When I first thought about these colour facets of urbanity it conjured up a conversation I had about eight years ago with Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas (Haas & Hahn) – two regular Joes with different backgrounds. Back then, Urhahn worked as a journalist and Koolhaas earned his keep as a graphic artist while both shared a passion for hip-hop and visual arts. Together, they had gone to Brazil to work on an MTV documentary about hip-hop in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – and at one point, they found themselves in Rio’s toughest and most dangerous neighbourhood, a favela known for its frequent gun-blazing drug wars between rival gangs. So, what had started as an innocent job soon morphed into the inspiration for their new project. Struck by the daily life of Vila Cruzeiro and inspired by Florentijn Hofman’s Beukelsblauw, they returned to the favela to literally … paint the town. “We want to paint the entire favela,” said Urhahn. “Dream on,” I remember thinking. “Who would want that?”
Back in 2004, Rotterdam based artist Florentijn Hofman, best known for his work Rubberduck, was asked to transform a block of ten buildings that were scheduled for demolition. Commissioned to spice up the dull facade, he painted the entire block – all 115 metres long and 15 metres high – a bright shade of blue and christened it Beukelsblauw. Were the locals happy? No, of course not. Was it the colour scheme? Of course not. It was just that … a building should be grey or sober, really. The fact that this building had been exactly that – and considered a nasty eyesore – just a week earlier did not seem to matter at all.
On a similar note in Klagenfurt in 2009, Austrian architect Peter Kaschnig pdecided to paint a house in his former hometown of Klagenfurt blue. Not to serve as a work of art, but to study the psychological effect on residents and passers-by alike. The result so infuriated locals that they demanded the house to be returned to its original state, effective immediately.
While these three cases might be rather extreme examples of the potential impact of colour in urban space, what can we learn from their effect?
In a deliberate attempt to prompt a response Kaschnig covered an entire house, including every inch of its interior, in blue paint. The results and reactions did not surprise. “Nice idea, but I wouldn’t want to live in it.” For those living closer to the house in question, the experiment proved a real disaster. Not due to the colour itself, but because Kaschnig’s experiment – and the attention the house received – had upset the otherwise quaint and peaceful small-town tranquility. Tour busses started to pull up near the spectacle, jam-packed with admirers of Das Blaue Haus. Keen to see the actual work they turned the local parking situation into a veritable nightmare. After several months of struggle, the locals finally got their victory: The house was torn down and it all went back to business as usual, designated parking spot and all.
Hofman’s Beukelsblauw encountered similar opposition from disapproving locals. However, not everyone hated the colourful outcome: As time passed, more and more people embraced the project, including residents of other Rotterdam neighbourhoods. When the building was finally scheduled for demolition four years down the line, there were even attempts to prevent the destruction – and blue wreaths were left on the structure’s remains to honour the city’s former blue giant.
So what became of Urhahn and Koolhaas’ wild plans to paint an entire favela? More than I could have ever imagined. Their first mural, Boy With Kite, was feted by the national and international press and their second project, Rio Cruzeiro, exceeded all expectations. The 2000-square-metre mural, designed by Amsterdam based tattoo artist Rob Admiraal, not only attracted global media coverage, but also created job opportunities for the favela’s youths. The project brought Vila Cruzeiro’s population closer together; contributors received training and a final diploma. At the same time, and although statistics have revealed a decrease in gun-related incidents and gang activities, experts are reluctant to link this development to the positive attitude change the project might have brought to the favela. It remains an interesting correlation. Their third project, O Morro [The Hill], nudged the duo one step closer to their dream: Here, Haas & Hahn transformed an entire hill into a living work of art and an oeuvre of epic proportions. Intended to shed a positive light on an otherwise troubled neighbourhood, Santa Marta’s O Moro has now become one of Rio’s notable tourist destinations. In turn, Haas & Hahn’s business, dubbed Favela Painting, was asked to collaborate on a new project by The City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program; this lead to Philly Painting, finished in 2012. Bold and beautiful all the way, they injected a heavy dose of colour into the 2500-2800 block of Germantown Avenue, a historic part of North Philadelphia; an intervention inspired by the area’s heritage and intended to create a strong link to its vivid past.
So, there you have it: Three very different case studies with one common goal and medium. Their common denominator? All three appeared to use colour as a subtle means to influence the object’s direct surroundings – and create a sense of community. In Klagenfurt, this was not welcome. In Rotterdam, it was accepted. And in Rio de Janeiro, it left its mark on a disadvantaged neighbourhood and helped to reinstate it as the hip shopping district it once used to be. In this spirit, I would say: “More colour in the street? Yes, please! But, use it carefully – and only if and where it is really needed.
I would like to thank the following people: Imogen van Zaane (London, UK), Haas&Hahn (Philadelphia, USA), Florentijn Hofman (Rotterdam, NL) and Peter Kaschnig (Austria).