Fabio Colonnese
 Department of History, Drawing and Restoration of Architecture
Sapienza University of Rome

“Cement, glass and Matisse’s colours”:
notes on Henri E. Ciriani’s chromatic surfaces.
In Colour and Colorimetry Multidisciplinary Contributions, Vol. IX B. Edited by Maurizio Rossi. Atti della IX Conferenza del Colore.
Firenze, 19-20 Settembre 2013, pp.324-332.
ISBN 9788838762420.

This a a direct transcription of the paper uploaded by Fabio Colonnese in the Academia.org website. For the original version in italien, go to:

1. Introduction

Henri Edouard Ciriani, born in Peru in 1936 by sons of Friulian emigrants, is one of the last working masters of the third generation, in direct relationship with the heroic generation of the Modern Movement. Monographs and articles and an afternoon passed with him in a Parisian bistro [1], reveal Ciriani’s as a highly structured personality after years of practice and teaching, which granted him the opportunity to clearly organise his thoughts on design. Simply browsing some of his drawings one can understand how colour constitutes an essential ingredient of his architectural proposals, according to several methods but generally in great harmony with the concept that guides the work itself. Le Corbusier’s polychromie architecturale, with all its variations, is the necessary starting point for every faithful follower of the Modern Movement, but Ciriani has never lost the taste to directly query the source of the early figurative avant-garde experiences. Many of those works have had a profound effect on the formation of a design and colour consciousness, particularly in the contribution that colour could play in expressing the genetic process and the virtual movement of architecture [2]. Ciriani’s works constitute the results of a more-than-forty years long enquiry on possible colour’s roles in architectural representation and expression.

2. Architecture, movement and colour

Ciriani’s social awareness and early participation in the interdisciplinary Atelier d'urbanisme et d'architecture [3], makes him soon aware of the role that colour can have in attributing dignity and identity to social housing and in encouraging the orientation in public spaces, consistent with their typically limited budgets and low maintenance. The initial social housing complexes designed by Ciriani in France show the typical confidence in facing materials, but in the mid-seventies a first remarkable application of polychromy can be seen in the Arlequine gallery at Grenoble (1973). Five years later, vertical layers that make up virtually the buildings around the Cour d'Angle in Saint Denis are identified by bi-chromatic chessboard treatments and horizontal stripes, that is “a tribute to Giotto and marbles of Florence” [4]. The body of nursery school is instead painted a striking blue and doors in bright colours: such a brave polychromy tends to attribute a specific role to the furniture colour, as an homage to Le Corbusier and his vertical varnished wood panels in the Convent de la Tourette.
Other germs of a chromatic research can be found in Noisy-III building, both in the massive brown-mosaicked volume and in the three curious balconies that are painted according to the basic tri-colour subtractive synthesis (fig.a.5). This is a first sign of Ciriani’s specific interest in the outcome of neoplastic painting and its property to optically transform the mass into a volume. The projects for major competitions in early '80s Paris show a programmatic trichromy played on saturated primary colours and enhanced by the adhesive films used for the competition drawings (fig.a.1). In the row houses at Evry (1981), blue walls indicate the volume that was subtracted from the brick-coloured main body, while garage doors show a variegated polychromy. A “blue sky” is also adopted to dress the triangular Musée Archéologique in Arles (1983-92): large glass plates are designed to reflect the natural surroundings and to dematerialise its presence in the sky, while salvia-green secondary volumes are deceived in the low vegetation (fig.a.6). In the nursery school at Torcy (1986-89), colour requirements were communicated by means of large drawings accompanied by small coloured perspective sketches as they are the fundamental means for a correct perception of the piano inflesso, the bent plane: this is the name of the tectonic system consisting of a walled plane that manifestly passes from the vertical position to horizontal coverage and vice versa [5]. The white-grey extrados represents the ideal limit of the three-dimensional enclosure defined by the bent plane while a generally coloured ceiling identifies its internal space. Between 1988 and 1992, Ciriani was involved in a cycle of housing projects in the Netherlands (fig.a.4) and the central perspective of the nursery hall shows the consequences of the rediscovery of Mondrian’s geometries and colours (fig.a.3). The study of neoplastic painting marked a significant maturation in his architectural polychromy, suggesting him to retrace before the corbusierian experiments of the working-class neighbourhood in Pessac in the tower in The Hague and in a residential complex in Colombes (fig.a.7).
As the last Le Corbusier, Ciriani then opted for a neutral grey architecture, as in the Palais de Justice de Pontoise (1997-2005), where the colour is concentrated in large abstract panels that transform some walls in a kaleidoscope (fig.a.8). Elsewhere are the moving parts to be conceived as true works of art, in the best tradition of monumental doors, from Florence to Chandigahr. “If I could only use the cement, I would be very happy. I would do in glass the walls I want to be transparent and in cement the walls I want to be opaque. This is enough for me. And then we have to add some colour. Doors like paintings, if any door or mobile element could be painted by Matisse, who wonder ... Cement, glass and doors painted by Matisse” [6].

