"Colour is creeping over our cities": exploring graphics and architecture

The use of colour is gaining a foothold in public buildings, reports Veronica Simpson

Words by Veronica Simpson

Colour is creeping over our cities, thanks both to an explosion in street art but also designers and architects’ subsequent confidence in splashing rainbow-hued graphic treatments over their walls. But the line between street art, fine art and architecture is increasingly blurring as artists are invited to weave their own distinctive works into the fabric of buildings.

Ten years ago Alford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) nearly won a Stirling Prize for its Kentish Town Health Centre in London – at the time, an unheard of accolade for an NHS funded healthcare facility. But apart from it being a very fine, contemporary building, one of the things that struck me most forcibly from my visit to it, back in the day, was the presence of huge, colourful letters, imagery and symbols on the walls. At the time – and to this day – these over-scaled graphics seemed one of the most joyful, accessible and playful things I had ever seen in a public-health building. The artist who made that work, Morag Myerscough, has subsequently left her rainbow-hued marks in a wide array of places – from an arts centre in Tottenham to a whole pavilion on the South Bank, and most recently a giant stretch of wall in the new Design Museum in Kensington, bringing a burst of warmth and welcome to its otherwise stately, almost corporate interior.

AHMM co-founder Paul Monahan brought Myerscough in on that early project, following a hunch, an instinct that this humane and legible space needed one final quirky flourish to lift it above the norm. Myerscough has continued to work with the practice ever since, most recently scattering the dining hall of its Burntwood school with her prismatic patterning – that building DID go on to win a Stirling Prize. Says Myerscough: ‘With AHMM they never had a budget for my work, never. They had a budget for wayfinding that they would give to a wayfinding company and then they had art budgets. But Paul really saw the value in the way I thought in the building. It’s not about branding, it was about giving the occupiers of the place their identity in the building through the fabric of the building rather than on printed materials.’

What was radical back in 2008 now seems an everyday occurrence. It’s hard to walk around London, Madrid, Paris, Athens or Berlin without exuberant expressions of increasingly skilled street art – graphic banners, portraits, still lifes, lettering, icons in every colour and every possible style – adorning the urban fabric. Myerscough’s work has also crossed over into the more performative street-art arena, with vibrant standalone structures commissioned for festivals around the world: early 2018 has seen her joining Spanish street-art superstar Okuda (as featured in my April 2018 FX article on Madrid) at a festival in Las Vegas to create a huge, temporary welcome wall, and being flown to South Africa to create a distinctive urban playground for Design Indaba.

With street art gaining such momentum and traction over the past few years, there has been more confidence, Myerscough agrees, in architects strategically incorporating colour and pattern within (or outside) their buildings. The street-art movement can be seen as a response to many things: in cities like Athens or Madrid, street art has flourished as a voice for young people, and as a response to the city’s architectural stagnation since the recession – buildings badly in need of investment and refurbishment can be lifted instantly by these spontaneous bursts of individual expression. In London and New York, however, this appetite for colour, texture and individuality are probably emerging in response to the increasing invasion of bland corporate architecture – an off-the-peg kind of glass, steel and concrete commercial or corporate building – eclipsing the formerly distinctive, evolutionary architectural layers from the past 200 years. It also becomes a welcome antidote to our increasing devotion to screens of all kinds; we crave interaction, variety, animation, from the three-dimensional physical world around us.

Myerscough feels that the small screen is also a driver for interest, thanks to the exposure street art is receiving through social media like Instagram, making us all acutely aware of hip, urban and graphic happenings all over the world. These things will all have been happening for a while, she says, ‘but we didn’t know about each other. And now it’s all just converged’.

The fabulous thing about paint is that it’s cheap and quick – though Myerscough would be the first to point out that getting exactly the right colours, the right paint, and making sure they work with the light in the right way, is far from easy. Transferring these skills from paint to Formica can be even harder, as she discovered when filling an entire children’s ward in Sheffield with her cheerful geometries (see case study).

Young practice AO Architecture, in taking occupancy of an experimental new studio space in Peckham called The Levels, was offered the chance to make its mark on the main circulation staircase of this former car park. With a minimal budget, it chose to do so with paint and a vivid palette inspired by inspired by RGB + CMYK colour systems, in the process establishing a really effective wayfinding scheme (see case study).

With so much paint being splashed around, it’s no wonder that architects and their clients are now veering off in search of more subtle, more materially intriguing ways to distinguish their buildings, often bringing artists in to create sections of the structure with them. Art consultant Modus Operandi has been working with a huge variety of clients from healthcare buildings to global retailers to make the fabric of their structures more distinctive (see case studies). An entire wall of AHMM’s recently completed luxury office building New Burlington Place now consists of an intriguing glass work by artist Keith Tyson, intended to enliven a new public alleyway created by the development, for Crown Estate.

