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Ulrikka S. Gernes and Peter Michael Hornung
Painter and sculptor Poul Gernes’ site-specific work
– the decoration of Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev
Many experts in the field of contemporary art maintain that the Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev contains Denmark’s largest artistic decoration of public space. But we can put this more succinctly: it is the county hospital itself, with all that it contains, which constitutes the nation’s largest site-specific work.
What is unique here is that the building and the art that adorns it are integrated on all levels, on all its stories and in all its corridors, in all its halls, bedrooms, conference rooms, sanitation rooms, workrooms, nooks and crannies. You could not move this site-specific work without having to build another hospital. The two – the building and its salient artistic character – have been amalgamated into a reciprocal dependency that has no parallel in recent Danish architecture.
What is unprecedented here is the manner of co-thinking colour, form and function. The colour has apparently been given free rein across all surfaces and in all directions. This is not the way one is used to seeing painting behave. Many people hold the opinion that the work ought to be surrounded by a golden frame in order to qualify as a real painting. This, however, is a convention to which the home and the art museum have accustomed us. A painting can expand across all surfaces and come to be a total decoration, a colour environment, which has not been subjected to limitations other than those that a certain building and its functions impose. In such an event, the frame need no longer be made of gold – or rectangular. Instead, it is made of steel, concrete and glass, and reaches for the clouds.
For visual artist Poul Gernes, being entrusted with the task of decorating Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev and accordingly transforming one of Denmark’s largest buildings into one of the first polychrome hospitals in the world was one of life’s important assignments. But even though the idea was to have colour everywhere, and different colours at that, nobody was referring to the project at its inception as art - and especially not to “art for the sake of art”. At least, Gernes was not doing so. For him, this was a matter of applied art, on the very largest scale … art that possessed a utilitarian function.
Gernes had tradition on his side: not the tradition that has emerged within the last thousand years, but a much older tradition. The monumental buildings of antiquity and the Middle Ages were not executed by artists in our contemporary sense of the word, but by entrusted and chiefly anonymous craftsmen – in most cases, these masters of the hand and the spirit did not leave any names behind them. They executed the works on demand and often, it was other people who prescribed the content of the task. Nor were they conscious that they were making “great art” – or that they were artists … maybe they weren’t even familiar with the term. Nonetheless, we ascribe the term “artists” to them – as a token of our acknowledgement.
In his profession, Poul Gernes was a lone wolf. To most other artists, expression is first and last a signature of a personality, a trace of great individuality, carried out – perhaps – in lonesome concentration and, in reality, primarily an offer to those people who, on account of their particular social background or education have been equipped with the requisite tools for appreciating what such an artist is doing. Poul Gernes did not subscribe to this opinion. He was an anti-elitist, maybe the most anti-elitist of all the Danish artists.
His entire achievement shaped itself as a frontal showdown with the attitude that modern art is basically for the elite and cannot be rendered into an affair of - and for - the people. According to his conception, one could not reproach the wide population for not being able to understand the contemporary art that was being exhibited at museums and galleries. For the same reasons, neither could one blame the people for not being interested in art. The blame was to be placed on the artists, inasmuch as they had distanced themselves from the people, from the ordinary human beings, from the citizens and from the taxpayers, who had indirectly paid for both the artist’s training and the art in the institutions, which these same taxpayers hardly ever felt like visiting.
A moral dimension
Gernes’ position about the latter point was clear, albeit controversial: restricting art socially is tantamount to treason against its original function. Art exists in order to make the surrounding world a colourful and stimulating place to be – for everybody. It ought not be hidden away inside institutions that are meant for the enjoyment of only those who are informed. Art should not constitute a proof of investment, but rather an object of utility that can be useful, comprehensible and accessible, in both an economic and social sense. For this reason, he objected to art museums. In order to take part in a so-called artistic experience, the society’s citizens ought not be compelled to push and shove their way up the stately steps leading into the museum. Such an experience should neither be a Sunday-leisure frolic nor a spare time privilege. It ought to amount to a collective benefit in everyday life. For this reason, modern art has to be removed from its social ‘islands’ and carried back to society in order to be integrated there where people are moving about everyday as a natural part of their existence: that is to say, in kindergartens and on playgrounds, in schools, high schools and student dormitories, at workplaces, town halls and hospitals. To put this another way, art must, to the widest possible extent, follow the individual human being through existence as an encouraging friend and wise guide, making life easier to live.
It was a question of keeping art’s social moral dimension in mind. In response to this problem, Poul Gernes was an incurable moralist. In an interview with Jens-Jørgen Thorsen, he constructed a model of comparison with other professions. “A doctor is there to repair a broken arm. A bicycle mechanic is there to put on a new crank. A carpenter repairs the broken leg of a chair. An artist is there to repair a broken morale.” (Aktuelt Weekend, July 15, 1962)
An artist who is only interested in the elite was, to Poul Gernes, a parasite and a flunky. In his own work, therefore, Gernes was aspiring to move away from the individual and private towards the social and collective. The fact that he consequently became one of the greatest individualists among contemporary artists only underscores his singular vantage point in a culture where artists prefer to mark themselves as outstanding and distinct exceptions from the entire social set of rules to which the rest of us are subject. Nor should the hospital in Herlev come to stand as a museum for the artist, Poul Gernes. His opinion was this: in no way did an artist stand on a higher rung than did a traditional craftsman. This was Gernes’ reason for dressing as an utterly ordinary craftsman, wearing the white pants typical of a bricklayer and other garments of the sort. And this was his reason for not demanding any more in salary than what the ‘other’ craftsmen were receiving for their work, although the work in this case eventually became his life’s and his country’s largest site-specific decoration.