3. From Art to Architecture through Drawing

On more than one occasion Ciriani acknowledged his debt to the art but always stating that “there is no a Ciriani painter and a Ciriani architect” [7], because “everything I do, even my collage on paper, wants to be a building before being a painting” [8]. There is rather a Ciriani dessiner: a magnificent dessiner who loved to draw animals and houses in the years of high school and consistently copied and analysed the masters to steal the eternal rules of composition. To Ciriani the drawing has always embodied the dimension of the game, the quête, the challenge: “You should never settle for being able to draw because you run the risk of loosening the tension between brain, eye and hand” [9]. The design of the architecture, as artistic representation, it is primarily a way to surprise the brain and force it to look for new meanings to perceived forms. So, before being disposed as an Ellsworth Kelly’s coloured film on cement surfaces, the colour is spread on paper to differentiate the elements and to establish hierarchies, but also to anticipate the visual effect and “deceive the eye”.
It is above all through the sections and perspectives that Ciriani uses to determine the most important design solutions, exploring first-hand the imagined spaces. Although he has been joined over the years by many talented associates, public images of his projects are all handwritten and are an integral part of his working method. During the development of the plan he identifies some critical points along the main route and then arranges perspective views of them. From these bases, generally in A4 or A3 size, he develops several variants and each time he draws the building down to the details, with trees, people, clouds and shadows. Drawing by drawing he gradually comes to the definition of the working details which will then be perfected in other drawings, but every view is drawn as if it were the final presentation work. It is like a sort of apotropaic ritual, in which so much attention and patience is necessary to ingratiate himself with the capricious gods who watch over the outcome and to exorcise the fear that the project will not be realised.
His designs possess really a spark of life and the potential of an entire universe. The surfaces show sincerely the inhomogeneity of the Pantone markers on glossy paper, while the inescapable shadows and skilful strokes of white pencil will anticipate the future perception under the sun. Ciriani seems unsatisfied to bring the general masses of trees but their specific essences, ending sometimes with obscuring the architecture itself. His pen-drawn trees recall the style of his friend and landscape architect Jacques Simon and reveal a Leonardo-like botanical curiosity, as if they were selected from an equally wide repertoire. Similarly, the sky is never just a coloured background useful to read a transparency effect or the profile of an architectural detail, but it is enhanced by clouds, shadows, shades: sometimes it is full of birds, balloons or futuristic flying spheres, other times it is full of Van Gogh’s whirlpools traced with soft pastel. Some of his drawings remind us of Italo Calvino’s multiplicity and the encyclopaedic quality of Gadda’s writing, where each sub-object may eventually become “the centre of a network of relationships that the writer can not desist from following, multiplying the details so that his descriptions and digressions become infinite” [10].
“You have to be transported by the colour”, sincerely declares Ciriani. “My current research, my pleasure, is to work religiously according to my own way to find no news but what I can feel affine to” [11]. On the other hand, already in Torcy his friend Faloci realised that “the use of colour is far from Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and the modern tradition. It brings a slight metaphorical and humorous aspect - blue for men and pink for women - a yellow wall like a ray of sunshine” [12], as if expected to warm the North. While the fixtures are characterised by a monochrome treatment, the purist palette is exploited in all its range to enhance the natural light and characterise the visual foci, perhaps even to illusory modify depth. But such a polychromy, finally confesses Ciriani, was primarily the result of the explosion “of one or more Picasso’s paintings which I keep in a sort of unconscious memory and their re-composition in perspective shots” [13].
Mondrian’s lesson, in fact, cannot bring too far in architecture: his primary colours are too contrasting and make it difficult to achieve a harmonious result, even if the unrecognised work of Katarzyna Kobro offers a possible way to melt colour together with shape. It is rather Eileen Grey in his carpets to interpret the neoplastic principle with colours that Ciriani feels closer to his aspirations, as rouge-lumiere, yellow eggshell or blue-grey.
This work of paintings and sculptures’ transcription into architecture is an exercise that always passes through the drawing and re-drawing (fig.b.3). “I try to understand why I feel shaken by a work and I repaint the picture in my notebook, [like when] I've been at the exhibition of Joan Mitchell, in Nantes. (...) I have drawn her pictures, I have repainted them at home and that's how you can learn. (...) This type of exercise teaches that culture is not simply by seeing a show: there is always a work behind” [14]. Yet the design can be an ambiguous and sneaky mediator that actually depends on the available tools, such as when one is traveling with four coloured pencils in his pocket. Thus, in the frenzied search for a forecasting image from the future, Ciriani has been probing every kind of graphical technique, from the airbrush to the crayons, from markers from watercolours and gouache. The correction fluid marker has finally afforded the luxury of doing "mistakes" and allowed him to experience every kind of colour paper (fig.a.2). Parallel he has always collected offcuts from fashion magazines that offer widest chromatic gamut: he uses them to remember a certain colour or he pastes them on his precious collage, especially when his beloved markers are turning off.
The colours on his table are separated into two cups: the “cold” ones in one cup and the “hot” ones in the other, but some combinations and ranges over the years have conquered a special space: “a) yellow sunflower black, grey-white, white b) red, orange, salmon or pink, pale yellow, black and white” [15] and still the sky blue or Gauloise blue and the water-green- that Matisse used to accompany with the black, in cool shadows. The green is generally hard to place in the architecture because it refers too strongly to the idea of ​​vegetable, nevertheless Ciriani confesses a deep fascination for Matisse’s blues and greens of his Morocco paintings: his shadows, like those of Delacroix and other travellers, are bathed in sunlight and contain many colours.
“The maximum intensity is reached when the red and blue are together and when they touch is heaven. While when other colours are close together, they kill themselves. For example we seldom use yellow. There are three yellows that are very specific: the acid yellow that, if it wanted to be anything else, it would be green; then the yellow that wishes to be orange. The yellow, which-wants-to-be-orange, kills the work of the red. As well the yellow, which-wants-to-be-green, kills the work of the blue, and should not be mixed together. There is also a third yellow between the two that is the British crackers packet yellow, the yellow of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and the sunny yellow, which is yellow-yellow, and does not want to blend with anyone” [16]. Of course the colour alone does not exist: matching it with another colour affects its reception. This is why Ciriani uses the yellow close to black: not to alter it. This is why something white must be left when working with colour. “You can not paint everything. It is unbearable” [17].

