It Ain't Just (Black and) White: Thoughts on Colour in Architecture

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It Ain’t Just (Black and) White Thoughts on Colour in Architecture

^A canopy of a forest in Sabah, Malaysia, by Mark J. Fisher

All the Colours of Nature As I write this, I sit on the back patio of my house, surrounded by an array of green that would be impossible to catalog. From the dark hues of the ivy that continually threaten to take over the brick pad on which my picnic table sits, through the mature colours of the leaves in late summer, all the way to the still young shoots that are almost transparent against the sky when I look up at them, this little patch of forest lost in the city presents me with colours for which I have no words.


In contrast, my house consists of white-painted posts, red brick walls, a few whitepainted surfaces, a yellowish wood ceiling, beams painted dark mustard brown, and glass. Only that last material has a colour that I would again fail to describe; it has its own inherent tint, but the complexity of reflection defies one descriptor. Finally, when I turn my eyes towards the works of art our house shelters, I again find some of the richness I saw outside, though, if I spent enough time, I could describe just about every colour there.

The point is that what we make as humans in terms of a colour range is limited, and that the colours out of which we make architecture is even more so. Though it would be romantic to decry this lack of subtlety, I think it would also be shortsighted. Architecture can be good when it limits its colours. First of all, it makes it clear what is human-made, as opposed to trying imitate nature –a task at which it will always fail. Second, the simplicity of different colours can help to identify different aspects of a construction, so that we can understand how things are made and where we are. Third, there is a beauty to human-made things that is all its own, and that colour can help to define. Finally, colour can have a meaning, or at least a resonance, that conveys its own meaning about the nature, aspirations, and fears of what we as humans have made in nature.

It is that last point that is most difficult to define. This is, in part because those architects who use colour in a blatant a manner to make a point usually fail: the


gaudiness of Richard Rogers’ appendages, which mars his otherwise often spectacular structures, is a good case in point. The best colours work in ways that are, ironically, more difficult to see.

^The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, by Walter Gropius, as photographed in about 1930

White The most obvious example of this is the wholesale adoption of white by a large group of modernist designers. The belief in the goodness of white had roots in traditional customs, which in turn came from the fact that white was a colour that was not necessarily the most difficult one to achieve, but the hardest to maintain. Being virginal white became the mark of a purity one was defending, as well as a sign of wealth that let one keep one’s clothing out of the mud and bleach it back to its pristine state on a regular basis. To a certain extent, the popularity of white 3

among architects was also the result of the fact that many architects saw canonical buildings in black and white photographs, which fed on the notion of the ideal of whitewashed Greek and Roman structures. It mattered little that those structures had originally been coloured in bright hues, and that houses such as those designed by Le Corbusier often sported –despite his declaration of his love for white—strong hues in real life. White became the ideal and the idea of a certain kind of modernism.

White represented, above all else, absence. It was absence of nature, of the human hand on its pristine surfaces, and of the past and all the marks it might have left. It carried over the notions of hygiene from a scientific world that sought to banish disease, but it also presented a sense of unchanging appearance that was at the heart of architecture as the making of meta-human monuments. White was difficult to achieve, and thus expensive. New titanium-based paints made a truer white possible, while technologies such as drywall and other ways of making pure, un-modulated surfaces were ready for the treatment of nothingness. White proved more difficult to maintain and defend, however: after a building was finished, people tended to put things on and in front of the white walls, or even paint them over (as Le Corbusier discovered most famously at Pessac).

Still, white remains a modernist ideal. It is the emblem of what is new, what humans have made, and yet that goes beyond the human into a realm of purity. It seeks to deny the physicality of buildings and at the same time promises a world in which


indeed all that is solid will melt into air. It is almost nothing. Only glass is even better at being so much an abstraction of what we make and at what we aim, but it lacks the ideal, totemic value of the white wall. White also has a sense of being neutral, and thus democratic: not in the sense of transparent, but in providing a base against which anything or anyone can stand out. It is the blank page of architecture onto which anyone is free to write his or her life.

There are biases inherent in the use of white. In fashion, it was associated with women, marriage, and virginity. A white building thus becomes gendered, as something created by and subject to the will of the male architect. When it is a home, it becomes an emblem of passive purity, as against the multihued world of action and work. It also becomes racialized, most notably in the so-called White City, Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition, which was off-limits to all African-Americans.

The only place where you see a great deal of white these days is in museums and galleries. Even hospitals have discovered that different hues are better at hiding stains and making people feel comfortable or even, as the “evidence-based design” gurus would claim, better. In homes, most people prefer hues, even if they are cream or ivory. Where there is art, however, you still will find white. In these temples to a peculiarly human-made aesthetic, white becomes the artificial equivalent of nature’s green and blue variety, making a fitting domicile for the colours and forms that are supposedly the most refined expression of what we can


do. White is here purely emblematic of the new world we have made, even as that reality continues in a riot of colours.