Poul Gernes considered himself as something of a decorator. And the decoration started right there where the architecture no longer extended and where the ordinarily colourless architecture called for assistance from the colour spectrum’s visual vitamins. The wall is merely the first link in a long process of embellishment which, formally speaking, has no frames. In Gernes’ conception, the decoration was not something you hang on a wall and can just take down again, according to whim. It is integrated into the wall itself, into the wall’s function. And when the decoration has first conquered the wall, the other walls in the room will follow, then the adjoining rooms, then the entire floor, then the single building and then the city as a whole. Or maybe even the entire nation. A decoration is only real if it doesn’t know its limits. This was the great idealistic notion in Poul Gernes’ life: he dreamt of making Denmark a better place to be. He had to wait a long time for the opportunity to realise his own intentions, in the very largest of formats. But it happened in Herlev.
It all started out as a much smaller assignment. In 1968, Poul Gernes, along with three other Danish artists, was asked by Denmark’s National Art Foundation to take part in an invitational competition. The competition revolved around the decoration of a new large hospital, which was on the drawing board for construction in the county of Copenhagen. It was being planned on a plot of land fashioned by Ringvejen 3B, Hjortespringvej and Turkisvej. Each of the invited artists was asked to come up with sketch proposals for the adornment of the hospital’s foyer. At the outset, it was the intention to concentrate the art in the foyer building, which functions as an entrance to the entire complex. In other words, the decoration that served as the theme of the competition was basically supposed to be there to delight and divert the building’s guests, the relatives and the people who were visiting those who had been admitted for care. The art here was not aimed so much at those who were sick, who were confined to their beds.
The rest of the hospital was to look like any ordinary Danish hospital: neutral and monochrome, so that nobody – neither the personnel nor the patients – could be given any reason to react to what they saw around them. The patients should not be given any chance to be distracted from what they were thinking and feeling about being wherever they were, which means to say, to be distracted from the pain, the suffering and the worrying. A white and completely neutral wall colour would always constitute the best projection screen for whatever notions one might entertain, since the empty wall would not provide any counter-play for anyone – and would certainly not provide any signals that might get a hospital patient to send his or her thoughts into other more stimulating directions.
This was why Poul Gernes abhorred white walls.
The finished hospital houses a low two-storey foyer building. Here there are an assembly hall, two auditoriums, a number of kiosks, a bank, a restaurant and a canteen – and what is no less important, that which is the hospital’s ‘face’ in the complex: the lobby, also known as the vestibule or the reception hall. It was here that Poul Gernes’ site-specific decoration took its beginning. From the vestibule, one can move further into the building complex – to the inpatient building, a giddying-high skyscraper, and to the treatment building, an immense flat initially one-story building which, in keeping with the terrain’s declivity, opens up to the south, eventually housing a total of four stories. To the north of the treatment building there is a service building and east of this there is a chapel. Finally, at the entrance from Ringvejen, there are a child-care institution and a nursing school.
The inpatient building has been constructed in the form of three towers, which are built together. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, one could say that there is one tower for the patients, one for the doctors and one for the elevator. The latter, towering 120 meters, is the highest point in the entire complex, while the other two towers are 90 meters tall. The inpatient tower has 25 stories. On each floor there are 48 beds, distributed in six groups, each consisting of four bedrooms, surrounding a core consisting of sanitation rooms and shower- and toiletcabins. In the core of the building, there are also the staff administration areas, the storerooms, the examination rooms, the conference rooms, and so on.
Architects Gehrdt Bornebusch, Max Brüel and Jørgen Selchau designed the hospital, with a total floorage of 190,000 m2. But there was a fourth protagonist, the visual artist Poul Gernes. And his importance increased in synch with the construction’s taking shape. The first seeds were sown in the foyer. But before they had flowered forth, Gernes had already gone to work on a total colour scheme for the entire building’s interior and inventory.
The site-specific decoration project started out as quite an ordinary assignment of this type in the hospital’s foyer. This eventually manifested itself as consisting of a total of 56 individual paintings, executed by Poul Gernes in collaboration with his wife, Aase Seidler Gernes, and a number of assistants. The paintings were created with enamel-paint on pre-treated fireproof boards, which function simultaneously as pieces of the finished wall. Fifty-one of these paintings measure 2.5 x 2.5 meters, while the remaining five are slightly narrower, measuring 2.5 x 1.85 meters. If one adds all the measurements together, including the painted folding doors, one attains a total of a 500 square meters for the decoration.
The motives on these paintings are patterns and symbols, which are easy to recognise, even at a distance. For example, a chessboard, the face of a compass, a numeral, an alphabetical letter, dots, flags, circles, targets, and so forth – even a verse of poetry has stealthily managed to creep its way into the collection. It goes like this: Roses are red, violets are blue; strawberries are sweet and so are you. This little verse can almost be read as a motto for the symbolic simplicity of the whole project, since colours have always had a meaning. They remind you of something, or they refer to something.
A painting of flags from the whole world was, in compliance with Gernes’ instructions, executed by a West German sign painter. However, the West German “forgot” to include the East German flag. Gernes regarded this to be a mistake– and he painted over all the flags with red paint, except for one: the Stars and Stripes! After this, he charged the sign painter with the task of creating a new painting with nothing but flags of the day’s nations. The older flag painting was also used in the sequence and the texture of flags can be felt – and seen – underneath the red paint.
