On 7th July 2017 Ruth Richardson wrote:


Earlier this week I went to the ‘Chromophobia: Colour in Architecture’ talk at the Design Museum. Stemming from the work of artist David Batchelor, the talk addressed the rejection of colour that has characterised western architecture over recent years - something he defines as ‘chromophobia’. As this topic is slowly becoming more spoken about in academia, Batchelor, alongside other speakers, tried to pull apart the motives of this approach.

Too frequently there is an active avoidance of using or accepting colour, which is standing in the way of it being more influential in architecture and urban design. Reasons identified for this could include:

  • Colour is sensory and extremely personal, depending largely on individual experience.
  • How we perceive colour is biologically different.
  • Colour constancy means that our brains ‘adjust’ the colour of objects to what we think we perceive, as opposed to what is actually received by our eyes. So, we don’t always see the true colour and objects appear differently to different people.
  • Colour is complex, never static and lacks stability. It is a relative medium that is significantly dependent on its surroundings. This makes the use of it in the built environment extremely challenging.
  • Colour is considered an embarrassment to language. Whilst the human eye can see tens of thousands of gradations of hue, the spoken languages generally has around ten words that can describe this. This also makes the communication of colour in practice a challenge.
  • There can be a resistance to experimentation, with many designers choosing to take the safe option with colour choices.

But, colour, arguably, does have an important role to play in the built environment. Any intervention in the urban chromatic system is a factor of the design process, because of the effects that it can have on a city or place, and therefore user experience.

Multidisciplinary design practice Space Popular discussed their work, which involves significant use of colour in order to reach further into the human mind. They talked about the mind as the ‘ultimate architectural site that is completely adjusted by colour’ and colour as an ‘architectural instrument’. Many of their projects use polychromatic gradients, taking inspiration from the colours of a site's surroundings, which they believe unify complexity and resist the temptation to use monochromatic colours as much architecture does (the Skelleftå Culture Center, pictured, is a good example). They also do a lot of two dimensional work that allows form to be perceived through colour, demonstrating that colour could, in some ways, be considered to have a similar purpose to a construction material. Although the practice has some very eccentric projects, their approach demonstrates how built environment professionals do have the capacity to manipulate colour more con­sciously, innovatively and informatively in order to enhance the quality and function of urban places.

The lecture coincides with the exhibition 'Breathing Colour' by Hella Jongerius, which is worth a visit. You can find out more here.