Prejudice for the white body over the decorated surface

A preference for the white volume over the decorated surface can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Ideal. There are also the analogously dialectic pairings of Apollonian versus Dionysian, classic versus romantic, and that of the line drawing versus the use of coloured areas. Through all cultures whiteness has been associated with perfection, cleanliness and innocence. The use of colour therefore detracts from the Ideal and brings one to the lesser regions of (dirty) reality.

Whiteness appeals to the intellect and is a mark of education, whereas colour has a direct – and therefore untrustworthy – effect upon the instincts. And there is the presumed superiority of the intellectual recognition of space as opposed to the direct sensual experience of a corporeally perceived space: this prejudice plays into the subject of colour in architecture.

What’s more, there is prejudice against the literal superficiality of the application of colour onto a surface. This is coupled with colour’s physical instability, such that the ensuing ephemerality of the surface is seen to undermine the serious and enduring solidity – both literal and metaphorical – of the volume. So the coloured surface was – and is – perceived as subordinate to the white body (there being the assumption that if the form is not coloured, it can only be white).

To quote David Batchelor, “Figuratively, colour has always meant the less-than-true and the not-quite-real. In Latin colorem is related to celare – to hide or conceal. In middle English to colour is to embellish or adorn, to disguise, to render specious or plausible, to misrepresent.” And for Batchelor, colour represents the “disobedient, the eccentric, the irregular and the subversive […] To be called colourful is to be flattered and insulted at the same time. To be colourful is to be distinctive, and, equally, to be dismissed […] Colour is uncertainty, doubt and change […] Colour is other.” [David Batchelor: Chromophobia, 2000]

The same author writes on the resulting chromophobia – as he terms it – that “manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity.” This happens in two ways. In the first, “colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; and in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.” [Batchelor: Chromophobia]

And related, of course, is the question of taste. As Goethe commented, “it is also worthy of remark, that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.” [J. W. Goethe: Farbenlehre, 1810] And Ruskin, when writing that if colour were employed in architecture, then at least the colours of natural stone should be used, was echoing the sentiments of not only many of his contemporaries, but also most of ours. Muted colours are universally judged as tasteful: today the prejudice is as strong as ever.


Semper and polychromy

There have been many shifts in the debate for and against polychromy in architecture. The penultimate conflict was Neoclassicism’s strong hold on whiteness in opposition to the polychromy discovered in the new archaeological sites around the 1830s, when the supporters of the latter maintained that the use of colour was not accidental but essential. Semper, of course, belonged to this group, and for him colour was the most sublime form of dressing – and not, as for other architects, merely the decorative enrichment of architecture.

Semper defined architecture through its covering layer rather than through its material structure. He traced his understanding of the beginnings of civic architecture back to the first structures erected for temporary use during processions or gatherings for religious or civic purposes. These would have been temporary scaffolds covered with fabric; the scaffold was there purely to support the fabric. The material was woven and carried the symbolic and architectural function of decoration and celebration, creating atmosphere. Thus for Semper the origin of civic architecture – that is, of spatial enclosure for symbolic as well as functional purposes – lies with woven fabric.

Semper developed a theory he called Stoffwechsel (literally: material transfer – the same word being used in German for metabolism). He used it to explain the transfer of formal characteristics from one material to another, or “succeeding” one (his terms being analogous to the evolving theory of evolution). For example, he described the layer of paint that was added to buildings in an age of solid construction – that is, following the earliest constructions of the temporary scaffold kind – as maintaining the original textile tradition of a coloured layer on the surface, and for him it was this coloured layer that formed the space. The supporting material and structure was concealed by this layer of paint, about which Semper wrote “it is the subtlest, most bodiless dressing […] It is the most perfect way to do away with reality, for while it dresses the material, it is itself immaterial”. [Gottfried Semper: Der Stil, 1860]

With regard to the discussion of the opposition between form and surface, it is thus not surprising that Semper favoured the surface. He privileged surface over form because he was interested in the seduction of the surface, or, as Mark Wigley puts it, in a “visuality entangled with sensuality”. Semper commented on colour: “It ranks among the earliest of all inventions, because the instinct for pleasure, as it were, inspired man. Delight in colour was developed earlier than delight in form.” [Semper: Der Stil]

But four decades later, in 1907, Adolf Loos, basing his writings on those of Semper (particularly the Principle of Dressing), published his Ornament and Crime. There followed amongst architects a general distrust of the sensuality of decoration, and so ornament was removed to purge the decorative excesses of previous periods, with the pure abstraction of form becoming the aim.


Colour and architecture in the 1920s

The impetus for using colour in modern architecture came from painting. In the first decade of the 20th century, colour had been freed from form in painting (for example in the work of Ferdinand Leger), and it was precisely this liberated use of colour that was of interest and relevance to architecture. Architects needed to re-discover ways of combining colour and architecture without regres-sing to colour’s association with the decorative and the ornamental – which, together with the old forms, had been so firmly jettisoned in modernism’s radical new departure.

I will briefly mention the work of three architects who used colour in the 1920s, each of whom had different aims, methods and results: van Doesburg (in collaboration with the painter van Esteren), Le Corbusier and Bruno Taut. All three surmounted the traditional association of colour with decoration in that each developed his own approach, working with large expanses of colour that were directly combined with architectural space. It is interesting to note that these architects had either associates who worked as painters, or previous or concurrent careers as painters themselves.

Theo van Doesburg created flowing spaces that were articulated through hovering planes of colour. Form and colour were seen as two complementary and independent systems, which, when brought together, created spaces that barely held together. The overall intention was one of abstraction, in which the physical volumes were optically destroyed and the coloured planes, were, to quote Gideon, “brought into floating relationship with one another”. The de Stijl palette was very restricted, and their forms were similarly limited to the purely rectilinear.

Le Corbusier, however, called the de Stijl application of colour as practised by van Doesburg camouage architectural, not approving of colour being used to undermine physical space. Having preached “whitewash” in the 1920s (and not mentioning colour at all in Vers une Architecture in 1923), Le Corbusier ultimately let the ideas of layered space that he had been following in his purist paintings influence the real space of his architecture. Indeed, Arthur Rüegg has argued that in Villa la Roche the architect and the painter are united – the villa in effect becoming a still-life with the layered spaces of Le Corbusier’s (and Ozenfant’s) purist paintings.

According to Le Corbusier, colour should not be used to conceal actual spatial proportions. He applied colour to entire wall surfaces so that the walls as individual elements became carriers of colour and would not disturb the overall spatial effect of his architecture. The planes of colour, in a palette of mostly earth and natural tones selected for associative purposes – such as pale blue for sky – were used for their perceptual capacity to affect space (pale blue walls recede, dark walls stabilise). They would then serve as anchors for the overall spatial composition (as three-dimensional versions of the two-dimensional Purist paintings). The overall space, however, was nevertheless predominantly painted white, such that the coloured areas were seen as interventions played off against a neutral background. Batchelor makes an interesting comment that Le Corbusier’s use of colour thus was to make his architecture “even more white”. So here colour is being used not to generate or manipulate space, but to control it.

But in fact, in my view, Le Corbusier did employ, if not camouflage architectural then camouflage urban in his housing scheme in Pessac, near Bordeaux (1924). “The Pessac site is very enclosed. The grey concrete houses gave rise to an unbearable compressed mass, lacking in air. Colour was the solution to generating space […] Some wall surfaces are painted in burnt sienna, while clear ultramarine blue makes entire rows of houses recede. Elsewhere, pale green façades fuse with the foliage of the gardens and trees.” [Le Corbusier: L’Architecture Vivante, 1927] At times a dissolution of form is achieved – when corner meets corner in differing colours – and so the solidity of the architecture begins to be challenged. One could say that there is an intention of camouflage as Le Corbusier merges architecture and nature.

But whether using colour to control or to generate the space in his projects, Le Corbusier understood that polychromy extends the architect’s range of tools: “With polychromy the skilful architect has before him an endless bounty of resources […] Polychromy is as powerful an architectural tool as the plan and section.”

In contrast to both van Doesburg and Le Corbusier, who had artistic reasons for employing colour in their architecture, Bruno Taut’s aim was to use colour as an agent of social reform. His use of large coloured areas on the walls (and even variations of colour within the single window frames) of his housing estates in Berlin stood for a new freedom and the alleviation of monotony. His mission was to create various identities within large housing estates – keeping in mind that the people who would be relocating to his estates were coming from overcrowded flats in the oppressive, unhealthy (and monochromatic) backyards of Berlin’s expanded-to-bursting 19th century urban structure.

Taut’s words on polychromy are similar to those of Le Corbusier, however. “As colour has the capacity to increase or reduce the distances between buildings, to affect the scale of the buildings so that they appear smaller or larger, to bring buildings into harmony with nature or to appear as contrast, and for other reasons […] so one should use colour just as logically and consistently as one works with any other material.” [Bruno Taut: Die Farbe, Fachblatt für Maler, 1931] But Taut in turn accused Le Corbusier of using colour purely aesthetically: “His architecture is concerned with purely salon-aesthetics. The architect builds as the painter paints – that is, he builds images.”

Notwithstanding the work of these individuals and their supporters, what followed was the myth of whiteness as propagated by Le Corbusier in the late 1920s (apparently after a change of heart, having seen the “white” Acropolis on his trip to Greece). By 1927 the white-painted cubist boxes of the aptly named Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart set the definitive trend.

Le Corbusier promoted whiteness not only as an aesthetic stance, but also as a moral one (noting Wigley’s observation that the buildings were painted white, they were not naked, which would have been too sensual). Colour was seen as an unnecessary addition to the formal and constructive idea of architecture. Its irrationality was seen as a threat to the rational logic of functionalism. In fact, the monopoly of whiteness was supported by the suppression of colour and materials through predominantly black and white photography, and by journalists’ rather selective coverage.


Colour as a resource

Now, of course, with over a century of technological developments, the nature of and the possibilities inherent in the surface have undergone enormous changes since the time of Semper and Loos, and since that of van Doesburg, Le Corbusier and Taut as well – but nevertheless the comments of these architects are still relevant today. Although critical of certain aspects of the modernist legacy, in general we see our work as located in its wake. For us this includes the potential to use colour as a resource in creating space, believing that the modernists’ credo of “material truth” can be reconciled with a broadened view of the potential of colour.

When we began our practice in the late 1980s we devoted a lot of time to the preparation of drawings for various competitions and presentations. In doing so, we noticed – as have others before us – that one can take advantage of the ability of colour to create space through the juxtaposition of darker and lighter tones, or of cooler with warmer hues.

This phenomenon was well documented by Josef Albers in his book Interaction of Color. It is illustrated with equal conviction in his series of paintings called Homage to the Square, where the painter investigates the creation of different spaces within the constant of a square format. The painter calls the space that appears actual fact, whereas he designates the physical space of the canvas factual fact. To quote Albers, “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognise that color deceives continually […] What counts here is not so-called knowledge of socalled facts, but vision – seeing.” [Josef Albers: Interaction of Color, 1963] Albers emphasises the experiential side of perception – not the rational – while at the same time reminding us of the deception of appearance.

We are inspired by the atmospheres created by certain works of art, as well as by some transcendent qualities they contain. Of course, the experience of an inhabited space is extremely different from that of the primarily visual space of a painting or an installation. The lived space will be not only seen, but also touched, felt, smelt, heard – all this in the course of going about the routines and rituals of everyday life. Thus it will mostly be experienced – perhaps subliminally – as the mere background to one’s everyday activities; whereas the space of Art – even if it engages one’s corporeal perception, is generally viewed or experienced in the context of a gallery or museum – that is, both spatially and formally detached. But despite, or perhaps because of, architecture’s inevitable solidity and its provision of spaces for even the most mundane of activities, we are tempted to try to escape both its substance and its permanence in search of the immaterial and the ephemeral.

However, the spaces we design are, of course, not made of colour alone – or coloured light, as in some works of art such as the installations of James Turrell; rather, we enjoy using colour in combination with natural materials. In fact, we deliberately contrast areas of colour with those of natural materials – timber, stainless steel, glass (with varying degrees of transparency and reflectivity), concrete (polished and rough), the honed surface of smooth plaster, the shine of a chromed finish, the various textures of different stones. In addition to the richness of such juxtaposition, the coloured area itself also has its own kind of materiality: its surface texture, its characteristics of lustre or absorption. This means that the coloured surface is never purely abstract: there are the various textures and reflective qualities of coats of paint, ranging from a fine depth in the surface, to a dull flatness, to the reflective depths which appear within the flatness of a lacquered finish. And there are, of course, varying degrees of transparency, translucency, and reflectivity that can be explored in the combination of colour with glass.

The one obvious instance of the spaces of art and architecture literally coming together is to be found in works of trompe l’oeil. Here the space of the painting is integrated with that of its setting such that the ambiguity in perception between two and three dimensions is simultaneously revealed and enjoyed. The illusion of a unified space may prevail, or instead an oscillation between Albers’ actual and factual once the rational side of the brain has understood the deceit. I don’t want to prioritise vision over our other senses of spatial perception – corporeal, kinetic, haptic, aural, olfactory – but, to quote Albers, “seeing is coupled with fantasy, with imagination”. We are looking to create an architecture that engages its user actively – perhaps this is analogous to T. S. Eliot’s description of reading as a creative act, in which, actively reading, one can share in the act of creation with the author.


Lecture given at the “Gottfried Semper (1803–1879): Greece and contemporary Architecture” symposium in Athens, October 2003 [excerpt]. Full text published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006