This time of year, the color red is everywhere. It’s the color of Rudolph the reindeer’s nose, Santa Claus’s snazzy suit, and your bank account after buying everyone gifts. However, this bold color isn’t only relevant around the holidays. Red has been an instrumental color socially, politically, and intellectually throughout history and across cultures. From red-light districts and Communist parties, to promoting public safety, the color red is clearly applied in diverse and significant ways.
Phaidon’s new book Red: Architecture in Monochrome emphasizes how the color warrants a closer look. The book explores red structures around the world to show how the color communicates different historical and ideological narratives through architecture. Here, we’ve excerpted some of our favorite buildings from the book.
NUESTRA SEÑORA DEL CARMEN NEUROPSYCHIATRIC CENTER
José Javier Gallardo
Zaragoza, Spain (2011)
This striking clinic for young people with psychiatric disorders was built as an extension to Nuestra Señora del Carmen Neuropsychiatric Center in Zaragoza, Spain. Designed by José Javier Gallardo of g.bang architects (whose maxim is “in search of sexy architecture”), the building houses accommodation and social spaces for patients, along with staff quarters. A long, low building, its spiked pitched roofs form a jagged, quirky profile against the cerulean Spanish sky. The different roof-forms demarcate the zones and areas of activity below them. The highest-pitched roofs are above the common room; the less steeply angled gables above the bedrooms; and the flat roofs are above the staff quarters. The facility will eventually be extended to include workshops.
The building makes a bold statement that flies in the face of stereotypical perceptions of clinics for those suffering from mental illness; it’s striking, highly conspicuous, and unique. The carmine zinc-coated exterior shouts about its existence and is meant, according to the architects, to make the center’s guests visible: it “robs us of prejudice” and “emphasizes the social work” that goes on there. This greater visibility and acceptance of their condition will ultimately help the patients’ healing, they say.
Lake District, England, UK (2015)
PaperBridge, in the English Lake District, is an artwork of and for its open, natural context. Supported end-to-end by two gabions (cages filled with stones, rocks, or concrete), it is a play on structure and physics—built entirely of locally produced sheets of paper (wood pulp and water). Compressed and carefully shaped, the resulting footbridge is remarkably strong and connects two paths that meet at the banks of a gently flowing beck (stream), communicating the fundamental nature of the landscape that it sits in.
While the shape of the bridge is familiar, it’s aesthetically charged. The vibrant red of the material is a focal point in the valley. Undulating fields and sloping hillsides, broken only by snaking drystone walls, all appear to lead to the PaperBridge. It draws the gaze, as would a tree on a tundra, to interfere with the natural order of the terrain. Its symbolic presence as an architectural element plays with existing sightlines while creating new ones, playing with conceptions of non-agricultural countryside. This bridge could not exist elsewhere: a wayfinding landmark and visual challenge in one.
RED RIBBON PARK
Qinhuangdao, China (2007)
A former rubbish dump and abandoned shanty village has been transformed into a park along the Tanghe River in Qinhuangdao. This 547-yard (500-meter) boardwalk, edged by a red, snaking element incorporating lighting and seating, has served not only to create a space for well-being and environmental education but also preserves a large swathe of threatened habitat. The city’s inevitable creep outward means the river would probably have been drained and replaced with concrete embankments and ornamental flower beds. Landscape architects Turenscape’s clever response to the problem was to create an enticing trail through the green river corridor, given a central identity by this simple, vivid construction.
The fiber-steel structure is 24 inches (61 centimeters) high, varying in width, and is connected to a boardwalk. Five cloud-shaped pavilions are placed at intervals, for people to shelter from the sun, to rest, or meet. Previously overgrown areas have been transformed into shady woodlands, vistas of water and islands, and grassy meadows. Bright red is a social and eye-catching color, providing a zesty contrast with the landscape. Used by residents for walking, fishing, jogging, or meditating, this is an example of how a simple idea can improve people’s quality of life. As day becomes evening, the space evolves into a beautiful spectacle; lit from within, the ribbon resembles a trail of lava, sending reflections shimmering from the Tanghe.
