A few days ago Adriana invited comments on a video about a project called Philly Painting. According to its website, “Philly Painting is a neighborhood beautification project of unprecedented scale, set in North Philadelphia, around the Germantown and Lehigh Avenues. The goal is to mobilize the community to completely transform the commercial corridor and bring a new look to their neighborhood: A social and artistic experiment of urban acupuncture, beautification, and economic stimulus of unprecedented scale.” The project is essentially a four-block long graphic mural visually connecting the upper stories of both sides of shopping district with fingers of color also reaching out into the side streets.
The work of the artists, Haas and Hahn, who also created the well-publicized Favela Painting projects in Rio de Janeiro, consists of colorful supergraphics painted on building facades, following on a graphic style invented in the 1960s. What is new in their work is that they apply their designs to substandard structures with the expressed intent of “economic stimulus.”
The same supergraphics approach was used by Edi Rama, a recent mayor of Tirana, Albania, with the intent of enlivening the facades of drab Communist-era buildings. According to Rama, applying colorful paint to (presumably state-owned) buildings was his first political message after being elected, intended to communicate to people that things were going to change.
There are three key factors in the success of these projects. The first is of course color. In spite of longstanding academic debates about the nature of color, based on personal experience (and the history of art, architecture and interior design) I will go out on a limb and assert that color does have the power to affect us psychologically and can be considered as a powerful element of the project.
The second is the visual tying-together of disparate structures. As an architect, I find that visual coherence, composition, and rhythm are the most important factors in whether a project succeeds or fails aesthetically. These graphic murals superimpose dynamic visual rhythms on building surfaces in such as way as to disguise aesthetic “problems.” In the case of the favelas they erase “undesirable” irregularity in materials while maintaining the “desirable” irregularity inherent in the massing. On the other hand, in the case of Communist-era housing blocks they add visual interest where there was little to none.
And the third is the social or psychological message contained in the simple act of repainting a neighborhood that had been seen as nearly dead. What is this message? According to video interviews with some of the residents of the Philadelphia project’s neighborhood, the murals signify a “fresh start,” “something new,” and “something that makes you laugh.”
Having worked with favelados in Sao Paulo and Habitat for Humanity owner-builders in Oakland, I have found that strong opinions about design and a desire for beauty, are not restricted to the middle-class and wealthy. Although in the case of Tirana the supergraphics projects were followed by squatter settlement eradication and gentrification, I am wary of claims that gentrification necessarily follows beautification. According to Neil Smith, “gentrification represents a trenchant and geographically extensive restructuring of urban space” and is typically the result of larger forces at work in the city and the economy. As a resident of Oakland, a city with areas of distress similar to those of Philadelphia, I think it’s important to embrace improvements like these as an offshoot of the tradition of representational mural paintings in poor neighborhoods. If gentrification is a dirty word because by definition it does not include affordable housing, then perhaps need another term for a balanced approach to improvement of older cities, and perhaps we might begin to include supergraphics projects along with tree planting and other streetscape improvements in planning for sustainable cities.