In addition to the foyer’s pictorial frieze, four folding doors (2.5 x 7.8 meters) in front of the foyer’s shops have also been painted. Patterns have been executed in a stencilling technique on both sides. After the shops are closed, when the folding doors are extended in their length once again, they fashion four separate decorations. Due to some remodelling in the foyer, two of these folding doors have been removed and replaced by glass walls in recent years.
Poul Gernes himself was of the opinion that the foyer was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen. This statement expresses something crucial about his ideal of beauty: he was not a purist and it was important to him that a place lived and was used. The foyer was grand, yet mild and friendly, he thought. “There are several beauty spots; I have made several of them myself, but nonetheless there is a radiance and an atmosphere that is exciting, elevating and appeasing ... there are flowers, plants, chocolates, newspapers, bits of information, paintings, even a glass mosaic, marble, plaster, glass and plastic, concrete, aluminium and so much more. There is a lot of light, and also shade. The explanation for these many things is held in some kind of balance, which is good and maybe also important, so that an all too tailor-made formalism has been avoided. The result is accordingly unpretentious, which in itself is something of a rarity. The balance here, I suppose, is the tension between pretentiousness and, quite precisely, unceremoniousness.”
It quickly became clear that Poul Gernes harboured a different view than did the architects on how the rest of the building ought to appear. “Architecture without colours is meagre”, was his opinion on this topic. Gernes’ obstinacy was not the least formidable of his many strengths. He was an artist who was borne along by simple yet strong visions. When he first got something into his head, it was not easy to make him change his mind. And he had stumbled onto an idea. It wasn’t only the foyer, but all the building’s interior and all its inventory which ought to be coloured, and in many clear colours, which would engender variation, order and a sense of vitality that would transplant itself to everyone who was present there. The very idea that this might be feasible, in any way, was substantiated by the decoration of the foyer. That he managed to convince the architects and the building owner was also connected with the fact that the proposal was not so peculiar as all that, at least not to the architects. If it been left up to Poul Gernes to decide, the hospital in Herlev would also have been provided with colour on its exterior. But here, the architects protested. The façade should remain neutral.
The idea of a fully integrated collaboration between the different branches of the arts reaches far back in history. The examples accumulated during the ancient period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, etc. And eventually, as Europeans started to be conscious that non-European cultures actually possessed their very own history of art, many more similar monumental endeavours could be spotted. There were rich cultures which weren’t lacking at all in what we have come to understand as art. But there were no artists who were sufficiently famous that the knowledge of their names constituted a precondition for apprehending and appreciating their efforts. And their art did not manifest itself in the form of articles that could be bought and sold and moved from one place to another without having a natural attachment to either the surroundings or the architecture.
In our own corner of the world, the idea of this mutual cross-fertilisation of the arts had most recently been put under discussion in the years following the Second World War. In A 5, the architect students’ magazine, a new praxis was being spoken about, one that broke with the prevailing procedure; instead of waiting to call artists and sculptors into a building project until the construction process was finished, they were to be involved in the process much earlier on.
One of the architects at Herlev, Jørgen Selchau, actually participated in such an experiment in the nineteen-fifties; it was, moreover, a project that revolved around a hospital building. A painter had been asked to submit proposals for a total decoration of the walls and, in the same breath, a sculptor had been entrusted with the task of sketching how bearing constructions like the beams and pillars could be fashioned so that they were not only constructive and merely functional, but would also assume an artistically significant form.
There was nothing wrong with the idea. But if the idea was going to move beyond the conceptual phase, it called for a large sum of money. And such funds were simply not available at the time. For this reason, the idea was scrapped.
Dress rehearsal in Gentofte
If such a cross-disciplinary action were going to be successful, several demands would have to be met. It was clear that the project could only be realised if the supporting authorities could be convinced about the idea. But the authorities could only be expected to go along with such an all-pervasive colour scheme if the extra expense in connection with the construction would result, in the long run, in significant savings in some completely different area. The architects were receptive to Gernes proposal. But whether the municipal decision-makers would agree was going to have to be put to the test.
In order to convince the building owner about the advantages implicit in Poul Gernes’ proposal, a mock-up, that is to say an experimental module in the scale of 1:1, had to be created. A module which corresponded to one storey of the Herlev Hospital, and therefore came to be known as the “Herlev Ward”, was constructed at Gentofte Hospital. Seen in isolation, it was not the appearance that was the most interesting – not yet! - but rather the medicinal and mental health-related consequences of the new polychrome environment. For this reason, the experimental module amounted to much more than a mere mock-up. It was rather an actual dress rehearsal for a hospital environment, its new colour scheme and similarly its new inventory. Among other things, there was a wish to try out some of the new and very advanced technical aids with which the new hospital at Herlev was to be equipped, all of which were to be of benefit to the admitted patients. For example, it was something novel that the beds could be adjusted individually by the patients. By pushing a button, one could decide which position one wanted the bedhead or the bedfoot. The bedridden patient did not first have to trouble the staff. From the bed’s system of controls, one could raise or lower the blinds and curtains in the room with the use of a remote control. The flow of water in the basins could be activated by a wave of hand, as one can do today in public restrooms. It wasn’t merely a matter of convenience, but also of hygiene and economy.
