Why don’t architects use colour more?Posted: September 7, 2011
About a month ago I was asked by a reporter for The Age, Susy Freeman-Green, why architects are so tentative with colour on the exteriors of buildings.
She’d observed many small apartment buildings going up in the inner city were made of grey slabs of concrete. On an overcast day, Melbourne could seem awfully leaden. “What is it with the colour grey?” she asked,”and why is it so popular with architects?”
My initial conjecture was it had a lot to do with the capital and maintenance costs of buildings. The common use of concrete is the obvious example. It’s a relatively economical material and maintenance costs are lower if it’s left unfinished (“off-form”) or with a stone aggregate finish.
However I added that this was likely to be only a partial explanation. If architects as a group were minded to dress their buildings in bigger, brighter and bolder colours, then over time they’d have convinced their clients accordingly. My best guess is they don’t for one or more of the following reasons:
Most architects see form, space and texture as the key elements of design; they think in 3D – strong colour could distract from the visual message (of course if used judiciously it could also reinforce the message!)
Strong colour used creatively can be dangerous – it can date easily and go out of fashion; clients might find it too confronting; and local government authorities and neighbours might find it too dominating
The modernist ideology stresses truth in materials – show them as they are. The contemporary stress on sustainability as a driving force of design reinforces this view
Many architects aren’t confident with colour – it seems to be a specialist talent (could that be why so many architects wear black?)
Strong and bold colours might be seen as too crass for the refined sensibilities of architects. The over-use of colour by advertisers and popular media has made it distinctly unfashionable.
I don’t know if there’s any objective data to support this contention, but it seems to me strong colour is used more extensively in warm climates where the light is brighter. Colour may look more vibrant on Mediterranean islands, but it surprises me there isn’t a greater demand for it in colder, overcast places like Melbourne where it might have a psychological bonus.
I also have a hypothesis (again, untested) that strong colours are more likely to be used in Melbourne if the building is cost-constrained to a simple form like a plain rectangular solid. Examples that spring to mind are the Macleod Netball Centre and the A’Beckett Tower. Even the NAB building in Docklands is a relatively simple form. This would be an interesting project for a student to test – if the hypothesis is true it suggests architects, on average, see colour as a residual medium.
While I think there’s room for architects to use colour more boldly than they seem to want to, I also think excessive colour is the last thing most of us want to see in our streetscapes. There could be visual cacophony if the great bulk of the urban landscape isn’t coloured in a relatively neutral way. There’s a straightforward analogy here with the look of the natural landscape, most of which tends to be in a limited, often muted, palette (I think it’s plausible we’ve evolved to prefer a subdued background).
So maybe architects are instinctively reflecting a human preference for what the outside world should look like. If so, good exterior colour design doesn’t have to be confined to the ubiquitous grey, but it needs to be relatively neutral – to form a background.
There are limits however. I can’t help being reminded of the cover blurb on Barbara Demick’s new book on North Korea, Nothing to Envy, which asks readers to consider: “what if everything around you was black and white except for the red letters on propaganda signs?” (Sadly, other than a tiny elite, the oppressed population of North Korea – it has as many people as Australia – is starving and has no electricity anymore. See exhibit).
Here’s Susy Freeman-Green’s article in The Age, Are architects that bright when it comes to the old grey matter? (you’ll clearly never get a job as a sub editor at The Age unless you know a thing or two about punning!). She also sought the advice of architect Stuart Harrison on the use of concrete in buildings and I think he makes a good point: “if it’s handled well, concrete can look fantastic…..Fender Katsalidis’ elegant, finned Republic Tower, for instance, is a concrete building with a sublime form” (hasn’t always been handled well, though – brutalist buildings).
As an aside, I take issue with Mr Harrison’s subsequent contention that we live in “a risk-averse culture in which developers take advice from real estate agents rather than architects about what the housing market wants”. Well, I expect developers listen to real estate agents precisely because they usually know better what the housing market wants – the developers, after all, are the ones carrying the financial risk, so they have an incentive to go to the best source of information.
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