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The History Of Colour Art Essay

The use of colour in history has gone through a long story. It has been used because of its ability in altering mood and atmosphere, and also because of its symbolic meanings. The earliest known usage of colour in interior space started when man drew on walls of caves and tombs, which continues with the application on cathedrals, palaces, and ordinary homes.

History of colour

The usage of colour has been involved in the architectural development in ancient Egypt and Greeks. It has been used mostly because of the association of colour with certain symbolism in the cultures.

Ancient Egypt, one of the most documented civilizations,used paintings on walls and ceilings in order to tell the story of their civilization, from daily life to battle scenes. Earth pigments are used in creating these paintings – red, yellow ochre, also green, blue, purple, black, white, and gray. Each colour is used to symbolise certain criterias, for example red ocher for skin colour of men, while yellow is used for the women. While in the Greek history, the Palace of Knossos, is a distinct example of the use of colour in its architecture. The most outstanding feature in the building is its large red and black columns. Palace of Knossos, Greece

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Colour has been widely used in the past, but this tradition doesn’t always go well along the development in architecture.

The Lost of Colour

Being used and developed throughout the early civilization, colour arrived at a point times when its use is being ignored. The situation is caused by several reasons, such as the perception of whiteness, and how this idea is strengthen by the emergence of the Modern Movement and International Style, who preferred the natural colour of the materials, and later on the idea of black, white, and gray in Minimalism. These movements has changed people’s perception of colour and therefore resulting avoidance in its application.


” Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” – Bible

The colour white, through various cultures, has been associated with perfection, innocence, and cleanliness. Colour, on the other hand, is perceived as the opposite of whiteness, which is dirtiness and the less-than-true. The word ‘colour’, which is colorem in Latin, is related to celare, means to hide or conceal. In Middle English ‘to colour’ means to disguise.

The Modern Movement, International Style and Minimalism

Rejection of colour, partly is also formed by the influence of Modern Movement and International Style, which often termed their works as ‘minimal’. In this period, light and neutral tones are preferred in the space. White is the most dominant colour because it allows colours and light in the surrounding reflects into the space and that it is felt as natural colour. Colour, on the other hand, is being avoided because it makes a striking contrast with the surrounding. Even in times when it is used, colour is still artificially applied

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and the majority of the surfaces is white.The famous people in this period are Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Their works, reflecting the idea of Modern Movement, shows restraint use of colour. Instead of using colours, they use the genuine colour and texture from the materials used, such as steel, glass, concrete, masonry, and stone, which dominates their works.

Minimalism, another architectural style, is also much associated with the use of white. The term ‘minimalism’ is applied to works showing reduction in forms, usually created with flat surfaces that reflect a simple and tranquil atmosphere. White colour is chosen as the most dominant colour, since it is seen as colour with pure, smooth, and serene quality, and therefore goes along with the idea of calmness and tranquillity in minimalism. Samuel Wagstaff, an art curator, mentioned that this new aesthetics in black, white, and gray, is aimed to keep the viewer from being ‘ biased by the emotionalism of colour’. So, white colour, along with black and gray are preferred to be used here.


The perception of white and the modern art movement influence has a causal relation to what David Batchelor mentioned as ‘chromophobia’. Chromophobia, based on David Batchelor, is defined as ‘ a fear of corruption or contamination through colour’. He mentioned that chromophobia ” manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity “. ( Batchelor, David, 2000)

The rejection of colour happens in two ways. First, colour is ‘made out of foreign body- usually the feminine,the vulgar,…’.In this case, colour is

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treated as something foreign, something ‘alien'( Batchelor, David, 2000 ) so that it is considered dangerous. Charles Blanc, a colour theorist, identified colour with the ‘feminine’ in art and as something that cannot be detached from life. Not just that, he even consider colour as a permanent internal threat. Therefore, he came up with the idea of either completely ignoring colour or controlling it, in order to preventing it from ruining everything.