But the most daring aspect of all was, of course, Poul Gernes’ colour scheme. The artist and his wife, Aase Seidler Gernes, virtually lived at the construction site in Gentofte while painting the walls and fittings in the company of a number of decoration painters. The application of colour subsumed the carpets, which were blue, and the furniture itself. The curtains were also transformed, and printed with a pattern of parrots and large flowers, into a veritable orgy of colour.
A clinical experiment was now implemented to determine whether the polychrome environment would function according to its express purposes. This was carried out on a number of different departments who moved into the test module by turns. Over a period of approximately three months, the reactions of everybody involved, the patients as well as the staff, were observed. In addition to the experiences accumulated around cutting-edge hospital techniques, what could be registered in short order was that the colour scheme, on the whole, had a positive effect on the surroundings: the colour was perceived as a psychosomatic asset, an invigorating remedy, which could be ingested without pills or injections. You just had to use your senses and take a look around.
A few negative remarks were also heard. The tabloid, Ekstra Bladet, printed some of them. “Good heavens, this parrot cage is truly awful!”, exclaimed one patient. Another patient added, “When I woke up after anaesthesia and saw those colours, I was convinced I had a brain haemorrhage”. But most of the reactions were positive, and some were even enthusiastic, such as this one: “It’s more wonderful here than at the most expensive luxury hotel. The only thing I actually miss is a bar.” Or “I hope it will take at least a few weeks before I’m well, because I’ve never experienced such lovely surroundings.” (Ekstra Bladet; November 18, 1970)
A nurse concluded to Ekstra Bladet: “It takes a while for you to get used to the surroundings, but afterwards, it’s hard to feel comfortable anywhere else.” That was what others experienced: the strong colours certainly required a certain period of acclimation. On the other hand, they were extremely addictive. What would typically happen was that a new team of doctors, nurses and patients would move into the new rooms to test out the conditions. Their first reaction to the colour scheme was one of shock, and perhaps even indignation. And for good reason: never before had they experienced such a thing in a hospital setting. But when the same people, after three months, had to move back into their old departments, they were not happy to return to the drudgery of the old interiors. They had been exposed to the experience that colours on the walls could have a stimulating effect on your mind in much the manner of a large bouquet of flowers on a table.
A sequence of questionnaires was handed out among the users of the test module. And a sociologist was asked to analyse the answers. The results were awaited with bated breath, but certainly not by the artist. He already knew the result. He had never been in any doubt. In theory, one could preserve primary colours in a medicine chest, because colours possess both a preventive and a healing effect.
The Colours’ Constructive Chemistry
In his artistic praxis, Poul Gernes took his mark in the fact that through the sense of sight, the spectral colours of the rainbow have a direct impact on our feelings and accordingly, they exert an important influence on our sense of well being. He thought that what is colourful can inspire a radiant mood, while the opposite – an environment devoid of colour – can have a negative impact. He also knew that the effect of the colourless on the mind can be likened to “a fourth day rain”, because grey weather, as the name indicates, is a weather that makes all the colours turn grey.
Sunshine and grey weather are complementary, colouristically as well as emotionally. As Gernes put it: “It’s only when the sun breaks through and the colours consequently become radiant that life is really worth living. Everybody is familiar with this experience.” It was thus a source of eternal wonder to him that almost all mass residential housing, factories, schools, offices and the like in the industrial society are confined to the colours of grey weather. That is to say, they are either colourless or “municipally coloured”, i.e. drab and depressing. For there was ample evidence that not only is the reasonably coloured environment a healthier in which to live, it can also promise economic profits. “Well-coloured environments promote a sense of well being, initiative to work, the will to co-operate, humanity and a sense of identity among others. Even meagrely executed colour schemes have a stimulating effect. And the modest expense of an artistic colour scheme yields a generous return” (Poul Gernes in the magazine, Impulse). Journalists visiting the “Herlev Ward” in Gentofte reacted in the manner anticipated by artist. They were impressed with what they saw. The journalist Povl Sabroe (Bro Brille) stated plainly: “ If I were going to build a hotel, I would team up with Gernes. With his colours, he would put such a mood in the bridal suite that the mattresses would have to be reinforced.”
However, the hospital environment called for different principles in the colour scheme. When Poul Gernes began embellishing the foyer, he worked partly with that principle of randomness he had invented and experimented with in the beginning of the nineteen-sixties. Instead of consciously choosing the colours on the basis of knowledge about what colours would best suit each other as nearest neighbours, he let chance decide for him. The procedure worked like this: with his back turned to the pile, he placed himself near a pile of colour tubes which he had shuffled together. Then he reached out behind him and whatever tube his hand happened to touch determined the colour in the painting he had positioned before him.
The painting that was created in this “blindfolded” manner was called the “lottery painting” by the artist himself. And this kind of painting was more interesting to him than those where he, according to mature considerations, had decided on the colour co-ordination himself. The reason for this was that some of the combinations in the new painting were “unthinkable” to the consciousness. With colourist intrepidness, they transgressed whatever one could devise with assistance from a sense of good taste. To him, this what yet another example of the fact that a work of art can sometimes have a more successful birth if one does not intrude too much after having set the process in motion. An artist must never underestimate that moment of surprise which conceals itself in a liberal procedure because an artistic process can embody its own unpredictable dynamics.