While the interventions of artists bring interesting new materials and approaches, this is a trend that has been and gone before according to Myerscough. She was first inspired to experiment with supergraphics in the Nineties when she saw work by Lawrence Weiner at the Guggenheim Bilbao. She says: ‘I just thought that was amazing. That was one of the things that made me want to do really huge works. I like Sol LeWitt too. I’m a Sixties’ child really – though I was a child at the time. I just love pop. All that really strong, confident, bold, expression.’ Where will it end when the current Sixties’ supergraphics-inspired moment fades? She’s predicting a return to Seventies’ murals…


Morag Myerscough’s vibrant treatments to walls and cupboards have been boosting the morale of patients and staff at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, since Avanti Architects completed the project in 2017. Avanti’s scheme, which included the refurbishment of an existing wing, outpatient consulting suites, and three wards, features a new light-filled atrium entrance, at the heart of which is a play space, placing ‘children and play at the heart of the hospital’. In keeping with this more friendly, interactive ethos, the client and architects wanted something more for the wards than calming pastels. The hospital’s own art trust, Artfelt, approached Myerscough to work with the architects on bedroom illustrations that would form part of a storage plan that hides all the necessary medical equipment ‘in plain sight’. These high-pressure laminate-faced panels and doors were presented to Myerscough as a blank canvas. Myerscough’s eye-popping initial designs met with some resistance from long-term nursing staff who felt that calming, neutral tones were more conducive for children in distress. So Myerscough created scale models and showed them to all the patients. She says: ‘Around 98 per cent loved them. We went back to the nurses, and explained that people liked them, so the nurses were great and said all we ask you to do is one bluey-green design – a calm room – and then we’ll need three or four of those so that if we have someone who has a condition that needs a very calm space we’ll put them in there.’ In the finished project, four schemes are rotated throughout 46 en-suite bedrooms and six multi-occupancy bays, including the calmer rooms for children with conditions such as autism.

Myerscough spent a year working with a team at Formica, trying to find a way to make her palette and patterns work with its wood-laminate processes, and get the really pure colours she wanted. She had hoped to screen-print her own patterns on to existing wood grain. Unfortunately that proved unfeasible. In the end, the wood grain was scanned and the patterns digitally printed, then laminated on to the panels. She also worked closely with Formica to find a palette within its own standard range that would complement her patterned units. ‘You can barely tell any difference,’ she says. ‘It looks really simple, but the process entailed lots and lots of testing.’ All finishes were chosen in consultation with the staff to ensure robust detailing and resilience to cleaning and infection regimes. The result is a generous, engaging and gender-neutral environment appropriate for young patient aged six weeks to 18 years and their families.

It was awarded Best Internal Environment at the Building Better Healthcare awards 2018.

Client - Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust

Architects - Avanti Architects

Artist - Morag Myerscough

Arts co-ordinator - Artfelt

Completed - September 2017


AHMM was commissioned by client Crown Estates to turn a disparate series of buildings around Regent Street into a coherent urban block. Arguably its most exciting intervention is New Burlington Place, sitting behind two retained facades on Regent Street and Burlington Street, with a triple-glazed elevation along its north edge comprising a curved stack of closed-cavity facade panels that looms over a new public walkway on to Regent Street. At the foot of its gently curving facade is a painting in glass by Keith Tyson, taking up the entire ground-floor wall next to the entrance: So Our Rivers Flow. The former Turner Prize winner was selected from a shortlist of four by art consultant Modus Operandi (MO), which has been working with Crown Estate for some 15 years.

The idea was to turn this alleyway into a contemporary urban pocket park, integrating the history and heritage of Regent Street and the surrounding area with the modern design of the building. MO director Vivien Lovell says: ‘It was important that, as a permanent commission, the work could sustain continued interest over an extended period of time; it had to appeal to a wide spectrum of people...Keith stood out for his proposal’s clever reference to mapping the River Thames through history, from medieval maps on the left through to Google Maps on the right; the composition also placed the building within the map.’ Tyson had never worked in glass before, and rarely on this scale – 18m x 3m – Lovell says, but the resulting work is certainly attention-grabbing, successfully transferring his painting technique – where he uses gravity and chemical reactions to create various complex, flowing forms – to glass. ‘The artwork completely characterises New Burlington Place,’ says Lovell. ‘It’s impossible to think of this pedestrian cut-through without it. And it’s a brilliant example of art and architecture working in synch, as the artwork literally forms part of the building.’


Artist Lothar Götz is extremely fond of staircases, most recently turning the one in Leeds Art Gallery into a mind and perspective-bending installation. It’s his 21st staircase in a 30-year career. He was commissioned by the Art Fund and Leeds Art Gallery to adorn the entire two-storey stairwell of this eminent Victorian gallery with his crazy geometries and distinctive hues in late 2017. The work, called Xanadu, is around 30m high, and will stay in place for four years. He says: ‘My intention was to turn the physical experience of going up and down the stairs into an exciting visual experience, like walking through a three-dimensional painting. Staircases provide the veins of a building, immersing the visitor spatially in a different way to that of the traditional gallery space. I am interested in how an artwork can be experienced by one’s whole body.’

Its name, Xanadu, is partly in response to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…’) as well as ‘every Seventies’ nightclub,’ according to his gallerist Domo Baal. ‘It’s exuberant and really serious at the same time, and totally responsive to the space.’

