Functional Colour

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Functional Colour A Postwar Discourse and its Application at Lever House Michael Abrahamson


Functional Colour: A Postwar Discourse and its Application at Lever House In a 1957 advertisement for Lux brand bath soap, Hollywood vamp Rita Hayworth appears in the pastel gown and matching fur shawl she wore as the star of “Pal Joey,” opposite Frank Sinatra. Plugging the brand’s new variety of “soft” soap colours, Hayworth is accompanied by the tagline, “Color does something for you … and so does a lovely complexion!” The ad piggybacks the green, blue, pink and yellow pastels of Lux soap on the still cutting-edge Technicolour film process through which “Pal Joey” was produced, and on Hayworth’s famous red hair. As the ad assures customers: “One or more of these pastels is sure to contrast or harmonize with your bathroom.” Enabling customers to coordinate their soap with their decor may not strike the reader as a particularly pressing design problem, but the ad’s tagline implicates colour in more than one sense. First, it is instrumental, it does something. Second, it is personal, it can do something for you, as it has for Hayworth, and for Lever Brothers no doubt. The notion of a “functional” colour – colour that does something for or with or to you – was common in the 1950s, and not only in advertising. A revolution was underway in the way products and environments were colourised, one in which architects and interior designers actively participated. The phrase “functional colour” was coined by colourist Faber Birren, who by 1937 – when his would-be movement’s eponymous book was released – had already published twelve volumes on the theory and applications of colour, each aimed at a different audience. Functional Color was his treatise for architects and interior designers, an appeal for them to take up his banner. Birren found immediate success in partnering with industrial architecture and engineering firm The Austin Company to colourise their factory buildings. This pilot programme produced a demonstrable reduction in accident rates by changing the paint colour of machinery and walls, and was instrumental in convincing the Dupont Corporation to hire Birren as a consultant.1 For Dupont, he developed a system of colour standards known as the Safety Color Code, which was widely adopted for both military and industrial applications. Making use of reverse- or anti-camouflage, the Safety Color Code marketed the application of contrasting colours to prevent accidents through different spectral registers. An advertisement for a similar programme from the 1940s makes an analogy between the feathers of a pheasant and a machine with a nearly monochrome paint scheme, arguing that by using the opposite of camouflage, “colour becomes an agent charged with the duty of making it easier for workers to see their work.”2 Like all citizens in time of war, this anthropomorphised color had not just a function but a duty.

This paper was originally prepared for the seminar “Functionalism and Other Aesthetic Regimes of the Human Sciences” at the University of Michigan, and has benefited from the comments of seminar instructors Claire Zimmerman and Joy Knoblauch.

1. Regina Lee Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012): 222.

2. Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company Advertisement, 1940s. Reproduced in Blaszczyk, 225.


Advertisement for Lux brand Soap featuring Rita Hayworth, 1957




After the war, Birren published a lecture titled “Functional Color and the Architect” in the AIA Journal, advocating for the application of colour not as a matter of taste, but one “in which definite objectives are set up and in which results are determined by measurement.”3 Birren hoped to expand the project of functional colour beyond the purview of industrial safety. With little revision, this lecture became the introduction to his 1955 book New Horizons in Color, directed at architects and published by Reinhold. The most apropos statement of purpose therein is as follows: Today … a new functionalism for colour has come into existence. Like the symbolism of olden times it is less concerned with individual feeling than with a search for broader and more social values having to do not only with man’s pleasure but also with his efficiency, comfort, and well-being. The old attitude of letting one man’s personality dominate colour choice is being replaced (and perhaps rightfully so) by an objective study of the human needs and desires of all men.4 Aesthetics were therefore secondary, at best an effect produced by efficiency and measure. Building on the findings of experiments in human vision and performance conducted during the war, Birren believed this new science of colour would not only improve productivity and reduce accident rates in industry but would permit greater concentration in educational and office environments through a reduction of eye strain, and perhaps most importantly, enable advertisers to more easily appeal to both the eyes and the minds of their customers. In order to keep pace with competitors, it became imperative for businesses and institutions to “recondition” their buildings with colour. By providing a prescriptive code by which colour schemes could be developed, the discourse of functional colour made intuitive design methods seem obsolete. For those convinced by Birren’s rhetoric, aesthetics and symbolism were deemphasised in favor of demonstrable performance criteria. These criteria applied to both interiors and exteriors. Birren’s intentions with regard to exteriors, however, were less easily demonstrable. He preferred colour that was “integral with form,” and advocated the use of “unlimited colour possibilities” for variety in urban environments. In a chapter titled “Building Exteriors,” New Horizons in Color features a selection of well-known polychrome modern architectures including the Charles and Ray Eames’ house in Pacific Palisades, California, Eero Saarinen’s GM Tech Center outside Detroit, Juan O’Gorman’s murals on the central library block at UNAM in Mexico City, and Le-