A project as large as Herlev calls for systematics. Everywhere in the building, the colour scheme must take its mark in what the architecture is used for in everyday life. The embellishment of the foyer, for example, ought to provide a stimulating experience to the visitor, preceding the visit to the rest of the hospital, especially to the inpatient tower. The colour scheme is therefore tailored to the fact that the visitor remains in the foyer for a relatively brief period of time, whereas in the patient rooms, one stays for a longer period - and seriously ill patients will virtually be living in the hospital, often in a vulnerable and fragile condition.
These two areas thus pose different demands on the embellishment, the environment and the colour scheme, just as the treatment and the outpatient areas are each conditioned by different environmental considerations. In the foyer, a certain degree of randomness and signal-confusion could be allowed to prevail. For the same reason, the form and colour languages are somewhat intrusive. On the contrary, order and systematics must prevail in the inpatient tower and the treatment area - and there must be no randomness. Gernes called such a starting point “ethical” or “moral”, in contrast to the purely aesthetic use of colour that merely reflected the whims of an artistic ego. Purely aesthetic considerations did not appeal at all to his moral and social demands on how colour and shapes ought to be used in art and architecture. His view was that architecture of this kind could be improved through the means of the correct colour scheme, since the colour scheme would not only add quality and identity to the building itself, but would also generate life-quality and sense of identity for the users who moved around inside its expanse. To realise this, and to work on its implementation was basically considered the crucial role of the artist in the society.
There was nothing new in this. This is what Poul Gernes had been thinking ever since the beginning of the nineteen-sixties, when he was the co-founder of the Experimental Art School, also known as the Eks-Skole. It was the social community around the work that formed the backbone of the school, which was a critical alternative to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, located at Kongens Nytorv, with the significant difference that while the art academy was educating artists who were striving to profile their own personal talents and get their own careers going, the collective education had a more social aim in sight. Here art was not to be made for the artist’s own sake, but rather for the sake of society.
On the matter of entertainment
It was still the case at the close of the nineteen-sixties that working with colour as a link in a larger context of social function was something new and different. It was necessary for Poul Gernes to advance a number of explanations in order to create an understanding and clarification of the ideas seated behind his extraordinary choices, and he was compelled to write a number of pieces about the project. In his opinion, the Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev offered a perfect opportunity for creating a polychrome environment. After all, it was a hospital and a hospital, in point of fact, ought to be a bright spot which would emanate optimism and lust for life and transmit these qualities to those who inhabited its quarters. In a Note on colours, textiles, environment and other things – for use in Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev, Gernes wrote: “Maximum possible experience and entertainment, in the most positive sense of both words, ought to be achieved. The arguments for this support themselves, amongst other things, on what is expedient as a positive means for reducing the lying-in period for the patients, and doing what can be done in order to effectuate delight in the job and the pace of work, in a positive way, for the personnel, and also contribute to making the architecture, as such, succeed. What are also known as the immaterial values, the aim and justification of the ‘muses’, or the spice of life, ought to be attained by emotionally artistic and colour-psychologically correct choices, guided by the aforementioned aims.”
That something could be done “positively” or have a “positive” effect was crucial to Poul Gernes. The word appears three times in the quotation cited above. However, Gernes also introduces another intention, which did not enjoy any priority whatsoever among the artists of his day. And this is the parameter of ‘entertainment’. In an interview (with Gunnar Jespersen in Berlingske Tidende on February 14, 1978), Gernes put it bluntly: “The aim of my work has been to create the greatest possible degree of entertainment.”
The colour scheme should, more than anything else, entertain the patients. In other words, it ought to inspire them to forget about their troubles. On the basis of his belief in the psychosomatic effect of art, Gernes was convinced that the polychrome environment could make a contribution toward reducing the lying-in period for the patients and in making even the hospital stay a life-affirming experience, rather than the contrary. Moreover, one would also be able to generate a better work environment, stimulate a feeling of well being and delight in the job on the part of the staff and create better conditions for everybody involved in the building’s activity. To put this succinctly: the colours would help in bringing about a greater spirit of humanity. It was a matter of a series of “soft” social considerations which, in our day, are overlooked, more often than not, in the building and construction sector.
There was also another consideration and this was an entirely practical one. In spite of the frequently very idealistic demands that Gernes imposed on art and the art scene, he was gifted with a rare practical sense. He had realised that a polychrome environment could disguise scratches and wear better than a monochrome one. The new solution might be somewhat more costly, but the difference in price would be offset many times over by the eventual savings. In the long run, a polychrome environment would be more durable. Of course, the red, green, yellow and blue colours were not, in point of fact, any more resistant to damages. But, relatively speaking, they were less vulnerable. The wear and tear wouldn’t be as visible as it would be on a white or grey surface. This would diminish the number of repairs and re-paintings and accordingly, money would be saved on maintenance. It was not only the expenses associated with the ‘maintenance’ of the patients, then, that would be affected by the intensely coloured surroundings.
A practical colour with its very own symbolism
These plans and machinations for creating the coloured environment were brewing while the Social Democrats and the Conservatives held power in the municipality – and while they were holding the keys to the coffers. It was clear to see that it was precisely the economic and psychosomatic aspects that would have to be presented to the politicians. First impressions of the interior’s appearance, however, were to play an important role.
At a moment when the decision on the colour scheme was to be made, Per Kaalund had just stepped into the job of county mayor. One day, Per Kaalund came to visit – to have a look at one of the floors where test-colours were being painted. It was the southwestern tower which the architects were calling “the red tower”. Kaalund was being guided around the floor by Jørgen Selchau, who was anxious to see what the county mayor would have to say about “number 5 on the red scale”, one of the most intense red colours in Gernes’ colourist programme. But the colour did not seem to displease the powerful Social Democrat. On this account, the room where the county mayor expressed his assent came to be known as “Kaalund’s room” or “the Socialist room”.
