Western architecture is haunted by the fear of colour, argued David Batchelor in this extract of his seminal work, Chromophobia.
Here Darran Anderson responds, picking his way through the colourful highlights of Europe's built heritage. It's a story of iconoclasm, revolution and fantasy, from the once-dazzling colours of Greco-Roman statues to Adolf Loos' thundering insistence that ornament is crime. It's not a refutation, exactly, but a celebration of exceptions.
Flicking through the bookshelves of a friend in Germany, I came across a portion of the Berlin Wall, just sitting there, gathering dust next to novels, comics, photographs. It was simultaneously a forgotten paperweight and a fragment of history. It was genuine, in a nondescript way, but I thought of how many other examples might be fraudulently doing the rounds, sold online and then cherished as semi-sacred relics, the way charlatans in medieval times flogged what they purported to be the body parts of saints.
The colour caught my eye on one side of the grey-white pseudo-meteorite. As a boy watching footage of the fall of the wall in almost real-time, what intrigued me wasn’t the crowds cheering, climbing on top or bludgeoning it with sledgehammers. Rather it was the graffiti: layers and layers of signs, names, shapes and symbols, overlaid many times in a palimpsest, already there before the demolition. It was just colour, scrawls of pigment on vertical monochrome slabs of concrete, and yet it’s stayed in my mind vividly for almost thirty years.
Revolutions arrive in colours. Green in Ireland, carnation in Portugal, yellow in the Philippines, velvet in Czechoslovakia, rose in Georgia, orange in Ukraine, tulip in Kyrgyzstan, saffron in Myanmar. One hundred years ago in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), the October Revolution was red. A year into Bolshevik rule, artists in a carnival mood painted trees in Moscow scarlet and violet. An incensed Lenin condemned what he called “mockery and distortion.” In every ideologue, there lurks a puritan. Years later, the dazzling multi-hued Constructivist wonders of Yakov Chernikhov remained unbuilt while the gargantuan blank facades of the Stalinskie Vysotki skyscrapers towered above the inhabitants of Moscow.
In efforts to establish legitimacy and justify dogmas, rulers aspire to the eternal. In Western practice, this usually means mimicking Ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The rule of law in democratic countries is emphasised in porticos and columns from the law courts of Europe to the White House in Washington. The model was also valuable to regimes where murderous conceptions of purity and order took precedence. Here distortions are evident from the original buildings, with Hitler and Speer’s Germania surpassing Ancient Rome through megalomaniac gigantism, and Mussolini and Piacentini’s EUR district offering more the eerie desolation of metaphysical painting than imperial grandeur.
Vastly different as these examples may be in intention and morality, all of them were built on the same misconception: that the architecture of Greece and Rome was colourless. Studies and restoration work on the Acropolis in Athens have repeatedly shown that the Parthenon and other buildings were in fact vividly painted. Architects and sculptors who emulated the structures in subsequent centuries saw only their wind-swept ruins. Politicians would follow suit to reduce the complexities and contingencies of history into singular myths about civilisation. Ancient Greek and Roman buildings were not completely blank, but they needed to be. This is how it was, the architecture claims, and this is how it will always be. Except of course, it wasn’t and it won’t.
While the past was never as black and white as some might suggest, obtaining a range of pigments was once a far more arduous task. When we look at illuminated manuscripts or paintings, we are looking at organic histories. The colours in them had to be found and extracted. Some were relatively easy to locate – soot from oil lanterns, burned wood, peach stones or animal bones. Ochre came from the soil, with the amount of iron oxide determining the colour from yellow through red to brown. Indigo came from woad. Green earth, or glauconite, was mined in coastal areas of Europe. Other pigments were more elusive, originating in far-flung places, rare plants and jewels. Lapis lazuli, used in portrayals of the Virgin Mary, came from crushed gems from a valley in Afghanistan. Azurite was brought from the Middle East, mustard-tinted gamboge from South East Asia, sepia from the ink of cuttle-fish, Indian Yellow from the urine of mango-fed cows. Having forgotten how to make Egyptian Blue following the fall of the Roman Empire, the vivid skies created with Cerulean Blue, manufactured from cobalt, cost a great deal.
