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Dialects of Colour

Colour has long been a strictly ornamental component in architecture, used as the treatment of surfaces after the construction of a space.1 What do we have to do if we want to treat colour as a fundamental part of our design? In his article Spatial Colourism, Constant discusses this issue of colour being a subordinate element in the generation of space and form. He states that architects treat size, structure and proportion as the underpinning elements of architecture, and therefore space is generally conceived as colourless.2 However, colour is inevitable, whether it is used in a conceptual stage or appears in the final furnishing of a space. Colour is more than a wall finish or material selection; colour is not static.3 Colour has scale. With its changing nature in different qualities of light, and taking into account the vagaries in how the viewer’s visual cortex computes what it sees, colour has an ephemeral quality. From these complexities colour has the ability to codify, form and direct how we optically perceive space. I wish to examine and contrast Le Corbusier’s house interior in the Weißenhof Estate, Stuttgart, and James Stirling’s B.Braun Factory in Melsungen, Germany. Both are examples which include colour as a crucial element in reading and understanding their space. Of even more interest is the accidental moments of colour which happen within the seemingly controlled pieces of architecture.

“Imagine a tribe of colour-blind people, and there could easily be one. They would not have the same colour concepts as we do. For even assuming they speak, e.g. English, and thus have all the English colour words, they would still use them differently than we do and would learn 4 their use differently.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Jan de Heer, The Architectonic Colour: Polychromy in the Purist Architecture of Le Corbusier, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009 Constant, Spatial Colorism, Voor een Spatiaal Colorisme exhibit, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1952 Gertrud Olsson, The Visible and the Invisible, Axl Books, Stockholm, 2009, p1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1977, p.4


Colour is used as a device of expression. Wassily Kandinsky raises this possibility of colour becoming a mode of communication. He attempts to codify colour by setting out a transliterary relationship with other aesthetic phenomena. He makes cultural links when associating colour with, for example, sound. In this way he attempts to form colour into a language. For instance, he supposes that a viewer seeing lemon yellow would not associate it with a bass note in music.5 Although Kandinsky is talking about an emotional association with colour, he is not accounting for conditioned responses or cultural background. Given this, you could not assume that two people standing within the same space, even assuming their eyes perceive colour in the same way, would make the same emotional or aesthetic associations. Kandinsky talks about colour as a language- by association, therefore, filtering it through another set of mental constructs. The nature of language itself is ambiguous, and over time connections between object and word change and evolve. If we are to talk about finding a language within colour should we try to define a set of grammatical rules or simply look at how we visually process colour?

“Colour is to a large degree about how we relate to what we see, our way of seeing” Gertrud Olsson, The Visible and the Invisible, p.1 If we are to consider colour as a language, we must be aware of what connections are being made between tone and eye. Once we have a foundation in what colour is communicating- in this case, space- we can then begin to create a dialogue around the subject and have the ability to change and influence one’s understanding and perception. If we deconstruct our sense of sight, the fundamental experience to our perception of space and our way of categorising elements is colour. If we can establish this link between colour and its importance in understanding form, we have our first lingual identifier. Neurologist Oliver Sacks describes the story of a patient who has lost his ability to see colour in The Case of the Colour-Blind Painter. Suffering a head injury in a car accident, the man developed a very rare case of full colour blindness at the age of sixty five, where the world suddenly appeared as shades of gray. He also lost the ability to see colour in his visual memory, experiencing a colour amnesia of sorts. Although he remembered colours intellectually, such as the numbers of colours referenced on the pantone colour chart, the only link he had left was in his verbal memory. He no longer had a remembrance or the sense for colour.6 In the following analysis I will compare seeing in full colour with how the colour-blind painter in the case study interprets colour as tones of white and black.

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Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Dover Publications, New York, 1977, p.24-25 Oliver Sacks, ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p1-38, in An Anthropologist on Mars, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1995


Wall A

Figure 1 Le Corbusier WeiĂ&#x;enhof Estate in Stuttgart

Wall B & C


/ White The exterior wall surface of Le Corbusier’s Weißenhof Estate in Stuttgart consists of an assembly of light tones that give the impression of white. Our eye has the ability to construct the larger object from an assemblage of detail, hence we generalise colour into blocks of tone. Ludwig Wittgenstein points out that we substitute highly reflective tones as white. For example, if you take a seemingly white piece of paper and hold it up to white snow, the paper all of a sudden appears to be gray. Wittgenstein also remarks that very few people have ever seen white; instead we are seeing shades of light gray.7 Le Corbusier has exaggerated this optical illusion on the different surfaces of the exterior walls. The exterior of the estate uses variations on white as a base to contrast the stronger colours of the interior. Painted grey and a light mint green, the exterior walls are visually separate from the planted growth in the surrounding landscape. Le Corbusier’s initial intent was to select colours considering them as a way to detach the building from the ‘beauty of its surrounds.’8 There is a moment in the courtyard where the window panes on wall (A) merge together the grey and mint tones of walls (B) and (C) with the landscaped surrounds. The viewer’s sense of space is shown to them once more. In itself it becomes a painting of sorts, a composition of colour. The volume of colour combines into the image, becoming a part of the building. Language is a tool of communication, but how much of the one’s initial intent is deciphered through the words themselves or through the intonation, tone, the expression and assemblage of the words? Reading Le Corbusier’s exterior as an image, in the reflective surface of the window pane, is a way for our eye to identify the visual relationships and colour language he is using. As we cannot control the relaying of the exact tone, is it not necessarily about the colour itself but the play, the moment. Therefore the role of the architect is not to control the experience of the use, but to set up the framework in which accidents may occur. Reading between the lines of his initial arrangement produces unforeseen moments in colour, where the language takes on a life of its own. Le Corbusier famously used painting as a device to determine space. Constant suggests that the scale of colour is the key to transitioning between the ‘closed character’ of the painting and the space around us. That is the relationship of colour to human dimensions.9 The difference in how we perceive the two-dimensional and volume is primarily based on our innate ability to distinguish subtle tonal graduations. The subtle shifts in shades of white to the eye of a person with ‘normal’ colour vision would be indistinguishable in full light. It would not be until sunset that the boundaries of space would be more defined, as they would be in higher contrast. The colour-blind painter’s reduction of perception to shades allows him to articulate the space a lot more clearly than someone with full colour vision. The processing of gradation and colour in the perception of one with full-colour vision would merge and neutralise its surrounds into one. 7 8 9

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1977, p.2 Jan de Heer, The Architectonic Colour: Polychromy in the Purist Architecture of Le Corbusier, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009, p.95-98 Constant, Spatial Colorism, Voor een Spatiaal Colorisme exhibit, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1952


Figure 2 Ground Floor Staircase: White Figure 3 First Floor Staircase: Yellow


“[The colour-blind painter] found himself in an inconstant world, a world whose lights and darks fluctuated with the wavelength of illumination, in striking contrast to the relative stability, the constancy, of the colour world.” Oliver Sacks, ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p.18

We can begin to see a sense of formlessness in Figure (2), in Le Corbusier’s white staircase at the entrance on the first floor. The distinction between wall and ceiling begins to disappear. In this case, form is playing off the shift between light and shadow. Figure (3) is the staircase to the next floor painted in three tones of yellow. Le Corbusier has reversed the shadow qualities of the space by using the dark tones in the lighter areas, thereby reducing the volume. The action here is of colour giving us the sense that the scale is lost, although the formation of the space is more articulated with the shifts in colour tone. In the Case of the Colour-Blind Painter, form was determined by the shades of grey. When asked to sort strands of yarn containing thirty two different colours, he sorted them into a seemingly unintelligible system. It was not until the sorted strands were photographed in black and white that they could see a gradient of grey values. To the eye of a person who sees colour, we cannot not decipher these values, as all we see is the colour.10 Colour filters how we perceive light. It therefore stands to reason that one could alter the form of a room, based on how colour is used.