It was architect Selchau’s task, once again, to show the members of the county board around the test module and to win them over. Afterwards, Selchau admitted that he had been very nervous before this confrontation. But attention was drawn only to the baseboard, which Gernes had coloured with cyclamen-pink. All of the members of the county board agreed that this was very daring. And this was the only colour that received any notice. It was so bold that they forgot to nurture any opinions about any of the other colours. And so it happened that the colour scheme was adopted. And it was approved “without indignation, but with delight”, as Jørgen Selchau formulated it in an unpublished text about the collaboration between the painter and the architect.
At the time Poul Gernes came into the project, the architecture was already a reality and this limited his possibilities for making any more significant alterations, even though his wish to do so might have existed. The colours became Gernes’ sole artistic vehicles in his interaction with the architecture. It was important to Gernes that he spend a great deal of time at the architectural drawing office, where the architect Erik Schytt Poulsen became his steady daily partner. He came to be Gernes’ “inspired esquire” – to quote from Jørgen Selchau’s description.
The test module in Gentofte had demonstrated that there were nothing but good grounds for setting the colour scale free within the interior of the hospital. But there was also a more practical dimension involved in having a consistent colour scheme in the inpatient rooms and this dimension also involved stipulating the precise whereabouts of those rooms within an overall context that hardly lent itself to a survey view. As the hospital was being planned, the architects had tried, on every single floor in the inpatient tower, to create a patient-care function that would be concentrated, and to the greatest possible extent. Whatever did not directly touch upon the care of the patient was omitted from this area. The elevator tower, for example, came to be situated just beside the inpatient tower. The sanitation rooms were decentralised, which was something totally new at the time. The conditions and the functions were simplified. With the aid of colour, Poul Gernes wanted to render these functions even simpler and more comprehensible. The artist chose to use the colour scheme as a colourist compass. If the colours were determined on the basis of geography, one would be able to pinpoint his or her position more quickly in relation to the staff administration areas, the medicine rooms, and so forth. It was only a question of habituation – and learning.
For this reason, the colours in the inpatient tower were determined by the orientation, in relation to the four corners of the world. Gernes advocated a thorough and consistent principle, which would be employed everywhere in the inpatient tower. Cool colours (blue and green) ought to dominate in those bedrooms that faced the north, while warmer colours (orange and red) would prevail in those facing the south, yellow hues in those facing east and soft peach and apricot shades for the rooms looking west.
According to Gernes’ colour philosophy, a colour should always appear as pure and bright as possible. It ought to announce itself in a clear way. For this reason, the colours were chosen in such a way that they would follow the daylight around the horizon. The colours in the bedrooms were determined on the basis of the fact that the cool northern light reinforces the blue and green colours while the more golden southern light infuses incandescence and supports the warmth in the red colours. By thus making use of the daylight’s “temperature”, the colours’ inherent temperature is reinforced and they come to be more brightly alive – literally. The opposite scenario – warm colours being exposed to cool light – clips and veils the intensity and engenders a certain unpleasant atmosphere, insofar as the light’s glow works counter to that of the colours, rendering them dirty and impure. If warm colours had been used in the rooms facing north and cooler hues in those facing south, the result in both instances would have been mixed colours of a kind. The blue would have been stained with a tone of grey and the red would have lost its shine and intensity. In every coloured area, five different shades within the main colour were employed.
The colour programme does not apply merely to the walls. The floors, the fittings and some portion of the fixed inventory in the treatment area were also painted so that the colour, in addition to having an entertaining effect, would transmit an immediate message about which direction one happened to be facing.
With the colour scheme in the inpatient rooms, Poul Gernes was striving for the greatest possible entertainment and experiential value for the diversion and delight of the patients. However, there is always at least one white wall in every bedroom and that is the wall behind the patient. The white colour reflects the light, without any discolouration. For this reason, it fashions a neutral background for the doctor or nurse who needs to observe the patient’s general condition. A coloured light reflection in the face of the patient might issue a misleading impression about the patient’s condition.
Curtains, doors and Anemostats
Poul Gernes also designed the curtains for every one of the lying-in sections. Here, once again, his extraordinary practical sense came to light. The curtains were printed with flowered and ornamental patterns, but in such a way that the “fullness” of the patterns gradually expanded with the curtains’ breadth. By pulling the curtain into the denser or gradually more open patterned sections, one can control the amount of daylight entering the room. The colours of the curtains similarly follow the compass’s Four Corners of the world: cool hues facing north and warm ones facing south. Once again - and in extraordinary detail – Gernes knew well how to assign a double task to the colour. On the one hand, it was an aid in daily doings, because one could easily find one’s bearing according to the colour. But it also made the hospital stay more comfortable, more stimulating and more entertaining.
Everywhere in the hospital, the colours of the doors have been chosen from a system consisting of a total of nineteen different colours, each of which will render a functionally determined signal about what – or who – is behind the door. Behind a cyclamen-pink coloured door, one could expect to find a secretary. Behind a green door, there would be an educational room. Blue indicates an examination room or a doctor’s sanitation room. And behind the yellow doors, one would expect to find a bedroom, an operating room or a member of the high-level staff, like the head doctor.
