Color 101: Hueless
Last year, a travel magazine sent me to Japan to write
about a new museum by the great Osaka architect Tadao Ando. Ando’s architecture is about a lot of things—space, light, form—but color isn’t one of them. When the story came out, there were small photos of the museum surrounding a large photo of a (hideous) sculpture that stands outside the building. The artwork, shaped like
a pumpkin, was the yellowest yellow I’d ever seen.
Forget space, light, form, proportion. The art director needed color on the page.
Graphic designers, after all, spend their lives combating white space. But in architecture, it’s possible to build an entire career without ever shifting out of neutrals. Ando, the master of unpainted concrete, isn’t alone. Richard Meier has a shock of white hair that matches every one of his buildings and (like Ando) a Pritzker Prize to prove that the key to success doesn’t have to be hue.
I’ve always been vaguely embarrassed by color, associating pastels with kitsch and primaries with kindergarten. I’m not even sure I agree with Meier, who claimed, in his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, that he likes white “because within it you can see all the colors of the rainbow.” I like white because within it I can’t see all the colors of the rainbow.
But have I been depriving myself of the warm embrace of color? Even the Pritzker jury has swung toward architects, Aldo Rossi and Luis Barragán among them, whose work is every shade but white. More recently, Rem Koolhaas used his new student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology to give Mies van der Rohe’s black-on-black campus a jolt of orange.
Contemporary architects who love color have plenty of precedents to draw on. Gerrit Rietveld, one of the great early modernists, made primary shades a hallmark of the de Stijl movement. Frank Lloyd Wright gave many of his houses motley decorations—including stained-glass windows that resemble birthday-party balloons. And Le Corbusier, the architect most associated with pure white forms, created a color-selection system for a -wall-paper company in 1931. Corbu’s “color keyboards” still have devotees after 75 years, offering, as they do, hues “approved” by the master.
In the art world, however, white still rules. A museum that wants colors on its walls has generally had two options: Hire Sol LeWitt, who, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, will send a team to paint one of his “wall drawings.” Or hire James Turrell, who, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, will install programmable LEDs. To the folks who wear black, colors are fine, as long as they have art-world pedigree.
Yet there are signs that gallery walls are beginning to blush. When New York’s renovated Museum of Modern Art opened in 2004, it was as white as a building could be. And the reviews were appropriately pallid. The following year, Herzog & de Meuron unveiled their de Young Museum in San Francisco, with its copper-colored façade and gallery walls that range from soft taupe to deep blue. The reviews were as hot as the colors. Herzog & de Meuron had brought color back to the museum world, the way sex brought color back to Pleasantville.
If Herzog & de Meuron can find room in their hearts for color, I figure I can, too. After moving to a new apartment in Brooklyn, I decided to experiment with shades of blue and green. I studied up a bit, immersing myself in color systems, including a delightful tutorial by Moritz Zwimpfer: Ordering Colors, Playing with Colors. And I downloaded an e-book, Color Voodoo, that is full of useful insights into how colors affect moods.
Here’s how colors affected my mood: I was overwhelmed by all the choices.
Luckily, I have three-year-old sons, who’ve never heard of Mies and who complain that chickens’ eggs aren’t as colorful as robins’. At two, my boys were debating the difference between teal and aquamarine. So when I took them to a paint store, they had no problem picking out colors for our home. More colors, in fact, than we have walls and ceilings.
To children, color is exciting. I would never deprive my sons of the stimulation, the emotional rainbow connection. So why should I deprive myself?