Charles Blanc is not the only chromophobic. The idea of ‘fear of colour’ has also swept the society and therefore had its impact to architectural design. A few cases of the rejection of colour in the past have been experienced by architects. It happened to Belgian architect Huib Hoste, who throughout his career has been experimenting with colours in his works. One of his works, the Zwart Huis ( Black House ), which is created for Raymond de Beir Knokke in 1924 is painted deep black and partly red for its walls. Complains came from the neighbours who felt uncomfortable by the too-striking-colours and on how it broke the harmony within the surrounding environment. In 2001, a similar problem occured with the work by MVRDV. Designing an entire orange office building in a courtyard in Amsterdam, provoked dissapproval from the neighbours who felt annoyed with the orange glow that forced its way to the surrounding homes. ” Everything around you is orange – you didn’t ask for it, you didn’t want it, but you can’t do anything about it”, they said. (Colour in Contemporary Architecture, 2009)

According to David Batchelor, the word ‘chromophobia’, other than defining colour as dangerous, is also used for the idea of colour as “something superficial, supplementary, and as a secondary quality of experience”, which leads to lack of consideration in its usage. This had

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happened even in ancient times, when Vitruvius complained that buildings were painted without considering its relation with the architectural form, which means there was not much consideration put in the thought process therefore resulting an unsatisfying project.

Rejection for colour has become a serious problem and therefore cause the lost of colour.

THESIS STATEMENT : Colour once is considered as an afterthought, that it ends up as decorative elements. It also has been considered dangerous. But considering the ability of colour in changing perception and mood, there might be a chance to create a more emotive architecture than those without colour. So, should we re-examine the role of colour in architecture?


Colour in Architecture

The impulse of using colour in architecture emerged in 1920s, inspired by paintings. Three architects who were known to use colour in their works in this period are Le Corbusier, Theo van Doesburg, and Bruno Taut, but each architect has different approach in applying colour in their works.

Theo van Doesburg, is the member of De Stijl Movement, an important accomplishment in applying colour in architecture. Other movements using colour as their conceptual design basis are Constructivism and Expressionism. In De Stijl, colour is considered as an important element and is developed as a tool in creating a new spatial experience. The goal of the movement is to achieve an ideal future where walls that separate men would be broken down. The architects of De Stijl believe that the three-dimensional properties of mass and volume is

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against the goal of the movement, and in order to achieve their goal, these characteristics must be broken down by using colours. The method they used is to place colour planes on corners and boundaries, resulting a change in the volume of space. Here, colours were used not just as mere decoration, but it also plays an important part in altering the visual experience of the user spatially.

However, Le Corbusier called van Doesburg’ application on colour as camouflage architectural and disagreed with the use of colour to weakens the physical space or to conceal its actual spatial proportions.

Villa la Roche, Le Corbusier Opposing the idea, in his work, Le Corbusier coloured the entire wall surfaces to make them an individual elements, so that it would not disturb the spatial effect of the architecture. These coloured walls were used as an intervention against the mostly painted white spaces in the building. The colours here, as Batchelor commented, was used by Le Corbusier to make his architecture ‘even more white’.

Having a different approach with his two fellows architects, Bruno Taut’s intention was to use colour as ‘an agent of social reform’. His goal was to create various identities in a large housing estates, where people from overcrowded flats in the backyard of Berlin will be the occupants of the building. (Komossa, Susanne, 2009)

Although the myth of white appeared not long after these colour methods were being used, architects such as Louis Barragan emerged into practice and back with the idea of colour as an essential element, opposing the idea of colour

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as decorations. His choice of colours mostly reflects the colours of Mexican culture. Through his works, Barragan proved how the use of colours are able to evoke dreamlike and surreal atmosphere. Another renowned ‘colour architect’ is Ricardo Legorreta. Inspired by the 20th century mural paintings, Legorreta uses many bright colours in his works and proves that colours can emphasize shapes and deny mass of the buildings.