4. Chromatic inhabited sculptures

Many of Henri Ciriani’s design experiences can be traced back to the complex and even contradictory lesson of the master Le Corbusier. The same could be said of the specific methods and hues with which the colour is introduced and applied in his architecture: purist and neoplastic criteria, moving parts painted or treated as artworks of art, even brutalism exposition as in the World War Museum in Peronne. Yet, somehow, Ciriani’s inexhaustible enquiry on the “logical and legitimate colour as a native architectural element” [18] and the systematic drawing mediation between art and architecture have ensured him a continuous regeneration of his personal palette and colour application criteria. The words with which Henri Ciriani describes his attitude to colour denounce his deep devotion to the project, his empirical ability to subdue every cue and inspiration to increasing the architectural design quality.
All this is evident in his current production, in which a new interest in colour is interwoven with a specific research project on residential tower, whose debut was known to an old issue of Urbanisme [19]. For almost thirty years he has been trying to mend some broken threads of modernist research on Unitè d'habitation and Immeuble Villa and recently, the utopian character of projects seems to have catalysed his deepest aspirations and unscrupulous schemes. Of course the projects are very different from each other, from universities to large office and dwellings complexes. Ciriani’s most fascinating proposals relate to towering structures made by the combination of large polychrome blades containing duplex and triplex dwellings, tri-orthogonal concrete frameworks zigzagging through space and large platforms where small human figures meet and stop to admire the horizon and the forest below (fig.2b, 2d).
They have been developed mostly in Perù, for competitions and exhibitions [20]; sometimes they started as a spontaneous speculation, as quick doodles on little sketchbooks or A4 sheets and then enlarged by adding other sheets around. In these systematic central perspective views the colour is the recurring and dominant element: a colour that can be interpreted as a contextualizing strategy – it reveals an ancestral link with Inca textiles and textures –, an expression of the assemblage of parts, an indicator of multiplicity into unity, a perceptive stratagem to make the parts illusorily move and even as a peaceful return to a pre-modernist free use of colours and decorative motifs on the building envelope.
Like huge inhabited abstract sculptures, these structures seem to incubate the ambition to give back a three-dimensional and infrastructural expression to Mondrian’s paintings, as if reversing his process of transferring the reality on a mathematical plane. They certainly seem to recover the fragmented geometries of Lauweriks and his pupil Hablik, who had experimented several chromatic criteria of surface subdivision in first two decades of twentieth century. Secondly, recent Ciriani’s projects incorporate some explorations on three-dimensional frames made by post-war American minimalist expressionists such as Tony Smith and Sol Lewitt; moreover they indirectly integrate the most radical interpretations of the concept of Land Art as coined at the end of the sixties.
These drawings constitute the overcoming of his corbusierian positions and show all the ingredients of utopian architectural visions of the twentieth century. There are artificial mountains with slender bridges as designed by Hugh Ferris for the City of Tomorrow; there are the flying machines of Wright’s Broadacre City; there is the playful and dynamic Meccano of Archigram’s provocative proposals; there is the contrast between a luxuriant nature and a Cartesian and modular mega-structure, like in Superstudio’s photo-collages; there are even disturbing elements after Jean Moebius Giraud’s visual prophecies. Above all, there are the spiritual and dreamlike colours of Taut’s Alpine Architektur and Scharoun’s Watercolours of Resistance as they encounter the photographic chromaticism of Pop Art. Finally, there is the immortal myth of the Tower of Babel and the dream of providing an open and polysemous representation of the infinite cultures on Earth. Like immense totems, axis mundi or cosmic trees, Ciriani’s towers symbolically and essentially offer man a new platform on which to discover the horizon.
At the beginning of the new millennium, Ciriani’s drawings seem to finally offer the hope of a new artistic synthesis and an opportunity of meeting and reconciliation to architecture, sculpture and painting, nature and construction, of course, but also to man and his many demons.


