The Century of Modern Color in Architecture

Color is usually a secondary aspect of architecture, but
through the 19th and early 20th centuries it became an
explicit issue of debate, inspired by the experiments of
scientists and fueled by the close interaction among
the artistic and architectural avant-gardes. Through
that period, discussions about color were integral to
the formation of a modern architecture, reaching a
point of crisis and conclusion in the (mostly) white
walls of the 1920s and 1930s. By the post-war years,
architects moved onto other topics and color became
a largely secondary topic once again. This article traces
the particular historical boundaries of that condition
of modern color, and identifies the key concepts with
which it was shaped.
Broadly stated, the origins of modern color lie in the
nineteenth century with the steady refinement of scientific
theories of color perception and the remarkable
development of techniques for producing new
colors and colorful materials. Previous color practices
had been shaped by the limited palette of colors available
and constrained by the slower pace of innovation
and growth. The new possibilities were encountered
on a variety of fronts, and involved a back-and-forth
between artists, scientists, and manufacturers. The
revolution in modern painting – from Turner to the
Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists, Cezanne, Cubism,
and so on – was directly influenced by their reading of
new theories of visual perception and their encounter
with new colors and techniques of color production.
Architects were involved in their own experimentation,
beginning with the polychromy dispute of the 1830s,
they explored color effects and techniques in projects
through the “century of color.” However architects lack
the kind of explicit color palette used by painters, which
not only provides a physical site for paint mixtures and
selections, but a conceptual space, independent of the
painting, where the logic of color can be considered.
As Wittgenstein astutely observed in his own effort to
decode modern color theorizing: “We do not want to
establish a theory of colour (neither a physiological one
nor a psychological one), but rather the logic of colour
concepts. And this accomplishes what people have
often unjustly expected of a theory”.1 Color concepts
are shaped by many factors, from the memorable color
distinctions dictated by visual perception to the specifics
of material production, climate, geography, and
culture, including the particular dynamics of commercial
markets and cultural evolution. Documenting that
kind of variety can be challenging, but for architecture
it begins with an examination of the relationship between
form and color.

Color is usually a secondary aspect of architecture, but through the 19th and early 20th centuries it became an explicit issue of debate, inspired by the experiments of scientists and fueled by the close interaction among the artistic and architectural avant-gardes. Through that period, discussions about color were integral to the formation of a modern architecture, reaching a point of crisis and conclusion in the (mostly) white walls of the 1920s and 1930s. By the post-war years, architects moved onto other topics and color became a largely secondary topic once again. This article traces the particular historical boundaries of that condition of modern color, and identifies the key concepts with which it was shaped.

Broadly stated, the origins of modern color lie in the nineteenth century with the steady refinement of scientific theories of color perception and the remarkable development of techniques for producing new colors and colorful materials. Previous color practices had been shaped by the limited palette of colors available and constrained by the slower pace of innovation and growth. The new possibilities were encountered on a variety of fronts, and involved a back-and-forth between artists, scientists, and manufacturers. The revolution in modern painting – from Turner to the Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists, Cezanne, Cubism, and so on – was directly influenced by their reading of new theories of visual perception and their encounter with new colors and techniques of color production. Architects were involved in their own experimentation, beginning with the polychromy dispute of the 1830s, they explored color effects and techniques in projects through the “century of color.” However architects lack the kind of explicit color palette used by painters, which not only provides a physical site for paint mixtures and selections, but a conceptual space, independent of the painting, where the logic of color can be considered. As Wittgenstein astutely observed in his own effort to decode modern color theorizing: “We do not want to establish a theory of colour (neither a physiological one nor a psychological one), but rather the logic of colour concepts. And this accomplishes what people have often unjustly expected of a theory”.1 Color concepts are shaped by many factors, from the memorable color distinctions dictated by visual perception to the specifics of material production, climate, geography, and culture, including the particular dynamics of commercial markets and cultural evolution. Documenting that kind of variety can be challenging, but for architecture it begins with an examination of the relationship between form and color.

excerpt from “The Century of Modern Color in Architecture,” Conservation of color in 20th Century architecture. Giacinta Jean, Ed. (Lugano: SUPSI, 2013)