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. Read the rest of this entry »

Why do we love old buildings so much?

Demolished! - Melbourne Town Hall Chambers, 1968, cnr Swanston and Little Collins (picture by K.J. Halla, State Library). H/T Melbourne Curious

In The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon reports how the ‘era of extravagance’ was climaxed in 1890 by the construction of a brand new edifice for railway officials in Spencer Street at a cost of £130,000. Writing in 1966, Cannon says this “remarkably ugly building….still houses civil servants…..within its dun-coloured walls”.

There’s little doubting the historical value of the building (now a hotel), but it’s surprising to hear any building more than a hundred years old described as ugly or lacking in architectural merit. People are quick to criticise new buildings but seem far more forgiving of old ones.

Even architects are soft on old buildings. For example, The Age conducted a survey last month of 140 architects to find Melbourne’s “best” buildings and its “ugliest” ones (not available online). You might think architects would be loath to criticise their colleagues, but in fact all of the ten “ugliest” buildings were constructed post 1990 and five were built in the noughties.

I don’t think the reason we find old buildings attractive is because only the very best have survived. While some buildings of great historical importance are still around, unfortunately demolition was driven primarily by development potential, not lack of architectural merit. Like Cannon, I think some of what we now value so highly was probably ordinary in its day.

One of the reasons old buildings are attractive to us might simply be that they’re old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also historical. They speak to us of another time, of particular events, of old crafts, and even of particular historical characters. Perhaps they’re the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past.

People will often say they admire the ornate detail of old buildings, particularly pre modern ones. They like decoration, especially if it’s elaborate and complex. Perhaps we value it more because so many modern buildings have largely abandoned any designed surface intricacy and elaboration.

Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards. Few new buildings look anything like, for example, the former Melbourne Town Hall Chambers (pictured), Treasury Place or Parliament House. There’re very few buildings if any being built today in (say) the renaissance or gothic styles.

There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen. Some also have decoration and relief sculpture based on, or drawn from, life. Figurative and non-abstract imagery isn’t common in modern buildings but resonates with us more easily and in more complex ways than abstract images. Read the rest of this entry »