3. Faber Birren, “Functional Color and the Architect,” American Institute of Architects Journal v. 11 (June 1949): 31-32.

4. Faber Birren, New Horizons in Color (New York: Reinhold, 1955): 2.



Faber Birren with his designs, 1956. Faber Birren Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University. Reproduced in Regina Lee Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012) courtesy of Zoe Birren.

5. Ibid., 95.

ver House by Skidmore Owings & Merrill. All are represented by black and white photographs. Of Birren’s examples, only Lever House, with its blue-green glass exterior and interiors by Raymond Loewy Associates, appears as exemplary from both perspectives. His caption discussing the building’s exterior is worth quoting in its entirety: “A tribute to modern materials – as against stone and brick – in which architecture today and in the future has unlimited colour possibilities.”5 The colour of Lever House, as Birren and his likely ghostwriter recognise, is inherent in its exterior material. What they do not acknowledge is that the colour’s “function” is not only to be colourful but to absorb the sun’s rays. Completed three years before the book’s publication, Lever House served as the New York headquarters of the Anglo-Dutch fats and oils conglomerate Unilever, known in the United States by its subsidiary Le-



Advertisement for “Color Conditioning� programme, DuPont Company, 1958. Hagley Digital Archives (http://digital. Accessed April 19, 2013.



ver Brothers. The building’s all-glass exterior, as is often remarked, served almost literally as an advertisement for the firm’s cleaning products. In the words of a Lever Brothers promotional fact sheet:

6. “Fact Sheet/Lever House/Home of Lever Brothers Company,” prepared by Humphrey Sullivan, Public Relations Director, SOM (New York), as quoted in Nicholas Adams, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: SOM since 1936 (Milan, Electa, 2007): 69.

7. Lewis Mumford, “House of Glass,” The New Yorker, August 8, 1952. Reprinted in Alexandra Lange, Writing About Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012): 24.

8. Ibid., 21.

9. Birren, New Horizons, 1955.

The conventional building materials, stone and brick, gather grime, soot and soil and give them up grudgingly and expensively. On the other hand, glass comes clean in seconds. So Lever House was built of glass and stainless steel, also readily cleaned. For years Lever Brothers laboratory men have dedicated their research to getting things clean quickly and economically. Thus it was that this new building presented a challenge to minds in several fields, a challenge to develop the best and least expensive technique for washing a building.6 By its cleanliness, the gleaming blue-green curtain wall of Lever House, therefore, illustrated the effectiveness of Lever Brothers’ products. In a once-weekly cycle, the curtain wall was cleaned with detergent by two men using a suspended platform running on tracks placed on every seventh steel mullion. A mechanised pulley system, painted bright yellow, circumscribed the roof of the building to support this platform. Lewis Mumford, in his well-known New Yorker review of the building, provides a mythological description of the process of cleaning Lever House: […] what could better dramatise its business than a squad of cleaners operating in their chariot, like the deus ex machina of Greek tragedy, and capturing the eye of the passer-by as they perform their daily duties? This perfect bit of symbolism alone almost justifies the allglass facade.7 Often mentioned in concert with the wall’s clean look is its blue-green hue. The product of ferrous additives in the glass that absorb the sun’s rays to prevent overheating. Mumford provided the most nuanced description of the building’s color, differentiating between “greenish-blue windows” and “bluish-green spandrels.”8 This application was in accord with one of Birren’s most unabmiguous statements regarding colour use. For building exteriors, he argued, the sharp focus of warm colours makes them “appropriate for prominent forms or details seen at a short distance,” while cool colours “lend themselves to large area and simple mass.”9 Birren emphasises that the use of modern materials in place of the more traditional stone and brick will permit more colour variation and yield a richer built environment. Miming SOM’s fact sheet, the Lever House caption in New Horizons implicates colour in the development of the building’s glass walls.