With others colours the cause for concern was not their elusiveness but their toxicity. Tales of artists driven mad by essentially ingesting poison from their paints abound. There was mercury in vermilion, arsenic in Emerald Green and lead in Naples Yellow. Scheele’s Green on wallpaper was said, with some evidence, to have killed Napoleon and untold others. The German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was fond of a shade of mercury-emitting green that may have hastened his patrons exit from this world, though tales that he did it deliberately are questionable at best. The horrific fates of workers who laboured in radium industries are fairly well-known; those who helped produce toxic paints and dyes less so.
Certain colours then were exotic, rare, expensive or harmful. Their use was either for the wealthy, the powerful or safety-averse bohemians. They spoke of excess. For puritans, the vulgar ostentation and idolatry of colour were born of decadence. The proto-cinema of stained-glass was damned as being so glorious it was sacrilegious. A 17th-century petition signed by 12,000 women in Middlesex announced, “We desire that prophane glasse windows whose superstitious paint makes many idolaters may be humbled and dashed in pieces against the ground; for our conscions tell us that they are diabolicall, and the father of Darkness was the inventor of them, being the chief Patron of damnable pride.”
We will never fully appreciate the treasures that were destroyed in waves of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, the Reformation, the French Revolution and beyond, though the surviving bare spaces where there were statues or frescoes tell us a little. There was something darker and more psychological at work in these actions that is discernible in the words of iconoclasts; the neurotic venom in Milton’s judgement of the church, for example, as having, “all the gaudy allurements of a Whore.” Colour had however already escaped the cathedrals and palaces, and would continue to flourish long after sporadic outbursts of fervour, from sgraffito on the facades of Italian buildings to use of kaleidoscopic patterns on Zsolnay tiles.
Developments in the artificial and synthetic manufacturing of dyes and paints eventually meant not only that cities could be much more colourful but they could be captured as such, without backbreaking labour, trans-continental journeys or gradual poisoning. In John Orlando Parry’s A London Street Scene (1835), we have a visual cacophony of posters demonstrating that it would be transient advertising that would dominate the canvas of the future city. For London, on one side there are the sepia, soot and grime of John Thomson’s exceptional Victorian street-level photographs and on the other the gleaming buildings in postcards of the now-transformed White City. Neither the smog-stained streets or the whitewashed imperial exhibitions would suggest an abundance of colour. Yet, in the mesmerising paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw, we see a city coloured not only by sunsets and moonlight but from within. The effect is to make the city seem far more evocative and reachable.
A London Street Scene.
What was perceived as excesses, in form and colour, again aroused the puritans. Again the iconoclasm said more about the iconoclasts than the icons. In his lecture ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908), Adolf Loos fulminated about cannibals and eroticism while extolling simplicity in building with evangelical fervour, “Weep not! Therein lies the greatness of our age, that it is incapable of producing a new ornament. We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way through to freedom from ornament. See, the time is nigh, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the city will glisten like white walls. Like Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven. Then fulfilment will come.” Loos’ target was the last vestiges of the Vienna Succession and the new Deutscher Werkbund association of artists and architects, the strangling vines of Art Nouveau and monarchical heraldry. There was no need for swirling flowers or glaring gorgons on subway entrances. There was no need for a building like the Majolikahaus, in Vienna, to be decorated as if by a confectioner or a florist. It was, to Loos, not just an indulgence but an offence. We need only dispel it and “then fulfilment will come.” Except fulfilment never really arrives, especially when you believe in need at the expense of desire.
It’s easy, too easy, to praise or blame Loos with examples of the best and worst of what was to follow in terms of modernist minimalism. The very label of modernist is as suspect as the assertion that it invariably led to sterile white or grey cubes. For all his monastic influences, Le Corbusier, for one, was fascinated by colour and his minimalism can be seen as a concerted effort to channel light, which is after all the basis of all colour. “Polychromy is as powerful an architectural tool,” he claimed, “as the plan and section.” The murals he painted on Eileen Gray’s sublime E1027 were as much affirmation of colour as they were an act of vandalism. Amidst the concrete of his planned city of Chandigarh in India, there are vibrant blocks of paint that seem directly inspired by those in De Stijl who suggested the possibility of better living through colour.