The yellow colour of the doors facing the corridor areas has also been chosen especially in order to “prepare” the sight for the sharp transition between the artificially illuminated corridors and the daylight-illuminated bedrooms. As you enter from the corridor area into the heart of the inpatient tower and open the door to a bedroom, you’ve got daylight hitting you right in your face. The bright yellow door colour, in this way, contributes toward preparing the sight by diminishing the impact of over-exposure. Moreover, yellow sharpens the attention, which certainly fosters a positive effect when the nursing staff comes in to visit a patient. The colour was accordingly used as a significant signal leading into the inpatient rooms.
With time, many internal re-shufflings have made it difficult to maintain a consistent order in the door colours’ special symbolism. But generally speaking, it still holds true for the functionally determined rooms, and the hospital’s administration possesses Gernes’ original colour manual, which is consulted whenever something is to be re-painted.
The clash between daylight and artificial illumination was given special attention because this transitional zone and the shift between them can easily come to create discomfort for the eyes. Using a strongly varied colour choice could solve this problem.
Fresh air and heating were conducted into the building through a system of pipes fastened to the ceiling, the so-called Anemostats. Visually, these delineate themselves as a long sequence of pipe-apertures jutting out from the ceiling. These pipe apertures deliver the heat that is required for feeling comfortable and the fresh air one needs to inhale. For this reason, it is important that the pipe apertures transmit a signal so that one can feel safe about that which they deliver. Therefore, according to Gernes’ way of thinking, they should not make their appearance as anonymous openings. He selected a warm red colour, which – apart from fulfilling the necessary requirements – would also help to alleviate the byproduct of the pipe apertures, namely noise and – to a certain degree – hide the dust that often accumulates around air pipes. The alternative would have been to paint the pipes white, so they could merge with the white ceilings. But white painted on different materials would, in time, change character and appear inhomogeneous and even dirty.
The treatment section
The treatment section has been constructed as systematically as a garrison town. The treatment level itself was built from standard units in a square system where each module measures 15 x 15m. The modules are mutually separated by corridors that are three meters wide. All corridors aligned in the north-south direction are distribution corridors, while those in the perpendicular (east-west running) axis are treatment corridors. From the treatment corridors, one gains access to the individual treatment sections or departments, all of which are illuminated by skylights. These include the Department of Radiology; the X-ray Department; Eye, Nose and Throat; and the Blood Bank. Every one of the outpatient clinics occupies at least one and frequently several squares.
The treatment building is primarily white, in order to underscore the distinction between the outpatient clinics and the lying-in areas. But ‘primarily’ is not to be taken as meaning ‘exclusively’, because it is also the case here that the artist has employed a smaller selection of colours as hints or symbolic references. It could be said that the colours operate as a sign system. At one spot, the colours have been allotted a symbolic or pedagogic function while at another, they are functional and practical. Nothing is accidental – and in any event, nothing is inconsequential – for anybody concerned. Everywhere, the choice of colour has been conceived in relation to a collective field of functions, signals and systematics. The aesthetic experience is almost a side effect.
The entirety in the hospital has been thoroughly envisioned, all the way down to the interior layout of the individual rooms and every visible detail, in an admixture of practical considerations and positively stimulating visual experiences. The overall corridor floorage in the treatment building is enormous, and it’s easy to lose one’s bearings. In order to separate the individual outpatient clinics from one another, they have each been marked with a coloured frieze. The purpose of these coloured friezes or “stomach-belts” - as architect Erik Schytt Poulsen called them – is to give those people who are moving around in the treatment section a quick and somewhat reliable pointer indicating the special areas of expertise in each of the outpatient clinics. Almost all the colours chosen by the artist possess a distinctly associative value. They operate as a function-determined colour symbolism. Spring-green, for example, has been used for the maternity ward. Ox-blood red is used for the blood bank. Blue-violet is used for the pathological department and light blue is used for the eye clinic (since light blue is the colour of the sky we see above us). Other colours are a little more difficult to decipher, but they work, nonetheless: there is chrome orange for the department of oncology, dark green for the emergency room and operating rooms, cyclamen-pink for the training and physical therapy departments, a soft skin-toned colour for plastic surgery, lemon yellow for the department of rheumatology, and so on. Moreover, the friezes contain arrows and explanations that make the journey easier to undertake.
Apart from the information-transmitting aspect, the “stomach belts” satisfy another practical function: they have been positioned at a specifically determined height, namely at precisely that distance from the floor where the walls are exposed to the greatest wear and tear due to the transport of beds and other clinical traffic. In case of damage, one does not need to repair a whole surface of wall. It’s enough to paint the belt. And generally speaking, as has been mentioned, damages and scratches will not seem as conspicuous on a painted surface as they would on a white wall.
Since there are practical considerations seated behind almost all of the colour schemes in the building, something as fundamental as the floor has naturally also been embraced by the colourist programme. The blue flooring in the corridor areas has been chosen on the basis of considerations about traffic safety. Blue is generally considered to be the most ‘yielding’ colour in the spectrum. You might say that it ‘pushes’ forward - and to a maximum degree - everything in our field of vision that is placed in front of it or that passes across it. At the same time, blue is a most practical colour for a floor that is incessantly being worn down by pedestrian and light-vehicular traffic. Here, the elderly and the very young, the sick and the healthy are moving about amongst each other and here, electrically powered vehicles carrying different kinds of apparatus move to and fro. The signposting in the hospital has been executed in such a way that the signs indicating the way in to certain areas are blue, while those indicating the way out are green. The blue triggers associations with the blue of the floors inside the hospital’s confines, while the green – in a natural way – refers to the lawn areas outside the hospital. Prohibitions, on the other hand, are signalled in red, as they are in road traffic.