[1]    My meeting/interview with Ciriani took place in the Cafè de la Marie at Place Saint-Sulpice on 4th April 2007.
[2]    According to Ciriani, all modern architecture was created by a double movement: first a movement that breaks the corners of the box and free themselves from a traditional masonry shell to form a porous diaphragm, dynamically continuous and asymmetrical; second a movement of the subject around and inside the building by conceiving architecture as a sequence of spaces along a path. Cfr. Fabio Colonnese, “Movimento Percorso Rappresentazione. Fenomenologia e codici dell’architettura in movimento”, Officina Edizioni, Roma, 2012.
[3]    The Atelier d'urbanisme et d'architecture (AUA) is a multidisciplinary grouping of professionals with a social project that was active in Paris between 1960 and 1986.
[4]    Luciana Miotto, “Henri E. Ciriani. Cesure urbane e spazi filanti”, Testo & Immagine, Torino, 1996, pp.34-35.
[5]    Mauro Galantino, “Henri Ciriani. Architetture 1960-2000”, Skira, GinevraMilano, 2000, p.151.
[6]    Cristiana Volpi (ed.), “Cinquantuno domande a Henri E. Ciriani”, Clean, Napoli, 1997, p.59.
[7]    Henri Ciriani, Laurent Beaudouin, Vivre haut. Méditation en paroles et dessin, Crossborders, Paris, 2011, p.125.
[8]    Christian Devillers, “Centro per la prima infanzia a Torcy di Henry E. Ciriani”, Casabella, n.568, 1990, p.15.
[9]    Personal interview. Cfr. note 1.
[10] Italo Calvino, “Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio”, Mondadori, Milano, 2002, p.117.
[11] Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.127.
[12] Devillers, op.cit., p.5.
[13] Ibidem.
[14] Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.132.
[15] Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.128.
[16] Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.129.
[17] Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.130.
[18] Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.128.
[19] Christophe Bayle, Henri Ciriani: L’objectif, c’est l’horizontale, Urbanisme, n. 204, 1984.
[20] Galería John Harriman del Centro Cultural Británico de Miraflores. Jr. Bellavista 531 - Malecón Balta 740, Miraflores, Lima, del 19 de Agosto al 30 de Setiembre de 2010.
Fig.1 - (left to right, above to below) a. Opéra populaire de la Bastille, 1983; b. Dwellings, Rekem, 1993; c. Nursery, Torcy, 1986; d. Residential Towers, Groningen, 1991; e. Dwellings Noisy III, Marne-la-Vallée, 1979; f. Musée Arquéologique, Arles, 1983; g. Dwellings, Colombes, 1992; h. Cité Judiciaire, Pontoise, 1997

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