The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 7

WHY NOT COLOUR?
by IAN ELLINGHAM, MBA, PHD, FRAIC

xterior colour might be one of the big enigmas in architecture. C. Howard Walker, architect
and MIT teacher (in 1893), pointed out that colour has long been a part of architecture,
and gave numerous examples, but added that, where it has been used extensively, the
results have often been "grotesque."1
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein devoted his last book, Remarks on Colour, written in 1950,
to the matter. He commented that "there is merely an inability to bring the concepts into some
kind of order. We stand there like the ox in front of the newly-painted stall door."2 But before the
designer or manager decides to embark on the creation of a brightly coloured building, some
reflection on our reasons for avoiding extremes of colour is appropriate.
Even in the early 21st century, the empirical research on exterior building colour remains quite
limited, with strands of research being variously speculative, physical, physiological, cultural,
psychological, artistic and perhaps even spiritual.3 Research into colour does go back to the
late 1800s and the earlier days of psychology, although much of it relied on observation and,
to a great extent, personal experience.4 For example, Goethe, in his Theory of Colours (1810),
was essentially analyzing his personal responses to different colours - seeing as related to
feeling. Wilhelm Wundt, in Outlines of Psychology (1897) saw red as being arousing and blue
as subduing, again based on his personal biases and very general observations.
As the disciplines of psychology developed through the 20th century, experimentation with
colour expanded, with better methods and more sophisticated insights. A more recent summary of past research found that, generally, "blue appeared to be the most preferred color,
followed by red [:...] saturated colors being particularly preferred. Men especially preferred
blue, whereas women, red [...]."5
Attempts to understand some of the reasons for colour preference have found that, "People
like colors strongly associated with objects they like (e.g., blues with clear skies and clean
water) and dislike colors strongly associated with objects they dislike (e.g., browns with feces
and rotten food)."6 In evolutionary terms, this makes sense: We still like colours associated
with things that helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive, and are repelled by those that
might be harmful, and that some male-female differences in colour preferences might result
from the different roles filled during humanity's early days.
Unfortunately, much of the empirical research has yielded ambiguous results: "In short,
humans respond to color more on the basis of subliminal emotion than on grounds of rational
consideration."7 Moreover, it is challenging to determine whether one brain mediates colour
stimuli the same way that another does. Do all people, for example, experience forest green or
sky blue in the same way? While we might agree on what forest green is, we may still experience different reactions to it. Exploration of brain processes and how they form responses
to colour is now underway using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), and we might
expect new insights resulting from those efforts.8
There are a number of possible reasons why research that may be relevant to the building
designer is limited. Researchers may not perceive a building's exterior colour as an important
aspect of their work, perhaps because of the entanglement with context or because researchers
feel the matter belongs to a different discipline (perhaps architecture?). Looking more specifically into architectural discussion of colour, one still finds a great deal of personal opinion and
quotes of previous personal opinions, as in the work of Marcus and Matell.9
There are practical reasons for most building exteriors not being explicitly colourful. Exterior
environments are hard on building materials, so it is often wise to select materials that do not
suffer from obvious fading. Brick, stone, terracotta, cementitious rendering, concrete, concrete
block and mud brick provide a range of greys, beiges and earth-toned colours. In some places,
such as St. John's, Newfoundland, exteriors are painted in vivid colours, but these tend to be
wood clad, and have to be painted periodically anyway. Ceramic tile is one traditional material
that has offered colour possibilities, but the current conditions of the mosaic-tiled exteriors of
communist-era buildings in Europe demonstrate the havoc that freeze-thaw environments and
limited maintenance can wreak on that material.10
The Right Angle | Summer 2019 | 7



The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019

Colour
Index to Advertisers
Locations
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - Intro
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - cover1
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - cover2
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 3
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 4
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 5
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - Colour
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 7
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 8
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 9
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 10
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 11
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 12
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 13
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 14
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - Index to Advertisers
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 16
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - 17
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - Locations
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - cover3
The Right Angle Journal - Summer 2019 - cover4
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