Los Angeles, CA, USA (2009)
Lorcan O’Herlihy’s LOHA practice designed this eleven-unit box-like apartment block in a suburban area of West Hollywood. Mindful of creating more green space, both for the inhabitants and the locality, the architects decided against common typologies used for housing blocks: apartments grouped around a central quadrangle, small individual private gardens, or minimal shared spaces between units—all compromises that seemed to miss the mark. By shifting all the accommodation to one side of the plot, they used the remaining space to create a small park, which all apartments would overlook and have access to. This park was also open to other residents of the area.
Unsurprisingly the opportunity to create a public garden in LA’s relentless grid was welcomed and incentivized by the city’s authorities. Clad in corrugated metal in two tones of red and black, the facade has a slightly utilitarian look. Access walkways face the park, and provide natural ventilation through the building. Perforated metal screening gives privacy to balconies and walkways, and the arrangement of cladding and screening makes for a playfully choreographed exterior pattern. The scarlet block is a joyful and surprising contrast with the rest of the neighborhood’s bland suburban architecture. Inside, the apartments are painted in regulation architect’s white, set off with accents of—unsurprisingly—red.
Vitruvius and Sons
St. Petersburg, Russia (2007)
The barcode was invented by Bernard Silver in 1948 and is now a ubiquitous part of modern life. Highly symbolic of consumer culture, it has been used in works by American artist Scott Blake and English graffiti artist Banksy, but it’s also a form that has inspired architects. Vitruvius and Sons have designed this bright-red shopping mall in St. Petersburg, Russia, adopting the barcode as an apt motif for the store, a vibrant beacon surrounded by otherwise uniform, gray, concrete structures.
Barcode is located on Narodnaya Ulitsa, in the middle of a Soviet residential area near the Lomonosov Metro. 59,200 square feet (5,500 square meters) in area, built in 2007, the mall has four floors of shops, with a further two floors above. The cut-out numbers on the facade at the sixth floor are actual windows; the numeric code that forms the design doesn’t have any deeper significance or meaning when scanned; however, this does not detract from the considerable visual impact. The barcode motif has been used on several other buildings’ designs worldwide—hardly surprising given the massive impact digitization has had on the world.
CENTER FOR JEWISH LIFE AT DREXEL UNIVERSITY
Stanley Saltowitz/ Natoma Architects
Philadelphia, PA, USA (2016)
Drexel University is a private research institute in the University City area of Philadelphia. Hillel is the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and is the largest student organization in the world, supporting Jewish students at more than 550 universities. Its base at Drexel, Hillel House—also named the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life—is a place to meet, learn, study, and worship. Each of the building’s four levels is devoted to different activities: community, learning, and prayer on the ground, first, and second floors, plus a support level in the basement with services such as kitchens, storage, and mechanical equipment.
The most striking aspect is its front facade, designed in the form of an abstracted menorah, the branched candle-holder used in Jewish homes and synagogues. The center is clad with locally sourced red brick of the kind used throughout the neighborhood. The brick is arranged in a textured pattern to evoke the tallit, the prayer shawls used in Jewish communities. Brick and glazing are arranged in strips of irregular width, also suggesting the stripes of a barcode, giving the center’s design a contemporary twist. The top floor is reserved for Shabbat (sanctity): there is a library and worship areas devoted to three different strands of Judaism: conservative, orthodox, and reform groups. These are all clustered around a central, empty courtyard that emphasizes unity in the faith.
HARPA CONCERT HALL
Henning Larsen Architects
Reykjavik, Iceland (2011)
Harpa is a concert hall and conference venue in the heart of Reykjavik, overlooking the sea and mountains. The exterior of the 301,389-square-foot (28,000-square-meter) building is impressive: the facade, referencing Iceland’s spectacular basalt rock formations, consists of hundreds of twelve-sided glass “quasi-bricks,” interspersed with colored and mirrored glass hexagonal cells. The “quasi-bricks” are filled with LED units, which light up and change color at night in response to the movement of people inside and outside the building, in an ever-shifting pattern. This was a collaboration between Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Henning Larsen Architects.
Inside, there are four concert halls, an administration area, rehearsal space, and retail area. The main auditorium—the heart of the building— is named Eldborg, after a volcanic crater. This part of the building is the architect Henning Larsen’s design; a concrete core inside the glass shell. Eldborg, meaning “fire mountain,” is the red-hot powerhouse to the facade’s crystalline exterior. The concrete, a material itself suggestive of cooling lava, is surfaced in red-lacquered birchwood, native to Iceland. The auditorium can accommodate up to 1,800 people, with its brutal, shoebox form creating a dramatic contrast to the more prosaic foyer. It has been described as having “a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved performers to tears of joy.”