Black Against this reduced field of white stands the even more potent absence that is the domain of black. If virginal, stay-at-home women wore white, then working women today wear the little black dress. If white denoted male, Caucasian power defining a scientifically defined zone, black denotes something more mysterious and difficult to grasp. Its borders disappear from sight, it is difficult to grasp its surface, and it is heavy. Pure black is also as difficult to achieve as pure white. You have to work hard to iron out anything that might catch the light or reveal texture. Black is expensive. We also still associate it with evil, the Dark Prince and the night when reason disappears.

There is, and never has been, much black in architecture. Architects such as David Adjaye might use it, sparingly, to make a point exactly about the arbitrary nature of making both the domestic environment and the place of art white, but that remains an exception. And yet, black is something we experience in the built environment to a large degree. We might have banished the night with electric night, but we occluded light exactly when we gave ourselves over to the spectacles that were the true harbingers of modernity: the cinema. In the movie theater, architecture disappears, as does space. It takes an archaeologist like Hiroshi Sugimoto, in his photographs of movie theaters, to uncover what hides there in the


shadows. Black is the screen and the place where the virtual world appears. It is today more powerful than the white walls that recede behind the screens on which a whole world appears. It is also beyond the bounds of architecture in the traditional sense. It promises a modern world where the making of structures we can see and identify has no place.

^Koizumi Lighting Theatre Tokyo, by Peter Eisenmann, 1990

True Colours? Beyond both this dichotomy between the assertion of our power to make a pure and ideal, white structure, and the disappearance of all into the black of the ether or the IPad screen, stand the multi-hued emblems of resistance. Color in architecture today has become a way to identify place, history, and difference.


This started, at least in the realm of the self-conscious making of architecture, with Postmodernism’s recovery of colour. Michael Graves made the base of his buildings terra cotta in colour to ground them in the earth, while painting their tops in colours evoking the sky. James Stirling festooned his buildings with colour accents that were meant to be absurd, pointing out in a way that extended his plan complexities our inability to make sense of form in a coherent manner. Peter Eisenman coated his later structures in hues that were deliberately ugly, thus defying canons of good taste and behavior. Other, less daring architects merely mimicked pre-modern structures and their inability to be either white or black.

Postmodernism also rediscovered colours that had emerged on the margins of modernism: Barragan’s deep pools of red, blue, and yellow; the colours in Le Corbusier’s buildings that the chroniclers of early modernism had ignored. In so doing, they also made a point for aspects of our lives modernist architects had tried to suppress. Colour might be a part of a local tradition in which machine-made sameness had not yet taken over all expressions of human endeavor. Colour might also be an indicator that our world is so complex that we cannot control it. Finally, colour might try to make a bridge in time to our past experience, and in space, to those aspects of our reality we do not yet control.

The first attempt is tied to the endurance of a resistance to modernity that is rooted in place. It extends from the notions of a national style that led architects in Eastern Europe, for instance, to assert the importance not only of expressive forms and


locally sourced materials, but also of colours that they felt belonged to traditions of their countries or areas. Though, like many traditions reinvented in the late 19th century, these age-old facts turned out to be on the whole fanciful constructions, they did serve to mark and fix differences between cities and countries. We think of Scandinavia in yellow and ochre hues, against white backgrounds, of certain Slavic cities as sporting sudden eruptions of red, blue and green, and of the washed reds of the Iberian Peninsula.

^Casa Barragan, Mexico City

The one place where this assertion of colour as being national or local still perseveres is in Latin and South American architecture. Ever since Barragan, architects have claimed the vibrancy of walls and details picked out in brilliant hues as being their birthright, and thus something they want to continue in their designs.


This assertion of colour is most evident in and around Mexico, and fades into the pastels of Miami or the more muted earth tones of Chile and Argentina. Where these bright colours appear, whether in the Americas or elsewhere, they mark the assertion of what most architects using them see as a Latin culture (itself an interesting name in the context of an argument for the local), especially when, for instance, Ricardo Legoretta used it for cultural institutions or shopping malls in California.

The use of colour as a discordant element marks an architecture that is forceful and difficult, though sometimes also playful. It is interesting that even those architects, such as David Chipperfield or Leon Krier, who see their work as standing against canonical modernism, use colour sparingly, if at all. It is rather those who want to assert the power of modernism to confront us with both the challenges and opportunities of the modern world who use colour in an aggressive manner. This is true of Rogers and Eisenman still, but also of Rem Koolhaas, MVRDV, or Bjarke Ingels, the avatars of a heroic, if also ironic and iconic modernism.

Colour also represents the breakdown of monolithic buildings. Koolhaas’ firm, OMA, collaborates with designers such as Petra Blaise, who does both interior and landscape design as a way to blur the edges between decoration, nature, and structure. Rogers famously used colour to highlight the suppressed technology that lets buildings work. Ingels sees colour as a way to indicate and respond to a


multicultural society. If things are going to fall apart, these architects are saying, then let’s point to them and celebrate that dissolution as a mark of our modern society’s vibrancy.

Fade Away While architecture is thus falling apart into fragments, reassembled in a tenuous, but expressive manner that still asserts the importance of the new –and thus often still has a white body or reference frame, reuse and assemblage are also becoming more and more common in architecture. This approach challenges the very notion of the new that is central to modernism, pointing out instead that we should, for both ecological and social reasons, concentrate on reusing what we already have and opening up existing structures to better (re)use. It also brings an array of different colours into buildings along with its scavenged materials. The colours of architecture are now not only many, but they are slightly faded, used, and mixed. They are becoming more real, but in so doing they are also becoming more difficult to distinguish from the world around them. We might be nostalgic for the clarity of white and the vivid assertion of bold colours, but this is work that foregrounds the real as what we know, in which we can sense the mark of humanity, and which contains time as well as place in its tenuous and eroded frames.

In this, the architecture of reuse, of the Rural Studio in Alabama, of 2012 Architects in the Netherlands, and of Amateur Studio in China, is the counterpoint to where architecture, according to many of its most outspoken theoreticians, would seem


to be going, which is its dissolution into the ether. That virtualization of form might still happen, though for now most of what we are seeing is the white, off-white, or metallically vivid colours of computer-generated snakes, blobs, and geometric fragments. The tendency of architecture to dissolve has not yet reached the point where it is, as one architect dreamed many years ago, “almost nothing,� but we might be getting there.

^ James Turrell, the wolfsburg project at the kunstmuseum Germany

Virtually Colourless If that is true, then the hues of that form hovering at the point of disappearance might have the attributes of the glass of which Mies van der Rohe was so fond. Glass is not supposed to have its own colour. Instead it lets us see what is around 12

it, or catches that world on its surface, so that what we are treated to is a return of the real on the surface of the artificial. It does not work that way. Glass has a chemical composition that changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes with strong results, the colours all around it. Glass is green, or blue, or bronze, and the world changes its appearance based on those tints. When we erect glass, we cast a pall over nature, pulling out those aspects we want, while screening out glare, or allowing ourselves to cocoon ourselves from heat or cold more effectively. Glass embodies the repressed ideology of architecture in which the confident placement of monumental forms on a supine earth, the making of an ideal and utopian world, and the assertion of an abstract order hide in barely visible, but effective barriers of floor-to-ceiling glass.

So it will be with virtual architecture, I believe. Even as form retreats and our social world exists more and more on the screen, order will assert itself not just through Big Brother lurking in some government scanning operation reading our communications, but in the ways in which code is written, in the colours of our computer and telephone screens, in the ways in which what we see is governed by ergonomics, economics, and codes of behavior. This world will be, I believe, made of subtle shades of gray. These slippery colours will range from the almost black of our smart phone screens, to the gray of our screensavers, to the filters that digitally measure and wash too much colour, and, some day, to the almost invisible film or mist that will protect us in metaspace from heat, cold, wind or rain.


Seeing Colour Until then, we live in a reality in which the very few colours architecture has at its disposal stand, full of import and implied judgment, against nature whose variety we will never fully comprehend. Only in art can we find a way to mediate these extremes. Painting and other ways of mapping, mirroring, condensing, and giving us back in a transformed manner our reality, have always had a way of getting at the essence of the colours we cannot catch. Great art, such as some of the paintings of Gerhard Richter or Mark Rothko, to name two almost random examples, has the capacity to be infinite in its array of colours, and yet knowable. Those artists who are embracing new technology, such as James Turrell, are finding ways to make us see the colours inherent in dawn or dusk. Turrell is also creating a technology-driven analog to the colours we do not see, meting them out over abstract surfaces of pure white, animating them and making us aware of our own perceptions.

If architecture is to have a more colourful future than its largely colourless past, and is to escape from the default of white and the too easing coding of other artificial colours, while not dissolving into feigning disappearance, it will have to embrace some of these techniques. It will have to learn to gather together and reassemble the cloak of many colours nature spreads out over us. It will have to figure out how to reflect and refract it so that we can become conscious of what we do not see and that we see –and of what we as humans make of that difference through architecture.

Aaron Betsky