From time to time, along with the gradual loss of Modern Movement’ influence, colour slowly made its way back to architectural design. Herzog & de Meuron, for example, coloured their first house in Basle suburb with blue layer that engages the viewer.

Looking at how colours are being considered more deeply in architecture nowadays, and how it is constantly being moved away from the idea of a mere decoration to elements that can alter perception of the viewer, the use of colour has achieved a different state than it used to be. And in this sense, just as mentioned by Rem Koolhas, ” the future of colour is looking bright.”

The Coloured Space

Visible Space : Seeing Colour

1.1 Perception of Space

Perception is a critical connection between human and their surrounding environment. It can also refer to a more complicated and higher level of thinking process. Perception enables human beings to decide what has been sensed and analyze that sensation. Beside digesting the information received from the sensors, perception also acts as a filter that classify important and useful information.

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In architectural design, whose works mainly is about the creation of space, perception of space is nevertheless important. In order to perceive the space, one must firstly sense the space. To sense a space is to become aware of own self existence in the space and therefore one is able to distinguish between the self and the surrounding. This can be done using human senses, which are hearing, seeing, smell, taste, and touch. But as we always hear, ” Seeing is believing”, visual perception is very important in shaping perception of space. Here, colour takes a major role.

1.2 The eye and the colour

” Take a good look round and you’ll see that everything is coloured.” – K. Schippers

Colour, dissolving perfectly in our life, may seem as a very normal experience. But it actually is a very important aspect in our vision because it plays a big part in shaping our visual perception. So what is colour?

Colour, in physics and optics, are defined as component parts of light. Being able to see colour enables human see many more different things under the light, comparing to what might possibly be seen in only shades of gray ( known as monochromatic vision). Some animals, such as dogs, don’t experience colour vision. This condition cause they can only spot other creatures, for example rabbits, only if it moves.

The experience of seeing colour will not be possible if not because of the assistance of light in our vision. Our eyes perceive differences in light frequencies just as how we perceive differences in sound frequencies with

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our ears. While differences in sound frequencies enable us to hear different pitch, differences in light frequencies enable us to see different colour. The colour field that human perceive ranges from the longest visible wavelength (red) to the shortest visible wavelength (violet).

Light, in various wavelength and brightness, enters our eyes through a transparent outer covering, called the cornea. The received light then will be focused on the back of the surface of the eye. The back of the eye is covered by the retina, which contain many layers of cells. The layer which is important in colour vision consist two receptors called rods and cones. Rods enable us to see black and white visions in dim light, while cones enable us to see hues under brighter lighting condition. Hence, through these series of mechanisms, we are able to see colour.

Colour and Light

“Architecture is light”. It is because of light, architecture can be seen. In its relation with colour, light always assists colour enabling it to be seen. Both colour and light are important aspects in creating perception in architecture.

Light, enabling colour to be seen, determines the experience of the colour perceived. The condition of light and the changes it made; its direction, form, colour, and its arrangement; has a potential to create various colour perception. Considering the possibility of changes in perceiving colour based on the lighting condition, various kinds of atmosphere might be created. Both natural and artificial lighting is able to be used in assisting colour in the space.

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The perception of colour under the sunlight can vary depends on the atmospheric condition. The direction of the sunlight has to be considered in order to create a desirable colour perceived in space. Direct sunlight can make surfaces appear lighter, while the indirect sunlight will cause less dramatic shadow casting. Since the sun moves throughout the day, different kinds of light will be experienced. Different lights will reflect colour differently, resulting the same colour might be perceived differently during different time of the day.

An observation of how light affects the colour perceived has been done by the French Impressionist, Claude Monet, in creating his works. In order to find the visual truth, Monet often painted the exact same scenes, such as haystacks and cathedral’ face, under different lighting condition. Once, he rented a room opposite Rouen Cathedral and spent months there painting the cathedral in different times of the day. It appeared that in full midday sunlight , the facade of the building is washed with gold colour and a slight blue shadow. While at sunset, the surface is coloured pale bluish pink, with lots of oranges and reds in the building’s recesses.

