Why don’t architects use colour more?

Not much power anymore in North Korea

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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17 Comments on “Why don’t architects use colour more?”

  1. Interest post. As always architecture and colour are subjective. I’d much prefer the sight of Boston City Hall on my way to work than the Republic Tower!

    • RED says:

      And yet, when I did one of the heritage tours around central Boston, the tour guide apologised for the horror of the Boston City Hall (I thought it was great, albeit brutalist).

    • rohan says:

      I ADORE Boston city hall, but also sigh with delight seeing the Republic rearing up from elizabeth st. You gotta like visual drama at a making-you-feel-insignificant scale to like brutalist stuff, and I do (took me a while).

  2. Michael says:

    It could be that colours in design and fashion are seasonable and come and go in popularity in rather short periods. Maybe a stronger use of colour might date the building quicker unless the colours are derived from materials. I wonder if colour is also something that everyone has an opinion about in a very subjective way, so Architects choose to keep it minimal.

    • RED says:

      Look at all the 80s peach coloured buildings still hanging around – ideal case study of how colours go in and out of fashion.

      • RED says:

        I add that interior design principles state to generally use neutral backdrops (walls, curtains etc) and only use colour in easily replaceable items (such as cushions, vases etc). Maybe architects are taught the same thing?

  3. Interesting post even… maybe if I log in via twitter I can edit my comments after I click Post without proof reading?

    • Alan Davies says:

      I often feel the impulse to correct typos etc in people’s comments, but I restrain myself, knowing that could be a dangerous path…. WordPress doesn’t provide the option for commenters to be edit their stuff once it’s submitted.

  4. Tanya says:

    I agree with the comments about the difficulties of changing fashion trends and costs of building materials. It’s much more difficult to use colour well to avoid that “what was I thinking?” moment ten or twenty years later (the 1980s, anyone? – oh gosh, was that really 30 years ago?). Speaking of which, I used to like RMIT’s Story Hall, but now it seems dated. It’s good to take risks- my familial home interior was a study in varying shades of beige, coated with chocolate tumbled bricks (yuk) but sometimes, as with any risk, it doesn’t pay off. What do people think about the Pixel Building? (apologies if this has been discussed here before) As much as I admire its eco-credentials, I find it a cacophony of colours which clash, not in a good way.

  5. Denton Corker Marshall uses colour as a way of incorporating random chance into the design process. Colour is also used to express counterpoint. Eg the colours of the Melbourne Gateway – yellow, red and orange – give formal identity to the sculptural elements. Yellow is a favourite – it shades from nearly white through to orange and yet stays yellow (unlike red or blue). It also complements metals and adds brightness.

  6. rohan says:

    Ive noticed that grey on grey colour schemes are popular now even in re-painting of period hosues, so I rekon grey has to just be popular right now. Plus on your cheaper tower blocks, pre-cast grey concrete is simply the cheapest option. Plus it has to be said that grey is quite traditional for Melbourne – while the big public buildings are in imported sandstone, virtually every victorian house and office block and shop was cement render grey, or even bluestone – I recall a 19th century criticism deriding Melbourne for its lack of colour.

  7. Urt says:

    There’s a student accommodation building on swanston St that looks like Lego – blocks of different colour. It’s the most disgusting piece of architecture I’ve ever seen. At least if they’d left the concrete grey the eye could slide off it…

  8. Interesting post and interesting range of responses.

    Sometimes colours can be pastel, gentle, almost neutral. But in my blog I was chasing entire townscapes where the colours were stronger and made more of a statement.

    The normal criticisms are noted (strong colour could distract from the visual message; strong colour can date easily and go out of fashion; clients might find it too confronting; local government authorities might find it too dominating). But in my heart of hearts it seems that Melbourne wants to be a serious city – not frivolous like a holiday resort island or a third world city trying to hide its poverty.

    Many thanks for the link
    Art and Architecture, mainly

    • Alan Davies says:

      You’ve got some excellent examples of how colour can enhance a streetscape there Hels (great photographs too). It would be interesting to know how it came about in the different cases e.g. was it organic or organised?.

  9. Josh says:

    How about the colder European countries like Iceland and Scandinavia? They appear to have quite colourful buildings.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Josh, they have some, but do they have proportionately more than Melbourne or cities in warmer climates?

      • Josh says:

        Well I can’t answer that never having been there myself, I’ve just always noticed the colour – perhaps because, like you said, I was expecting these countries to prefer more neutral shades. What I’d be interested to see is a comparison of the dominant colour shades between different cities and countries.

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