Episode 8 of the series in enjoyable interdisciplinary discourse:
“Applied Science: Theories, Principles and Axioms turned onto Commercial Aviation”:
Today: On the Theory of Colours in Airport Architecture and Art History.
This year’s Easter, the Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t on display – it still undergoes fundamental restoration work for another two years, possibly three, well, that’s very hard to predict exactly. Meanwhile, worshippers, pilgrims and visitors of St. Bavo Cathedral are only shown photographic copies, indeed of outstanding quality. The restoration work began in late 2012, the same year the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport “BER” was scheduled to open. Both the altar and the airport are now forecasted to materialise in public in 2017. There are a couple more parallelisms between the altar and BER, the longer you consider. First of all, the history of the altar was interwoven with Berlin ever since the Prussian King bought the painting’s wings (not including the Adam and Eve panels) around 1820. These six wing panels were exhibited in the Gemäldegalerie Berlin for a hundred years, until they were returned to Belgium as a partial reparation after the Great War. From then on, the Ghent Altarpiece was complete, however only for a short while, since the lower left “Just Judges” panel went missing since a theft which occurred in 1934 (currently – well, 2017 hopefully – shown is a copy replacing the original). Meanwhile, Gemäldegalerie Berlin still exhibits a copy of the altar, well worth seeing, patched up from fairly impressive copies painted by 16th and 19th century artists.
On visiting St. Bavo for the first time, a decade ago, for a start I was taken aback by the luminance of the altar’s colours, especially for the “Deësis” centre piece. A second impression was a strong 3D perception, resulting in a strange feeling of vitality and otherworldliness at the same time. After a while, this all added up to an all-dominant sense of beauty. And that is a word I also used last year when commenting on the colour schemes of BER, having joined a guided tour of the building still under completion. That was my second visit of the unfinished BER, however the first chance to catch a glimpse of the interior design proper, with all the cover panels, lettering, directories and pictograms. Yes, I do like the design of the BER, it’s aesthetic and beautiful, and that is essentially due to its colour range, luminance and its effect, I’d say. Avoiding any intention of profanity, I can say that the comparison in terms of luminance, taste- and meaningful colour design and an overall beauty is sound.
Furthermore, by having gained a meaning that stretches far beyond its idiosyncratic purpose, both the altar and the airport have another item in common: the Ghent Altarpiece always was more than just that: accomplished in a style unseen before, literally as if appearing out of nowhere just like the Gothic architecture three centuries before, it soon became mysterious and asking for analysis and interpretation from all perspectives and circles, becoming more and more elevated over its physical location and original creation. The current discourse about the postponed BER opening somehow fails to acknowledge part of its timeless meaning: an item forever bonded with Berlin history, born from the 1989 Mauerfall and the Allied airfield infrastructure into present day Germany, Berlin and Brandenburg, at the same time experiencing a transition of air travel from a luxury good to a matter of course, with former flag-carriers and state-owned airlines being converted into privately held legacy carriers, the low-cost advent, and, most of all, the re-emergence of Berlin allurement unseen since the Golden Twenties. BER is important and it means a lot, of course including the regrettable history of the construction issues triggering the belated opening. One could even postulate a BER impact on popular culture, with dozens of jokes, and speakers using BER as a rhetoric opening anecdote to appeal to the audience, as I’ve been able to witness twice quite recently.
During the divided Berlin years until 1989, the city used to have four airfields, one for each Allied sector, and it was during and after the euphoria of the German reunification, that the idea of a concentration of their traffic at just a single airport arose – a somewhat peculiar approach for such a metropolis, impossible to think of in, say, Paris or London. Nevertheless, minus Tempelhof, which closed in 2008 (Gatow never really bothered to join the competition), the city had Western Berlin Tegel and Eastern Berlin Schönefeld (actually located in Brandenburg state), whilst construction work on BER began, at the same time Berlin rose to the darling of world tourism, with visitor numbers ballooning, forcing Tegel and Schönefeld to hastily add some auxiliary capacity until BER would eventually open.
My notion of a beautiful BER is rooted in two aspects. First, layout and functionality, its geometry and an astounding compactness for an airport of this huge capacity. Second, the colour scheme, which I will discuss in more detail. The main colour of the airport’s corporate identity is red, used in the logo BER, and being the heraldic colour of both Berlin and Brandenburg. Red is an active and warm colour, with a long portion of the visible spectrum, and a plethora of facets. The interior design uses two: orange red and classic deep crimson with a hint of purple. Red is also associated with alert, attention, even aggression, therefore two secondary colours are used for certain purposes: white, which emphasises the mellow and delicate quality of red; and anthracite, underlining grandeur, elegance and earnestness. An overall warmth and cosiness is fostered by the ample utilisation of wooden panels inside the terminal, nicely meshing with the colour scheme as an ever present undercurrent. Imagine passengers roaming through the terminal: some with idle time, others in a hurry. The airport shall function as a comfort zone for the former, and offering obvious information on directions (and quick readability supported by the style of lettering) for the latter. Red, in its combinations with other colours, fulfils both functions. The orange red is seeking for attention, whereas the crimson purple sets the ambience for comfort. By skilfully composing signboards, functionality has been achieved in a beautiful way, at the same time it will enhance the brand recognition value once the airport had opened. Many airports make an effort to create a unique image and identity, albeit the global canon of uniformity. Consider VIE terminal 3 or CGN terminal 2, two recent extensions which successfully fostered the existing airport’s corporate identity by appliance of colours, script, background, in addition to architecture. BER shall be able to build a strong identity shortly after its opening. Passengers in a hurry shall be able to increase short-term power and speediness by the psychological effect of the combination red/anthracite. Anthracite further adds to the objectiveness and sobriety of the information and message carried on the signboards. The combination of white and red shall assist with the psychological effect of orderliness and tranquillisation, a feature gaining importance due to the forecasted rise in transfer passengers from today’s insignificant TXL/SXF figures. Lastly, the fourfold accord white/orange red/purple/anthracite creates a strong sense of beauty in the eye of the beholder.
Just like the „Music-making Angels“ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece– with the same set of colour combinations, the “Singing Angels” panel too, partly. The most beautiful central “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” panel’s prime colour is orange red, just like of “The Almighty” above too, stimulated by the complementary green in the garden green of the former and John the Baptist’s cape of the latter. In 1890, with the idea to be able to display forefront and rear side at the same time, Berlin had the somewhat glorious idea to saw through their six panels in half, quite lightheaded given the thinness of the oak planks. It worked ok, doubling the number of Berlin panels from 6 to 12 – resemblance again, anyone? Last year, BER had an impressive 37,000 visitors – a figure not too distant from the altar’s – and why?
“Bright reds – scarlet, pillar-box red, crimson or cherry – are very cheerful and youthful. There is certainly a red for everyone.” (Christian Dior)
“Why do two colours, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? No. Just as one can never learn how to paint.” (Pablo Picasso)
Photo courtesy of © Alexander Obst / Marion Schmieding, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH