Color surfaces, color boundaries The concept of colors in Modernism

Theo van Doesburg demanded that people should be positioned not in front of but right in the middle of paintings. In other words, architecture should create spatial paintings to be entered, illustrated and destroyed at the same time, by the occupant.

1926/1928, Staircase in the Café Aubette (modernization of a building by Francois Blondel, 1767); Joint design by Theo van Doesburg and Jean Arp

When Modernism subscribed to the concept of colors, it wanted to emphasize the strict, geometrically aligned relationship between walls, ceilings, galleries and views. Colors were used to define boundaries in space, and to stress their intended orthogonality.

This is where linoleum came into play, used as a pure color (and as a polish). In 1926, during the modernization of the Aubette building, Theo van Doesburg was exclusively concerned with surfaces and boundaries in space defined by colors and mirror effects. He used imitation leather, glass, enamel, aluminum, nickel silver, hard rubber and – linoleum. The staircase in the Café Aubette was a project undertaken jointly with Jean Arp: While one of the designers specified dark risers and white steps and designed a stepped masonry balustrade, the other defined its colors, which we are unable to verify today. As the “Neue Zeit” found, linoleum primarily acts as a color surface long before feet or hands (in the case of furniture) feel its resilience.

1925/26, Kandinsky-Klee master building, designed by Walter Gropius; color scheme by Wassili Kandinsky (staircase) and Paul Klee; restored in 1998/99

Unlike the Café Aubette, the steps are covered with dark linoleum while the risers are white in the restored Kandinsky-Klee master building in Dessau. Yellow appears on the stair strings, red on the handrail. The graphical representation of descent is simply a reflection of Kandinsky’s color theory. On the occasion of the restoration, André Streich wrote: “Of particular significance for the overall impression of the room are also the colored linoleum coverings, with their color spectrum encompassing grey, red, blue and black, which created large, smooth, matt color surfaces.”

Library in the former reflecting telescope building B13 at the Potsdam Institute of Astrophysics, 2002. Architect: Joachim Kleine Allekotte, Berlin; Photo: Stefan Müller, Berlin

As staircases and corridors always form boundaries between various functional areas, it is only legitimate to make them legible as boundary zones, which is why the most impressive framings are found in these spaces. While skirting boards (for carpets) or parquet flooring tend to subdue the effect of the colored area, linoleum can delineate the boundaries by its colored edges.

Origin: Bauwelt 34/07