In order to maximise traffic safety inside the building, the glass doors have been equipped with red borders and the corridor-transport trucks sport sensational cyclamen-pink stripes and the bumpers are red. Moreover, warning colours have been laid into the floors and the parking areas are marked with green. The transport vehicles are also coloured according to what loads they are carrying.
Denmark’s largest decoration
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that the Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev is Denmark’s largest decoration of public space. Let’s substantiate this statement with some rather astonishing figures: To give a sense of the sheer immensity of the project, one could mention, for example, that 65 kilometres of pink-coloured rubber floor-moulding and 10 kilometres of specially-printed curtain material were specially fabricated. There are 4,500 doors opening into 3,700 rooms, which were painted in as many as 21 different colours. In addition, the walls were painted, as were the floors, the ceilings and the corridors. It is by and large impossible to stipulate exactly how many square meters the total work takes up. But if, when you say the “total work”, you mean to include all the walls, doors, doorframes, etc. plus the painted furniture and inventory, it amounts to – according to Gernes’ own figures – something in the vicinity of half a million square meters.
The strength of the decoration, however, is not its size because the overall size cannot be intuited from any one position in the hospital complex. Nor was the sheer monumentality of the piece, as a virtue in itself, of any concern to the artist. It was merely a practical necessity, since the hospital was built to accommodate 988 bed-ridden patients. The Copenhagen County Hospital is a gigantic hospital and it’s easy to get lost inside it. It has been Gernes’ notion to mix small dimensions in with the greater dimensions; with the aim of making the whole thing a little more humane, he attempted to edify a certain confidence around the individual place, the individual corridor and the individual bedroom. With an eye toward the inpatient wards, the artist himself held the view that the creation of what he called “a small world, something that looks like a quiet suburban street, consisting of only 48 places completely hidden away from all the many others and clearly partitioned, for that matter, into 12 sub-units which both ‘geographically’ and colouristically … have been individualised” was successful. “The most important thing was that one didn’t feel – as a patient – that he or she had wound up in a military barracks and that one had been blotted out as an individual.” Poul Gernes: When is Architecture Architecture? – special graphic publication)
Throughout the entire process, the most important aim in mind had been to create a feeling of humanity. This is apparent in the social care and immediacy around which the colours have been selected everywhere throughout the environment. If you move around for a sufficient period of time in the hospital environment, you’ll come to notice that everything has a colour and that no colours or combinations thereof are entirely accidental. It is these colours that elicit the impression that one human being has been concerned about the surroundings that are supposed to serve as a stimulating everyday milieu for other people. There can be no doubt about it: the colours work, and not only according to the intention behind them: they work in the most active sense of the word. However, there is one marked exception to the colour’s copious abundance: the colourless grey beds.
This circumstance also has an explanation, but it’s of a more anecdotal character. The new county hospital was to be equipped with modern electrical beds and Poul Gernes had chosen a bright blue colour for them. But when he submitted his colour proposal, the hospital superintendent protested. She did not think that she could allow her patients to “lie and die in a parrot-coloured bed”. To this, Gernes replied, “It’s not really the idea that you go into the hospital to die. Is it?” Even so, the beds remained grey, a colour which had otherwise been banned in the chromatic scheme for the hospital. Convention had triumphed – for the time being.
Then came the inauguration of the hospital in 1976. A few years later, after the hospital had been put into use, the same superintendent approached Gernes. She regretted that she had insisted so firmly on a neutral colour for the patients’ beds. In time, she had come to realise that the beds should also be part of the colour scheme. Perhaps it was the bright, radiantly coloured surroundings which exposed the beds’ colourist tediousness. Perhaps the result, in the final analysis, lacked that consistency which had otherwise steered the site-specific project on the whole.
In 1998 – 22 years after the hospital’s inauguration – the technical director contacted Aase Seidler Gernes in order to find out if she could select the same special blue colour that Gernes had envisioned for the beds at the outset of the project. The hospital was about to order 120 new beds, and there was a wish that these beds would be painted with the originally conceived colour. Consulting old notes about the project, Aase Seidler Gernes managed to come up with the proper blue colour. This time around, the beds were sent for spray lacquering before being shipped to Herlev.
It took eight years to complete the decoration of Copenhagen County Hospital in Herlev. The result is a work where the art constitutes a completely integrated aspect of the hospital’s interior design and the way the building functions in daily life.
In gloomy hospital corridors all over the nation, one has often thought with envy about the solution implemented in Herlev. Poul Gernes’ choice of colours for everything from floor mouldings to water faucets was neither based on taste or fashion but was conceived on the basis of a remarkable artist’s social empathy and ethical consciousness as well as on his insight into the role that art can play in relation to people. This could be the key for why the hospital, still today, appears radiantly bright and “timeless” in the sense that it cannot be dated on the basis of its colour scheme. No, it has not wound up as some kind of museum exhibiting how hospitals were built in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies nor as some museum presenting the work of an artist who provided the whitish concrete building with an extraordinary colour-radiant and functional interior.
In the beginning, it was all a matter of an experiment. Today, the experiment remains an ideal.
The above text was originally printed in the "Farvernes medicin / The Medicine of Colours“ by Ulrikka S. Gernes and Peter Michael Hornung, Borgens Publishers, Copenhagen 2003