The De Stijl movement were just one group who channelled the industrial age of colour into a form of utopianism. Citizens would have their spirits raised and their intellects inspired. The Expressionist Wenzel Hablik refined his fantastical crystal castles down into actual rooms decorated in vibrant stripes and squares that pre-empted Op and Pop Art. Given a chance to build a Berlin housing estate, Bruno Taut created the Tuschkastensiedlung (Paintbox Estate). In the Bauhaus, Kandinsky, Itten and Klee were exploring and teaching the impacts of colour in our surroundings with synesthetic, even mystic, undertones. In US exile, Josef Albers would promote the ideas in design, while Faber Birren explored how colours impacted morale and alertness across different types of people. While psychological factors had determined the use of colour for centuries, it was becoming clear that colour worked on the mind.
These were new incarnations of old or implicit ideas. Certain colours were known to be restful while others were more vigorous. In the early 1800s, the Council of Builders in Turin had pushed for the city to become chromatically planned to encourage pride and vitality in a population that had lost heart following occupation. Buildings on waterfronts, from Burano to Nyhavn, were often painted vibrant contrasting colours partly so that sailors could identify their own specific address from afar. Individuality would be allowed to flourish in eye-catching shades but within officially-sanctioned parameters.
Those who boldly went their own way in expressive colours, then as now, faced outrage. The Fauvists chose to embrace their criticisms as “wild beasts.” Part of the antipathy towards Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s fascination with Las Vegas was the sense that it was a place of garish tasteless philistinism and not a place with a great deal to tell us about humanity and design. Likewise, the buildings of Friedensreich Hundertwasser are often portrayed as best outsider architecture and at worst an affront to the senses. Criticism often comes with the subtext that architecture should be sober and not childish or what is perceived to be feminine. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim is tasteful and resplendent in white; in its originally-intended electric pink or purple, it is vulgar and not befitting.
These days, it’s tempting to assume that because artificial colour is in abundance all around us that colour offers us nothing new, that colour theory has been absorbed into mainstream thinking in terms of how it influences mood in nurseries, hospitals, prisons and so on. Perhaps it died an ignoble death when PoMo buildings were camouflaging banks and security services or when neglected buildings were given superficial Potemkin makeovers because they were spoiling the view with their realism. Perhaps it is simply overlooked when other factors like sustainability and materiality all loom large in architectural discussion and designs.
Yet such assumptions feel incomplete. The impact that the use of colour can still have in architecture by Bofill, Legorreta, Barragán, how sublime and dynamic the work of Isozaki and Hadid feel or how much unrealised promise was conjured up in wondrous interiors like those of Behrens’ Technical Administration building and Perret's St. Joseph's Church (1951-58), suggests that there is something profoundly lacking in our urban environments of steel, glass and increasingly plastic. We rediscover figures like Rainer Rümmler and Eduardo Paolozzi who sought to make everyday places interesting, characterful and inspiring with public mosaics and murals. We see lost futures continually in the past, with the curatorial impulse becoming endemic online, because we have little faith in the direction we’re headed. Even street art has passed in some places from being an illegal expression of defiance and identity, condemned by neo-puritans as a gateway crime, to an emblem of gentrification and perhaps its headed towards irrelevance give it is much easier to tag a Brutalist underpass than hi-tech or parametric architecture with attendant surveillance. Recent efforts by São Paulo’s new mayor João Doria to paint over world-class graffiti and corral artists into approved sites suggest the artform has not quite lost its edge. Nor is irony dead given his campaign that includes painting the city grey is called Operation Beautiful City.
There is no onus on beauty to be good, true or even tasteful, despite what we might like to think. If you’ve watched a building as grotesquely overstated as the Burj Khalifa or as familiar as the Gerkhin catch the light at dawn or dusk, you can see transformations, the revealing of a myriad of iridescent shapes and colours previously unnoticed. They’re not quite Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series but Rouen cathedral is not quite Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series.
Whilst painting murals on the Israeli West Bank barrier, Banksy was told by an elderly Palestinian man that he made the wall beautiful. When the artist thanked him, the man replied, “We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.” Fox News recently declared the planned US-Mexico border wall should “look good from the US side” while the DOMO Studio came under a barrage of criticism for proposing a bright, sustainable, retail-friendly design. In each case, I immediately thought of that chunk of concrete forgotten on a shelf with its faded graffiti. Colour matters not just aesthetically or psychologically but because it demonstrates to us who owns, who lays claim to and who is left out of the space that surrounds us.
Our In Colour series explores the elusive and surprising phenomenon of colour in cities, with artists Craig and Karl as guest editors. Meanwhile the pair are working on a secret commission to transform one of White City's unloved spaces.
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