Götz has been playing with distinctive colour palettes and geometries on buildings since the Eighties, many of them permanent, or semi-permanent. He has been commissioned to bring life and dynamism to some of the UK’s most prestigious establishments, enlivening the walls of the Arts Council office in London, the Ministry of Justice and the Heathrow Terminal 5 VIP lounge.


Götz approaches each site-specific work with great care. He will spend a day or two in the space creating drawings, thinking about colour options, and assessing the light conditions and how the space is used and inhabited. It took three weeks with three people (including Götz) to execute the Leeds work. Says Baal: ‘For a practice that looks like it’s relatively easy, there’s a huge element of risk that a lot of people don’t realise. You can’t do a dress rehearsal to do a space like Leeds.’


As newly signed up tenants within Peckham Levels, a new creative quarter for Peckham set within a former car park, AO Architecture was invited to contribute one of several art, graphic, sculpture or wayfinding pieces commissioned by the new social and work venue’s architecture practice Carl Turner to enrich the visual language of this brutalist, Seventies’ building. With a tight budget and a short turnaround time, the two directors Richard Bridges and James Webster chose a staircase for their intervention, and decided to maximise impact through colour, deployed in such a way as to give the building’s occupants and visitors a clearer idea of where they are within the seven occupied levels of this 10-storey structure.

With a range of circulation options including stairs, lifts and ramps, as Webster says: ‘There is a reason why people lose their cars in car parks…We came up with a palette that reflected the two different colour systems of physical printing (CMYK) and digital (RGB) that naturally fit into the number of levels we have, and reflects the nature of the work done on different floors. The lower floors are all physical making (artists, architects, fashion designers, workshops) so they have the analogue colours, and the upper floors are designers mostly doing digital work.’ It took the pair two weeks to decide design and orientation, coming up with a zig-zagging scheme up the staircase, with the colour shifting diagonally mid-way up the staircase.

The colours tie in with the wayfinding deeper into each level, and the angle of the diagonal and related colour indicates which floor is above and which below. AO even treated the handrails in the same way so that the colour on the upper handrail signals the floor above, with the colour relating to the floor below shown underneath. The staircase is entirely artificially lit, so AO had to source the right kind of lighting. It turned to LEE Filters, ‘because they have their own in-house colour expert’, says Bridges. ‘We had to work hard to make sure that the colours pop off of each other and don’t detract.’

The reward for this distinctive scheme has been lots of interest on social media – AO was runner-up in the Pinterest Interiors Award 2018 – plus fewer confused people wandering around on the wrong floor.

Client - Peckham Levels / Carl Turner Architects

Staircase design and wayfinding - AO Architecture

Completed - December 2017

Paint specialist  - Decorating Company UK

Paint supplier - Tikkurila Paints (specific paint type for ceiling, walls, doors and handrails LUJA20, and floors RM40)

Lighting - LEE Filters


The new-look Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford opened in October 2017, after a massive £440m transformation of the existing 40-year-old mall in the heart of the city and expansion into neighbouring blocks to create a whole new retail and leisure quarter. With BDP in charge of master planning, and a mixture of new structures and refurbishments by Allies & Morrison, Dixon Jones, Panter Hudspith and Glenn Howells Architects, developers The Crown Estate and Land Securities were keen to ensure that the scheme retained a sense of connection to the city and its surroundings, so brought in art consultant Modus Operandi (MO) to commission permanent works in and around the spaces that would enrich the experience for users. Says MO’s director Vivien Lovell: ‘We wanted the work to complement the quality of the architecture and new public spaces, articulate and notate the pedestrian experience and relate to “place” – both Oxford’s contemporary life and historical past.’

Especially vulnerable was the local County Library whose presence risked being eclipsed by the new five-screen cinema and the new anchor store, a 13,000 sq m flagship for John Lewis designed by GHA. A new library entrance was devised to reinforce its presence in the scheme, with bespoke artwork designed for its glass facade by artist Nicky Hirst. Extensive consultation with library staff and users revealed a desire to reflect both analogue as well as digital facilities, and the variety and diversity of the offer within. During the evolution of the resulting work, Myriad, Hirst says: ‘I was always thinking about choices: in and out, up and down, opening and closing. The ever-changing flip-flapping boxes offer pattern and growth, routes through the maze, pathways and stairs, fluid containers and open books. Each colour is different, democratic, transparent or opaque with spaces to breathe in between.’ The ever-changing patterns and light penetrating the glass reinforce a sense of the passage of time, light and seasons for all the library staff and users, regular and occasional.

Other permanent art works placed around the new scheme include a graphic panel of bicycle reflectors enriching an escalator wall by Rana Begum, as well as works by Daniela Schönbächler, William Cobbing and David Batchelor. Lovell concludes: ‘The finished artworks definitely enliven and notate the centre, giving visual significance to key points across the scheme. They have created a series of new landmarks for the city, places for meeting and transition points from outside and within Westgate Oxford.’

Client - Westgate Oxford Alliance

Art Consultant - Modus Operandi

Artists - Nicky HIrst, Rana Begum, Daniela Schönbächler, William Cobbing and David Batchelor (permanent works) and Adam Dant and Rachel Barbaresi (temporary).

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