Gothenburg, Sweden (2011)
Located in the university district of the Swedish city of Gothenburg, Kuggen is a cylindrical building designed to stimulate and facilitate collaboration between its inhabitants: educators and, primarily, students. Described by its architects as referencing the planning principles of the Italian Renaissance (it boldly occupies a grand, urban square in the same way a sixteenth-century civic structure might), the building is defined first and foremost by an unusually striking, multifaceted, colored facade. A brocade of triangular panels—some pink and some crimson, some orange and some green—skirt the rotunda to create an ordered patchwork of contrasting and complementary pairings; the colors, the architects maintain, reference shades of industrial paint used in the nearby docklands. The facade serves a second function: in order to deal with changing patterns of light, the brocade provides solar shading while also reflecting the sun. Achieving a sense of movement on the outside of the building allows for changing character within; a key ambition behind the interior design of Kuggen is to encourage informal meetings and conversation. Motion-activated mood lighting lends the spaces a sense of continual change and renewal.
New Delhi, India (2014)
This office building was designed for one of the largest outdoor-media companies in India. As such, it was important that it would be uncompromising and attention-grabbing, just like one of their billboard advertisements. The architects were interested in the idea of identity—that of the company and the individuals working for it—as well as the importance of the clients’ corporate vision to the whole enterprise. They chose “the most common imprint of identity, the thumbprint” as the key design idea. The 3,993-square-foot (371-square-meter) building was therefore designed in a semi-elliptical form, representing a thumb. This also gave the advantage of creating variety in the local built environment: the rest of the street consisted of an unbroken line of rectangular facades.
As the floors ascend, the occupancy decreases and the seniority of staff increases, the uppermost being devoted to the director’s office. The building’s front is covered by a red screen perforated with disk-shaped openings, reducing heat from the sun and noise from the busy street below. Within the facade, a likeness of the company’s logo has been created by reattaching the stamped-out disks and allowing them to move, via a pivot mechanism, so they flutter in the breeze. Continuing the theme inside, the lobby’s ceiling is in the form of various ribbons of metal curved to form the shape and detail of a thumbprint.
CASA DAS ARTES
Future Architecture Thinking
Miranda do Corvo, Portugal (2013)
Cultural buildings can shout, though most choose not to. The Casa das Artes, in the inland Portuguese town of Miranda do Corvo, bucks this trend: it’s angular, dynamic, and rendered bright crimson outside, as well as partly inside. Its dramatic, sloping roofline echoes the distant mountain, Lousã, and the shape of nearby rooftops. In the context of its site, it stands as a symbol; a meeting place for people. The Casa das Artes is more than a building, a shelter, or a place to exhibit art; it’s a landmark for, and a celebration of, community—people, after all, meet in built environments. Stimulative of creative thought and action, the building’s bright-red, performative character is a call to action—surrounded by roads and a sloping parkland, it’s a curiosity. In the homogeneous shade of its surface, it stands apart from its neighbors as a place that represents each citizen’s creativity.
Bang Saen Beach, Thailand (2014)
Positioned at the edge of a park close to Bang Saen Beach, Thailand, this pigmented concrete staircase offers a labyrinthine game of hide-and-seek. According to the designers, the arrangement of the structure began by questioning conventional play spaces, in which children are free, while their carers are left watching passively. Branching and complex, the installation is reminiscent of Escher’s puzzling, imaginary, visual games; ascent and descent—two movements we often taken for granted—are subverted in a game of interlocking balconies, openings, and voids.
In time, the installation will accommodate plants and creeping vines that will, by bringing contrast, heighten the tone of the concrete’s pigment. The ocher-red of the concrete shell has another character at night. Illuminated from within, the structure glows—its brightness resonates with and reflects its deep-red surface—and becomes a beacon. At its top, the installation has spectacular views over the seafront and beach—a place to pause and reflect, as well as catch your breath (climbing at a normal pace from its bottom to its top consumes, we are told, ten calories!).