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.
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:
Henri Edouard Ciriani, born in Peru in 1936 by sons of Friulian emigrants, is one of the last working masters of the third generation, brought up in direct relationship to the heroic generation of the Modern Movement. Monographs and articles and an afternoon passed with him in a Parisian bistro (1), reveal Ciriani 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.
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
polychromie 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 polychromie 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 polychromie, 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).
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 pendrawn
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 Carlo Emilio Gadda’s writing, where each sub-object may
eventually become “the centre of a network of relationships that the writer
cannot 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
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, greywhite,
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
“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).
(1) My meeting/interview with Ciriani took place in the Cafè de la Marie at Place Saint-Sulpice on 4th April 2007.
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 (translated by the author).
(5) Mauro Galantino, “Henri Ciriani. Architetture 1960-2000”, Skira, Ginevra –
Milano, 2000, p.151.
(6)Cristiana Volpi (ed.), “Cinquantuno domande a Henri E. Ciriani”, Clean, Napoli,
1997, p.59 (translated by the author).
(7) Henri Ciriani, Laurent Beaudouin, “Vivre haut. Méditation en paroles et dessin”,
Crossborders, Paris, 2011, p.125 (translated by the author).
(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 (translated by the author).
(11) Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.127(translated by the author).
(12) Devillers, op.cit., p.5 (translated by the author).
(14) Ciriani, Beaudouin, op.cit., p.132 (translated by the author).
(15) Ivi, p.128.
(16) Ivi, p.129.
Fig. 1 – (left to right) a. Opéra de la Bastille, 1983; b. Dwellings, Rekem, 1993; c. Nursery,
Torcy, 1986; d. Towers, Groningen, 1991; e. Noisy III, Marne-la-Vallée, 1979; f. Musée
Arquelogique, Arles, 1983; g. Dwellings, Colombes, 1992; h. Citè Judiciaire, Pontoise, 1997.