear the brand of irreverent anti-conformism – at worst they are regarded as suspiciously eccentric (and their designs are often described by critics in terms as colorful as the buildings themselves). I believe an aura of the outsider still clings to those who strain so willfully against the austerity usually associated with modern architecture. The idea of a monochromatic palette as the classical expression of the pure form and intent, a kind of blankness that allow the architectonic values of a building speak, still holds a lot of currency in many circles. The application of bold color is long held by some as a distraction from that “masterly,correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light” outlined by the father of modern architecture himself (Corbusier).

Yet by the same wrote one can’t deny there’s something undeniably modern about colorful architecture; something that suggests a more international scope, and that’s what the aforementioned local developments seem to be trying to exude. Its both heartening (who doesn’t like a bit of color), and definitely contributes to a more vibrant architectural landscape. But it also prompts one to consider if this display of color becomes a veneer masking designs which, after all, are not pushing the design envelope. Are the designers of these developments using bold color as a stand-in for exemplary – or even modestly accomplished – design? Does this broadened palette signify a dawning confidence or simply cosmetic distraction?

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