“He described the fluctuation of surfaces in different lights – he was describing the world in wavelengths, not in colours” Oliver Sacks, ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p.26

The wavelengths of light form the underlying structure of colour visibility. It was determined that this colour-blind painter’s perception of tone in space was dramatically altered if the light condition was to shift. In Figure (4) we begin to see the alteration in space when the surface reflectivity changes and you read a room based on brightness and darkness. The ability to see in colour blurs the harsh distinctions of light and can damp down the effects of chiaroscuro (conversely the colour-blind painter experienced chiaroscuro in even lighting in some situations). Figure (5) explores the importance of contextualising colour. To a certain degree we are insensitive to elements of form due to our colour vision. Surface and form visually shift easily to the eye under the pure conditions of light. When you take away the context of colour, can we still read the language of the space?

“Colour provides a structure or armature: it is made up intrinsically of one of more zones of proximity...” Gilles Deleuze, ‘Note on Colour’11 10

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Oliver Sacks, ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p1-38, in An Anthropologist on Mars, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1995, p.13 Gilles Deleuze, ‘Note on Colour’, in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, p.144-154, Continuum, London, 2003, p148


If you misread the elements within a space, the language of the spatial form changes. In his lecture series Poetics of the Cliché, Mark Cousins discusses the tragic flaw of language being the misunderstanding of what is being relayed.12 This misreading of Le Corbusier’s staircase in Figure (5) demonstrates the multilayered nature of colour language. Rather than controlling the experience of perception, as the user ascends the stairs, perhaps colour serves as a trigger for different readings of the space, adding a further dimension.

Figure 4 Red, Green and Blue filter gray scale of first floor staircase

Figure 5 Scale of Colour

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Mark Cousins, The Poetics of the Cliché: Friday Lecture Series, Architectural Association, London, 11.11.2011


Stirling Colour Legend and Tonal Translation

/Black Seeing colour as a series of light reflective surfaces is a fundamental element in processing colour. Oliver Sacks explains that the damage to the colour-blind painter’s brain occurred in V4, the section of the brain that controls the flow of information into the memory, therefore he was ‘forgetting’ colour. His ability to see gray was due to the wavelength-sensitive cells in V1. His inability to use the higher function of V4 to see colour stripped back higher aspects of how we process light into colour. 13 In The Case of the Colour-Blind Painter, shortly after his accident, the man experienced a red sunset in the sky, only he perceived the red as black.14 When later exposed to a colour test he could not distinguish between black and red. In his perception both had the tonal equivalence, therefore red was black. On the assumption that individuals with colour vision go through the same process of computing light wavelengths (gray tones), then in this next section I will refer to a simplified legend in gray scale of how the colour-blind painter would perceive the colours of Stirling’s factory in Melsungen, Germany.

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Oliver Sacks, ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p1-38, in An Anthropologist on Mars, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1995, p.37 Oliver Sacks, ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p1-38, in An Anthropologist on Mars, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1995, p.11


Figure 6 Tonal language

Figure 7 Light Comfort Level


In contrast to how Le Corbusier manipulates our perception of form and scale through colour, Stirling uses colour as a way to codify his space. Some of his colour legend is more effective than others. Those with greater contrast in their gray tonal value have more impact on the viewer, even though other parts may have large differences in hue. It is one thing to embed a language of tonal contrast and colour into his building, yet another to make it legible to the user. Where Stirling is successful, he is able to manipulate the users by defining what spaces are accessible by whom. The white interiors of the production space consist of metallic machinery producing orange IV units. The people who monitor the space move around the machines in white sterilised suits and hair caps. The interiors are sterile and inaccessible. A red corridor runs alongside the white space, behind glass, as an observation deck. In Figure (6) we can see the gray scale of the space and we are able to identify the space in tones, similarly to the colour-blind painter. The dominate shade in the space is Stirling’s red, which translates to black on the gray scale. Colour association can be the consequence of a conditioned response. In that same sense, there is also a conditioning towards our comfort level within light and dark spaces as seen in Figure (7). Stirling has highlighted the work areas by bordering it with black. This notion of ‘being on display’ in the production areas is a way of restricting access. This gray tonal difference beneath the colour, creates an automatic divide of seeing and being seen; where the visitor stands and where the workers circulate. Architects use shadow and darkness as a way to control the focus of the viewer. I also suggest that we can achieve this through the choice of tonal values within colour. Stirling has used a reoccurring motif of colour coding through the factory. His colour choice was a reference to the surrounding German landscape.15 Seen in Figure (8) the user can pick up on the recurring motif, although it is not as easily distinguishable as the red because the underlying gray tone merges together. The other colours he has used appear to merge together. The codifying of the space has been lost in translation. Colours that Stirling designed to be distinct are actually indistinguishable to major parts of the brain’s colour processing.