Due to the sheerness and slim fit of its exterior surfaces, Lever House is Birren’s best example of architectural colour as “integral with form.” Such integration is necessary in order to “give design and form bouyant action,” and to provide consistency.10 Just what Birren means by bouyancy is unclear, but the effect may be the result of the building’s monolithic use of one material and one colour. What colour does, Birren implies, is integrate the building’s components into a whole. Its lightness and sleekness, he seems to argue, are emphasised by the singular material palette. If Birren desired an expression of the “unlimited color possibilities” inherent in modern materials, however, perhaps a more effective means would be polychromy.11 Indeed, many modern architects, particularly Bruno Taut and Le Corbusier, tended toward polychrome colour schemes. Birren’s resistance to polychrome exteriors may have been seeded in his opposition to the intense hues applied by Joseph Urban to 1933’s Century of Progress exhibition in Birren’s native Chicago12: “Modernism has led to an overabundance of garishness, a blunt splurge of hue lacking in both originality and beauty,” wrote Birren in a scathing letter to Architecture magazine criticising the exhibition. In response, he prescribed a more analytic approach to determining “what the eyes and minds of human beings distinguish, like, and dislike.”13 Colour could aid in architecture’s ability to “express structure, weight, spaciousness, distance.” Architects shouldn’t deploy colours intuitively, he argued, but instead in ways that emphasise the nature of architectural form, a kind of “visual streamlining” similar to that practised in the automotive design studios of H. Ledyard Towle, Harley Earl and others.14 The Architectural Review echoed Birren’s call for calculated colour use, concluding that the curtain wall would permit standardisation and efficiency: When some agreement is reached on standards, and when materials and components are tested by agreed methods and the results made freely available, much of the experimental aspect of the architect’s job, wasteful both to his client and himself, will be over.15 Standardisation of curtain wall design, in other words, would eliminate the guesswork of color and glass selection. Following the example of Lever House, it is likely that any such attempts at standardisation would make use of the heat-absorbing glass deployed on its sleek surfaces. A product of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (now PPG Industries, hereafter referred to as PPG), its Solex glass was trademarked in 1935 as providing a 37.5% reduction in solar intake.16 Though initially released only for buildings, it was later more commonly used in automotive glass to protect drivers from dangerous glare and to reduce passive solar

10. Birren, New Horizons, 91, 100.

11. See the writings of Bruno Taut and Paul Scheerbart, especially Alpine Architektur (Taut, 1919) and Glasarchitektur (Scheerbart, 1914). Republished in English as Glass Architecture and Alpine Architecture, translated by James Palmes and Shirley Palmer (New York: Praeger, 1972). Also notable is Scheerbart’s The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel (Translated by John A Stuart, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), which takes place partly in a polychrome glass exhibition hall . 12. Coincidentally, coordinating the design of Century of Progress was Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings’ first collaborative project. See Adams, SOM. 13. Faber Birren, “Why Fear Color?” Architecture v. 72 (July 1935): 19-20, as quoted in Blaszczyk, 219. 14. A car that is visually streamlined uses colour in a way that makes it look long and low. Discussed in Ibid., 137138.

15. Ibid., 321.

16. “SOLEX – Trademark Details,” Justia Trademarks (http://trademarks. html). Accessed April 19, 2013.



Article on Lever House, Life Magazine, June 2, 1952. Photograph by Ezra Stoller. Google Books, accessed August 12, 2013.

17. “A Look at the History of Auto Glass,” Glasslinks (http://www. htm) Accessed April 19, 2013.

heat gain as glass surface area in cars increased.17 The colour of tinted glass is produced by ferrous minerals – a balance of iron and cobalt in the case of Solex – present in the molten glass mixture. Trace amounts of these minerals are always present in raw molten glass, but are usually removed by refining the mix. It was discovered in the early 1930s that said minerals serve to collect solar radiation, but still permit over 80% transmission in the visible light spectrum. In a series of advertisements in Progressive Architecture in 1947, PPG presented Solex, referred to as “a heat-absorbing Plate Glass,” as “particularly advantageous for windows in airport control towers, on the



southern and western exposures of hospitals, hotels, office buildings, and in laboratories and warehouses,” as illustrated by a generic and unnamed Deco-style office building.18 The suggestion of Solex being particularly useful in specific orientations leads one to believe that PPG was yet to understand the appeal of its still-novel product for modernist architects. Importantly, the ad fails to mention the product’s distinctive colour. Completed in 1952, Lever House was the largest application of Solex to date, and the first time it had been applied to three sides of a building uninterrupted. Two types of Solex were used on the Lever House curtain wall, one a typical transparent vision plate, the other an opaque, wired-glass version for the building’s spandrels. These nearly opaque Solex spandrels lend the building’s distinctive colour more density. The ferrous additives that produce its colour absorb a significant amount of heat-producing infrared radiation, lessening the load on the building’s crude cooling system. The sterile and fresh blue-green of Solex coordinated with the identities of Lever Brothers’ cleaning products. In the words of then Lever executive Charles Luckman, “the glass walls would sparkle in the sunlight, befitting a maker of soap products.”19 Faber Birren, in one of his several books speculating on the personalities associated with particular colours, said the following of those that prefer blue-green: It is the writer’s personal conviction that narcissism is in a surprisingly high percentage of cases, revealed by a preference for blue-green. Where an average mortal will like either green or blue, the choice of blue-green may indicate fastidiousness, sensitiveness and discrimination.20 Lever Brothers no doubt hoped to present itself as a fastidious, sensitive and discriminating corporate patron of architecture. Yet, once one traversed the lobby and entered one of the building’s elevators, the spell was, in a sense, broken. The interiors were designed not by SOM, but by Raymond Loewy Associates (RLA), purveyors of a tastefully showy brand of décor tempered by experience designing department store displays and, eventually, the architecture that surrounded them.21 In their projects as consultant designers for Lord & Taylor, RLA – led by the talented Andrew Michael Geller – had redesigned a Fifth Avenue ready-to-wear floor using “startling, vibrant colors” in a harmonious blend meant to provide shoppers with inspiration in their own “ensembling.” This led to a commission for a ground-up Lord & Taylor featuring 66 semi-autonomous shops “wandering around the peripheries of informally shaped areas that remove from the layout all traces of stiffness and formality.”22 Understanding that “unique colors flattered complexions,

18. “Suggestions for using Glass,” advertisement by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in Progressive Architecture v. 28 (November 1947): 2.

19. Charles Luckman, Twice in a Lifetime (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988): 243.

20. Birren, New Horizons, 116.

21. The decision to hire both SOM and Raymond Loewy Associates was controversial with both because SOM had a well-respected interiors division of its own and RLA had its own architects on staff. 22. Tobé Fashion Report, as quoted in Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution, 189; Angela Schönberger, “Inside Outside: Loewy’s Interiors and Architecture,” in Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial Design. Edited by Angela Schönberger (Munich: Prestel, 1990): 105.


Advertisement for Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company featuring Solex, Progressive Architecture, November 1947.




improved salesgirls’ moods, and piqued the interest of shoppers,” RLA used colour to pad its customer’s bottom line.25 These designs made use of the same type of spatial branding later deployed at Lever House. Though RLA’s approach didn’t align with his empirically-determined functional colour, Faber Birren nevertheless complemented their Lever House interiors, calling them “an outstanding example of well coordinated color planning.”24 Similarly, Lewis Mumford remarked that he didn’t know “any other building in the city in which so much color has been used with such skill and charm over such a large area.”25 In RLA’s design, furniture and ceilings were painted a specially-designed “Lever House beige” that also clad the building’s elevator attendants.26 Elsewhere, as described in Interiors magazine, “walls, elevator doors and corridors, and asphalt tile flooring lent themselves to 31 colors arranged in special identifying schemes for each floor, and matched, when possible, with the particular product to which the floor is devoted, e.g., Pepsodent blue-white, [Harriet Hubbard] Ayer pink.”27 As Mumford put it, the colours ranged from “brisk yellows and delicate blues to a combination … of boudoir pink and eyeshadow lavender.”28 Unlike its fastidious, straightforward, and clean exterior, the inside of Lever House was designed to create a variety of effects to help Lever Brothers’ brands inhere to its architecture. RLA’s 31 decorative colours may not conform to the clarity set out by the building’s exterior, but their range and scope certainly conditioned its interior space, establishing particular moods for each brand and each floor. Birren himself had assembled a similar palette of colours in New Horizons, categorising each acceptable hue under either “Functional,” or “Decorative.”29 For office buildings, Birren endorsed only the use of his functional colours to “aid the cause of good visibility and human efficiency” and “to overcome fatigue and eyestrain.”30 As Birren bluntly generalised: […] bright light and warm colors condition the human organism for action, for outwardly directed interests, for muscular activity! Cool colors and dim light are conducive to introspection, to sedentary tasks, to mental activity!31 This conditioning of performance and mood through colour – what Birren referred to as psychodécor – was and is empirically studied by interior designers, colourists, and psychologists alike. The purpose of such empirical study, and of functional color, was to overcome the reigning connoisseurship model of selection and coordination and democratise the process for consumers and clients. Concisely critiquing the old model, Birren writes that where “personal opinion and feeling are the only measure, all decorators and all ideas are meritorious.”32 With functional

23. Blaszczyk, 189. 24. Birren, New Directions, 69. 25. Mumford, 25.

26. Adams, SOM, 69.

27. “New York’s blue glass tower: an insider’s view,” Interiors v. 112 (August 1952): 58-65, 152-153. 28. Mumford, 25.

29. Birren, New Horizons, two-page chart inserted between pages 128 and 129, “courtesy of Finishes Division, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc., Wilmington, Del.” 30. Faber Birren, Selling Color to People (New York: University Books, 1956): 186.

31. Ibid., 192.

32. Ibid., 194.



“Functional and Decorative Colours,” two-page chart inserted between pages 128 and 129 in New Horizons in Colour, “courtesy of Finishes Division, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc., Wilmington, Del.”

33. Ibid., 194.

colour, he seems to argue, the process will no longer be a creative one, but one making “the whole atmosphere,” align with “the likes of the public.”33 Viewing the extant black and white photographs of the showroom for Ayer brand cosmetics on Lever House’s eighth floor – painted pink and lavender with traditional side chairs, crystal chandeliers and, from the looks of it, no glass walls – produces significant cognitive dissonance. Conditioned to expect tactful and functional furniture and amenities in what is commonly referred to as the Mid Century Modern style, one now tends to overlook the eclectic, populist tendencies in American architecture and interior design. While it may seem obvious to paint a cosmetics showroom in pinks and violets, this strange atmosphere requires a recalibration of just what modern corporate architecture, and functional co-



Harriet Hubbard Ayer Cosmetics Showroom, Lever House. Reproduced from “New York’s blue glass tower: an insider’s view,” Interiors v. 112 (August 1952).

lour, meant to accomplish. If, as Birren defined it, functional colour was “a system or method of color application in which ... beauty is made subservient to utility, and pleasure becomes a by-product of purpose,” then what purpose or utility might the use of colour at Lever House fulfill? The answer seems clear, that these colours, coordinated to Lever Brothers products, were intended to facilitate the sale of said products to retailers visiting the building. By creating what Reinhold Martin has referred to as modulation, Lever House enabled the parts of Lever Brothers’ corporate identity – its brands – to be organically integrated into an imageable, identifiable symbol in the form of its headquarters.34 Slotting each into interchangeable, modular floors, RLA’s design – and the building that contains it – establishes continuity between a set of disparate brands. Yet there were exceptions to this interchangeability. Lewis Mumford conditioned his praise of the colour at Lever House with an admitted disdain for the building’s executive floor. “Here nothing has been spared to achieve an air of expensiveness,” Mumford says, “and as a result nothing more stuff y and depressing could be imagined.”35 On the executive floor, dark woods, thickly-textured carpeting, lounge seating, and concealed lighting add up what Jean Baudrillard has disdainfully referred to as atmosphere. Distinguishing this tendency from design, Baudrillard argues that both result from a balance between play and calculation, and result in an abstract integration. For Mumford, the executive level of Lever House was a particularly egregious example

34. Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media and Corporate Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003): 159-167.

35. Mumford, 26.



Isometric drawing of Lever House office layout, Interiors, August 1952.

36. Mumford, 26. By the “Brown Decades” Mumford is referring to the period between 1865 and 1895, wherein a nascent American style of life emerged, and the look of things became a concern for an greater portion of the population. c.f. Mumford, The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931).

37. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Ojects. Translated by James Benedict (New York: Verso, 1996): 40-41.

of such shallow, atmospheric integration. It was a space of exception in which the everyday, Lever House beige desks and interchangeable functional colour schemes that sufficed on every other level were no longer adequate. Mumford cites this as a “descent from the era of stainless steel and glass to the nether regions of the Brown Decades,” a denial of the “clean logic” of interchangeability and modulation.36 If colour, lightness, and flexibility are what Mumford so appreciated elsewhere at Lever House, his distaste for the executive floor is understandable given that none of the above were in evidence there. Yet when considered as a system of modulation wherein brands, employees, and colours are interchangeable, perhaps the executive floor produced a difference in degree rather than kind. Like the “little shops” that made up Loewy’s department stores, the difference displayed on each floor of Lever House merely demonstrate the flexibility of its system; the exceptions prove the rule. As Baudrillard similarly observed: There is nothing at all – not antiques, not rustic furniture in solid wood, not even precious or craft objects – that cannot be incorporated into the interactions of the system, thus attesting to the boundless possibilities of such abstract integration.37



Lever House, photograph by Ezra Stoller (© ESTO)

Likewise, the value of colour is no longer to do with any reference or meaning but depends on its ability to coordinate. A colour is only meaningful through its place in a system of interchangeability. By this logic, the building’s 31 interior colours – each as important as any other – functions as an analogue to the system of modulation evidenced by the architecture it chromatises. To quote Baudrillard once again, here speaking directly about functional color: Just as modular furniture loses its specific functions so much that at the logical extreme its value resides solely in the positioning of each



Executive lobby, Lever House, Interiors, August 1952.

38. Ibid., 35.

39. Ibid., 36-37.

moveable element, so likewise colours lose their unique value, and become relative to each other and to the whole. This is what is meant by describing them as ‘functional’.40 One might think of Lever House not as a built advertisement, but a system of interchangeable colour-signs, each floor as adaptable as the ever-changing colour forecasts produced by Birren and other colourists. The “mood” of each floor could be reconditioned and its colour harmony re-calibrated based on changes in brand identity or consumer desire. In the words of Baudrillard, this reduced colour to “an abstract conceptual instrument of calculation.”41 Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether colours were selected to sell products or improve productivity, they remained part of a standardised, modulated system. At Lever House and elsewhere, colours were interchangeable parts of coordinated wholes, inherent to corporate and brand identities. Through his consultancy American Color Trends and his vast bibliography, Birren was instrumental in the postwar democratisation and consumerisation of colour knowledge and theory. For clients including Sears, Roebuck and Company and Monsanto Chemical Company, American Color Trends provided “fact-finding” services in search of “human attitudes, motivations, responses and actions toward colour.” For House and Garden magazine’s Color Program, Birren produced an annual



Fireplace on executive floor, Lever House, Interiors, August 1952.

Waiting area on executive floor, Lever House, Interiors, August 1952.


40. American Colour Trends: A Brief Statement of Service in a Special Field of Research, pamphlet, ca. 1960, as quoted in Blaszczyk, 237.

41. J.R. Cooper, A.C. Hardy and T.J. Wiltshire, Attitudes toward the Use of Heat Rejecting Low Light Transmission Glasses in Office Buildings (Research project report, School of Architecture, University of Newcastle, 1972) as cited in: David Button and Brian Pye, eds. Glass In Building: A Guide to Modern Architectural Glass Performance (Oxford: Pilkington Glass Ltd., with Butterworth Architecture, 1993. 42. Baudrillard, 43.

43. Here I am referring to the title of Lewis Mumford’s New Yorker review.

44. Charles John Phillips, Glass: The Miracle Maker (Pittman Publishing Corporation, 1941).


palette of approved colours, which were licensed to manufacturers, designers, decorators, and retailers.40 The broad influence of this Color Program and Birren’s articles in the magazine meant colour coordination – the production of ensembles among colourised consumer goods – became an essential part of product selection and a not insignificant impetus for obsolescence. But what of the blue-green exterior of Lever House? Though calibrated, the hue of its glass is the result of a refinement of its performance. Unlike the chromatic modulations of its interior, this colour is truly different in kind. Perhaps this is not a functional colour but a performative one: it holds out the sun’s rays, and holds in the wily brand identities of this parent company. Importantly, the blue-green of Solex, like that of all tinted glass, is imperceptible when viewed from the interior. Instead, one’s eyes always already adjust to the glass colour, meaning that its hue becomes a conditioner of one’s perceptive apparatus. In the words of a study on the “cooling”effect of green glass, “perceptual adaptation [compensates] for the distorted spectrum when people’s view of the outside is exclusively through tinted glass.”41 Though tinted glass reduces light transmission, the eye compensates for this reduction in contrast: the effect of colour is literally internalised. Though it promises perfect transparency and a connection between interior and exterior, glass transforms the experience of both. In the words of Baudrillard, it “facilitates faster communication between inside and outside, yet at the same time it sets up an invisible but material caesura which prevents such communication from becoming a real opening onto the world.”42 In the case of Lever Brothers’ employees, occupying a sheer container intimately bound with the corporation’s identity, this internalisation takes on a sinister hue. A model material for the (post-) modern world of atmospheres and ensembles, its purity, cleanliness and durability implicate morality, as Baudrillard observes. Working in this “House of Glass” means internalising both its tint and its figurative transparency.43 A “miracle maker,” agent to transformations in perception and behavior, the Solex installed at Lever House enabled and enacted a corporate identity and a chromatic ensemble.44 Its coolness and cleanliness conditioned the perception of its occupants and, its designers hoped, their mood. Though the latter has never been as demonstrable as Faber Birren and other functional colourists would have liked, ensembles of colour remain key identifying attributes of corporations and commodities. It is no surprise that architecture, along with other material products, was likewise colourised. The popularity of Lever House’s performative blue-green (and Mies van der Rohe’s bronzed retort across the street for Seagram’s) led to an arms race of sorts in which ever more chromatic filters were



made available to architects. Certainly, colour did something for Lever House, and its example contributed to a spectral broadening. Mirrored coatings and films, innumerable hues and levels of tint – blues, grays, bronzes, greens, veritable “oceans of colour,” as PPG promotional material now proclaims – have further complicated the relation between inside and outside through one-way reflections and other effects.45 Like Lux soap and any number of other manufactured products, mere performance could not alone dictate the chromatic expression of architectural glass. While not quite as “functional” as Faber Birren might have desired, these new possibilities for colour undoubtedly encouraged the broadening of chromatic horizons for architecture, both inside and out.

45. “Oceans of Colour” is a registered trademark for PPG’s line of tinted glass. cf. “Tinted Glass by PPG,” (http://www. products/ocean/Pages/default.aspx) Accessed April 23, 2013. Unfortunately, it has been found that these new tints and films, when including additives other than iron, lower transmission in the visible light spectrum, making for gloomy interiors and requiring supplementary illumination. Michael Wigginton outlines this in the introduction to his book Glass in Architecture.


Bibliography: Adams, Nicholas. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: SOM since 1936. Milan: Electa Architecture, 2007.


Luckman, Charles. Twice in a Lifetime: From Soap to Skyscrapers. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988. Martin, Reinhold. The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media and Corporate Space. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion, 2000. Batchelor, David, ed. Colour. Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008. Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict. New York: Verso, 1996. Birren, Faber. The American Colourist. Westport, CT: The Crimson Press, 1939. ———. Colour: A Survey in Words and Pictures. New York: University Books, 1963. ———. Functional Colour. New York: Crimson Press, 1937.

Martin, Reinhold. Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Mumford, Lewis. “House of Glass,” The New Yorker. August 8, 1952. Reprinted in: Alexandra Lange. Writing About Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012: 21-28. Ockman, Joan. “Midtown Manhattan at Midcentury: Lever House and the International Style in the City,” in The Urban Lifeworld: Formation, Perception, Representation. Edited by Peter Madsen & Richard Plunz. London: Routledge, 2002. Phillips, Charles John. Glass: The Miracle Maker, Its History, Technology and Applications. New York: Pitman publishing corporation, 1941.

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