Colour and Atmosphere : Towards Emotive Architecture

Colour Deceives

The usage of colour is often associated with its ability in creating illusion. Based on Joseph Alber’s book, Interaction of Colour, colour in visual perception is always never seen as it really is in reality, which is why he mentioned, “…In order to use colour effectively it is necessary to recognise that colour deceives continually…” The ability of colour in deceiving the viewer resulting two kinds of conditions – the actual and the

factual. The actual is the space which is perceived by the viewer, while the factual is the physical space bordered by walls in reality.

The ability of colour to change spatial perception is also written in Itten’s analysis, ” Among cold and warm tones of equal brilliance, the warm will advance and the cold retreat”.

By recognizing the potential of colour in terms of altering perception of space through vision of the viewers, colour has vast opportunities in being used as the resource in creating space.

Colour Affects : Physiology and Psychology

Colour is known as an expressive element and can be used to generate emotional response. Studies on how colour can change people’s emotion has been conducted by people. Bright colours ( warm hues ) fit well for spaces requiring lots of activities and mental alertness, therefore these colours are often being used in school environments. While on the other hand, cooler hues tend to calm people. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky did analysis on the sensory effects in colour. He found that bright and warm colours attract greater attention and the visual emotion created by these tones generates physical effect that ” touches the soul”.

Realizing the potential of colour in altering emotion, people used it as a tool in healing. Chromo therapy, or colour therapy, is the ” practice of using coloured light and colour in the environment to cure specific illness and in general to bring about beneficial health effect ” ( Hope and Walch, 1990, p.75). The study on chromo therapy is based on the

discovery of how our bodies, acting like prisms, absorb white light and other colours, too. The therapy involves the use of natural light that is filtered through a certain colour of glass. For example, patient with migraine will be treated with sunlight filtered through blue glass, and depression can be treated with red light.

Absence of Colour

Comparing spaces with and without colour.

Emotive Architecture

Emotive architecture, is usually defined as buildings and spaces that is purposefully built to provoke emotional response from the users. The idea came up from the feeling of too functional architecture in the 20th century, which created the space with much logic and utility.

Case Study

Luis Barragan

” In my activity as an architect, colour and light have always been a crucially important constant. Both are basic elements in the creation of an architectural space.” – Luis Barragan

Luis Barragan learned much from the work of Itten who is devoted to the laws of harmony, contrast, and the spatial effect of colours. In his works, Barragan treated colour the same way as other architectural components and he bravely experiments and utilizes its ability in generating sensations in the space.

His works on The Gilardi House, dwelling of Francisco Gilardi, showed a skillful consideration in assisting colour with light in the space. The method of the colour used here, such as achieving brighter or softer hues through direct and indirect lighting, using coloured glass to create chromatic ambience, has been experimented in his earlier works. In the dwelling, Barragan continued his experiment in utilizing white light in the space and how it landed on the coloured vertical sections.

A yellow-painted corridor is placed nearby the entrance in order to prepare the journey to an important space. Walking down the corridor, the visitor is faced with a radiating blue space. The contrast between the warm and cool colour is aimed to arrest the visitor’s vision. The visitor then comes out into the space with pool which is surrounded by three primary colours; blue, red, yellow. The whole composition of this space is supported by the coloured surfaces around the pool and the reflections created by the water.

Steven Holl

Famous for his method of utilizing light in the space, Steven Holl is also do a lot of experimentations on its relation with

colour. In his work The Chapel of St, Ignatius, for example, Steven Holl used the idea of treating the space like seven bottles of light. Each bottle is pierced with light which define each spaces inside the building with coloured light.

Le Corbusier


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