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Mark Crinson, Stirling Series: Melnikov in Leicester and other Myths, Architectural Association, London, 21.11.11


Figure 8 Recurring colour motif throughout James Stirling’s Factory


The role of black in architecture serves as a contrast device within a space. Francis Bacon’s use of black in painting demonstrates this point of contrast. Bacon uses black as a way to bring forward his ‘flow of broken tones’16. The chiaroscuro effect is achieved by painting with light, or colour, in the darkness. The darker tones serve as a frame for the brighter grey tones.

Figure 9 Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait 1971

When we think of colour in architecture, we talk about moving away from ‘colourless’ space. As Constant stated earlier, ‘colour is inevitable’. Colour is a device in which we perceive space. Its inherent qualities of light, dark, contrast and shifts in tone is how we classify what we experience. As demonstrated in The Case of the Colour-blind Painter, this language is adaptable. Wittgenstein suggested in his musings on colour that colour-blindness is a different colour concept, rather than a disability. The colour-blind painter’s perception of the world was virtually unrecognisable following the accident (although within three years he could no longer imagine seeing a world of colour). He had adapted his vision in gray into a new classification system, forming a dialect of the language of colour he once understood.

Colour is a language we all perceive in an individual way, based on the neural process, cultural understandings and environmental elements. Everything has an inherent colour language. It is a matter of recognising the optical grammar of colour so we have the ability to change the perception of space. Rather than applying a foreign system onto colour, we can begin to understand what we already see. In this way, we can use colour in architecture, not just as a surface aesthetic, but as an optical construct: a colour language. Wittgenstein suggests that colour blindness is not a defect, rather it is a different way of codifying and giving categories to the things we see.

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Gilles Deleuze, ‘Note on Colour’, in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, p.144-154, Continuum, London, 2003, p145


Bibliography Constant, Spatial Colorism, Voor een Spatiaal Colorisme exhibit, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1952 Olsson, G., The Visible and the Invisible, Axl Books, Stockholm, 2009 Kandinsky, W., Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Dover Publications, New York, 1977 Wittgenstein, L., Remarks on Colour, ed. G.E.M Anscombe, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1977 Sacks, O., ‘The Case of the Colour-blind Painter’, p.1-38, in An Anthropologist on Mars, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1995 Deleuze, G., ‘Note on Colour’, in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, p.144-154, Continuum, London, 2003 De Heer, J., The Architectonic Colour: Polychromy in the Purist Architecture of Le Corbusier, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009 Cousins, M., The Poetics of the Cliché: Friday Lecture Series, Architectural Association, London, 11.11.2011 Crinson, M., Stirling Series: Melnikov in Leicester and other Myths, Architectural Association, London, 21.11.11 Braham, W., Modern Color / Modern Architecture: Amédée Ozenfant and the Genealogy of Color in Modern Architecture, Ashgate, Hants, 2002 Ball, P., Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour, Vintage Books, London, 2008 Michel, L., Light: The Shape of Space, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 1996

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Dialects of Colour  

Arguing for a more nuanced approach to the relationship between colour and the perception of space and form, Moroney brings together Wittgen...

Dialects of Colour  

Arguing for a more nuanced approach to the relationship between colour and the perception of space and form, Moroney brings together Wittgen...

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