“Just look at all those grey facades,” says Udo Schliemann, staring out at the notoriously colourless city that surrounds Nathan Phillips Square.
Schliemann is the principal creative director at Entro, a branding and environmental design firm, and is an advocate of getting colour into design. Earlier this week we went for a city stroll to chat about colour in Toronto. I chose city hall as a meeting spot because, as wonderful as it is, it’s rather colourless, political personalities aside. Yet Schliemann pointed out that the original Viljo Revell design included glass fins that would have lightened up the towers but weren’t possible to construct at the time.
“We are attracted to light and colour,” he says. “Colour draws us in and either creates an affinity or we might hate it.” Colour provokes an emotional reaction or connection, and it isn’t passive. Of the multicoloured Toronto sign in the square he says “it’s kitsch” but that it draws everybody in and is a reminder of why we use colour.
Schliemann and Entro have worked on colourful Toronto projects like the Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park and the new Artscape Weston Common hub near Lawrence Ave. and Weston Rd. If you’ve been to the Wychwood Barns you’ll have noticed the five colourful rings on the smokestack. “We wanted something that said this is no longer an industrial site, that there’s something else going on here,” says Schliemann of his work there.
At Bay and Queen Sts., we stood across from a TD Canada Trust bank pavilion with a bright green roofline. Schliemann pointed out much of the colour we do get in Toronto is from corporate branding. Architects, he says, focus primarily on form — the shape — of their buildings and neglect colour or include it as an afterthought, even though we desire it. “Buildings are for humans, not architects.”
He traced a few hundred years of design history for me, describing how colour is sometimes in fashion, and other times it isn’t. Protestants, for instance, eschewed the baroque and brash colours of Catholic churches and created austere places of worship as a reaction.
However, tastes and fashion are not the only reason we have, or don’t have, colour in the city, and lack of colour isn’t necessarily because designers and architects like greys and browns: getting colour into the public realm can be tricky, just like those city hall fins were.
“Colour can be difficult to handle,” he says. “That’s why artists often reduce colour and work monochromatically.” He laments that architects might only take one course on colour in school, so the skills needed to find colours that are durable and work together in public are rare.
In Toronto, some of our regulations get in the way too: while working on the “Downtown Yonge” signage that appears on poles from Yonge-Dundas Square north to Gerrard St., the vertical “YONGE” lettering was originally multicoloured but as it might have interfered with traffic lights it was changed to all blue.
Some cities seem effortlessly colourful. Schliemann mentioned Halifax and Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood as being rather colourful, while cities such as Paris, Chicago and Tokyo can be as grey as Toronto. I wonder if the painted wooden houses in St. John’s might make it the most colourful city in Canada?
Toronto does have its moments though. Along Adelaide St., Schliemann paused to admire the south-facing brick facade of the Hudson’s Bay store framed in between the two new glass towers of the Bay Adelaide Centre. A little further east, at Jarvis, he looked south towards the brick buildings in the oldest part of Toronto. “We’ve got to be better at protecting these kinds of buildings,” Schliemann says. “They ground us.”
Indeed, when it comes to colour in the city Toronto’s bricks do have variations, often a result of a particular brickyard’s manufacturing process and the clay or shale used. Variations of brown, yellow, white and red bricks can be found.
I asked if Toronto has a natural colour of its own. “The city’s official colour is blue, but I don’t think it has one,” Schliemann says. “Each nation that has come here brings their own colours and when they have a festival, those are Toronto’s colours.”
We finished our stroll at the corner of Isabella and Jarvis Sts. in front of Casey House, the HIV-AIDS hospital that recently completed a modern addition to a handsome 1875 heritage building that was called the “Grey Lady” as its now-revealed brilliant red bricks were painted grey for years.
Schliemann and his firm created the backlit sign along Jarvis with rectangular panels in different hues of red. “Red can mean danger,” he says. “But it also means love, warmth and compassion.”
At night, it’s a bright streak along a dark and fast stretch of Jarvis, the kind of warm, human beacon Toronto could use more of.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef