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True colours: the glorious polychromy of the past suggests a strong historical need for colour, despite current reductive fashions.

'People of refinement', remarked Goethe, 'have a disinclination to colours. This may be owing partly to weakness of sight, partly to the uncertainty of taste which readily takes refuge in absolute negation. Women now appear universally in white and men in black.'(1) Goethe wrote at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but his observations are almost equally applicable today: at any meeting of Western architects and designers almost everyone is clad in black (women having given up white for obvious reasons). And the principle of absolute negation applies equally to much of their output: white, relieved by a little black and the colour and texture of natural materials, with here and there perhaps a primary hue or two. Many people are scared to go further than this for fear of being thought of as frivolous or stale PoMos.

But this was not always so. Throughout most of the history of architecture, applying colour to buildings has been normal, not extraordinary. Indeed, it is perhaps a mark of civilization. We know that the Greek temples were highly coloured, and we have numerous suggestions of how they appeared, but most of us find it difficult to accept that they really did look like the hypothetical restorations of Semper and his followers. Certainly, no-one would now suggest that any one of them should be restored to its original polychromatic glory. The reasons for our revulsion at the prospect, and our pleasure in the unadorned marble are surely in part(2) due to that great shift in sensibility that occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, when technology at last gave humanity a degree of control over the natural world which allowed us to find what once seemed frightening and primitive increasingly attractive and reassuring (for instance a mountain range, or the wood and stone of a peasant's hut).

The shift took place roughly between the time when Rousseau promulgated the notion of the noble savage to Thoreau's mystical sojourn by Walden Pond, in an age when he could hear the sounds of trains through the forest. The era marks the beginning of our appreciation of natural materials in architecture, and our distrust of applied colour - though of course the latter only gradually began to emerge later in a century which Le Corbusier decried as being invaded by a bourgeois spirit in 'all layers of society' which meant among other things that 'the wall had lost its architectural functions: from a formal plane, it had become the support of a changing application of fabric or paper tapestries'.(3)

Le Corbusier's essay on colour was part of his attempt to return it to architecture after it had been purged by a reaction against 'bourgeois taste' in the '20s (in which he was himself greatly involved). He wanted to find (or at least offer because, for once, he does admit to subjectivity) a system of standard architectural colours which were 'blue, in 3 or 4 values; red or pink; pale or dark green; yellow of ochres or of the earth', and of course white.(4) These, he said, could be found as the colours of buildings in all civilizations and folklore and, indeed, they are very similar to the colours for which Vitruvius gives elaborate recipes.(5) This is not entirely surprising, as Le Corbusier selected his tints from ranges commonly available from colourmen who had been making their pigments in roughly the same way since the times of the ancients. As Arthur Ruegg points out in his introduction to Le Corbusier's essay, the technology of colours changed radically after the Second World War, and 'the relationship with the "natural" pigments once used everywhere was thus lost; a multitude of different color cards took their place'.(6) Perhaps the very wideness of choice is one reason for our contemporary fear of colour.

In the pre-War period, Le Corbusier used colour to emphasize the nature of walls as planes emphasizing, or sometimes subverting,(7) the spatial and formal qualities of space and form. For instance, he believed (with countless others before and since) that colour modifies our appreciation of space: that 'Blue and its green combinations creates space ... distances the wall ... removes its quality of solidity ... Red (and its brown, orange etc ... combinations) fixes the wall, affirms its exact position, its presence'.(8) Further, colours have psychological and even physiological effects: 'to blue are attached subjective sensations, of softness, calm, of waterlandscape, sea or sky. To red are attached sensations of force, of violence. Blue acts on the body as a calmative, red as a stimulant.'(9)

After the War, Le Corbusier altered his approach to colour, retaining his previous architectural palette but adding to it and making colour symbolic and didactic: using it to describe for instance the traces regulateurs of the elevation of the pilgrimage house at Ronchamp.(10) This was a return to an attitude common among the non-whiteists of the early '20s, for instance de Still and the Berlin School in which Bruno Taut believed that it was a social duty of the architect to offer the inhabitants of social housing schemes 'an identification with their relatively modest living environment through the use of colour'.(11)

Colour as enhancer and modifier of space and form, colour as symbol, colour as generator of mood: it is again time to struggle to understand the wonderful complexities of colour. Our perceptions being an extraordinary combination of the Newtonian optics and the physiological and psychological perceptions investigated by Goethe and Le Corbusier, colour is elusive, not subjectable to any kind of rational system in its application. But as Fernand Leger emphasized, 'Man has need of colour for life: it is as necessary as water and fire'.(12) P. D.

1 von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Theory of Colours. Trans Charles Lock Eastlake in 1840 from the German 1810 edition. MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 1970, p329.

2 And perhaps also because of the impermanence of applied colour, particularly externally. Vitruvius gives a complicated method of preserving colours with wax in places 'where the sun and moon can send their brightness and their rays' (Vitruvius, de Architectura, trans Frank Granger, Harvard University Press and William Heinemann, London, 1970, Book VII, vol II p119.) For all the wax, the external polychromy of Classical times comes down to us only in the tiniest hints.

3 Le Corbusier, 'Architectural Polychromy', published for the first time in Polychromie Architecturale, edited Arthur Ruegg, Birkhauser, Basel, 1997, p109. The essay was written in the early 1930s in conjunction with Le Corbusier's extraordinary adventure into designing wallpapers for Salubra. The essay has never been published before, and is now offered in the original French, with parallel texts in very bizarre American, and German (the quality of which I am unable to judge). The three volume set includes Corb's text and Ruegg's scholarly introduction and near perfect samples of the wallpapers as well as the strange 'colour keyboards', an attempt, like the Modulor to give a systematic, almost scientific basis to essentially subjective matters. Le Corbusier liked plain coloured wallpaper because it did away with the need for three coats of oil paint.

4 Ibid, p101.

5 Op tit, Book VII, chapters VII-XIV.

6 Le Corbusier, op cit, p73.

7 'Polychromy (two colours, three colours, etc) destroys the pure form of an object [and] ... allows one to appreciate in one volume only what one wishes to show'. Ibid, p 121. My italics. P.D.

8 Ibid, p115.

9 Idem.

10 Ruegg, ibid pp 67-70.

11 Wick, Rainer, quoted by Ruegg, ibid, p35.

12 'L'homme a besoin de couleurs pour vivre, c'est un element aussi necessaire que l'eau et la feu'. Quoted by Le Corbusier up cit, p. 140. My translation. P.D.
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Title Annotation:color in architecture
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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