Colour in Architecture

Posted Oct 26th, 2020 in Design

Why Not Colour In Architecture?

Ian Ellingham, MBA, PhD, FRAIC
Chair, Niagara Society of Architects
Associate, Cambridge Architectural Research Limited
Originally published in The Right Angle Journal, Vol.2 No.4, Summer 2019

Exterior colour might be one of the big enigmas in architecture.  C. Howard Walker, architect and teacher at MIT (in 1893), pointed out that colour has long been a part of architecture, and gave numerous examples, but "...that it has always played an inferior part..."[1] and offers the opinion that where it has been used extensively, the results have often been "grotesque". 

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein devoted his last book, the Remarks on Colour, written in 1950, to the matter.  He commented that "...there is merely an inability to bring the concepts into some kind of order. We stand there like the ox in front of the newly-painted stall door."[2] But before the designer or manager decides to embark on the creation of a brightly coloured building, some reflection on our reasons for avoiding extremes of colour is appropriate. 

Even in the early 21st century the empirical research on exterior building colour remains quite limited, with strands of research being variously speculative, physical, physiological, cultural, psychological, artistic and perhaps even spiritual.[3]  Research into colour does go back to the late 1800s and the earlier days of psychology, although much of it relied on observation and, to a greater extent, personal experience.[4]  For example, Goethe in his Theory of Colours, (1810) was essentially analyzing his personal responses, to different colours seen as related to feelings.  Wilhelm Wundt, in Outlines of Psychology (1897), saw red as being arousing, and blue as subduing, again based on his personal biases and very general observations. 

As the disciplines of psychology developed through the 20th century, experimentation with colour expanded, with better methods and more sophisticated insights.  More recent summary of past research, found that generally it has been found that " appeared to be the most preferred color, followed by red:... saturated colors being particularly preferred.  Men especially preferred blue, whereas women, red..."[5] 

Attempts to understand some of the reasons for colour preference have found that "People like colors strongly associated with objects they like (e.g., blues with clear skies and clean water) and dislike colors strongly associated with objects they dislike (e.g., browns with feces and rotten food)."[6]  In evolutionary terms, this makes sense:  we still like colours associated with things that helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive, and are repelled by those that might be harmful, and that some male-female differences in colour preferences might result from the different roles filled during humanity's early days. 

Unfortunately, much of the empirical research has yielded ambiguous results - and may not apply to building exteriors anyway.  "In short, humans respond to color more on the basis of subliminal emotion than on grounds of rational consideration."[7]  Moreover, it is challenging to determine whether one brain mediates colour stimuli the same way that another does.  Do all people, for example, experience forest green or sky blue in the same way.  While we might agree on what forest green is, we may experience different reactions to it.  Exploration of brain processes and how they form responses to colour is now underway using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), and we might expect new insights resulting from those efforts.[8] 

Colour on office building, London, UK

There are a number of possible reasons why research that may be relevant to the building designer is limited.  Researchers may not perceive a building's exterior colour as an important aspect of their work, perhaps because of the entanglement with context, or because researchers feel the matter belongs to a different discipline (perhaps architecture?).  Looking more specifically into architectural discussion of colour, one still finds a great deal of personal opinion, and quotes of previous personal opinions, as in the work of Marcus and Matell.[9] 

There are practical reasons for most building exteriors not being explicitly colourful.  Exterior environments are hard on building materials so it is often wise to select materials that do not suffer from obvious fading.  Brick, stone, terracotta, cementitious rendering, concrete, concrete block and perhaps mud brick, provide a range of greys, beiges and earth-toned colours.   In some places, such as in St.John's Newfoundland, exteriors are painted in vivid colours, but these tend to be wood clad, and have to be painted periodically anyway.  Ceramic tile is one traditional material that has offered colour possibilities, but the current conditions of the mosaic-tiled exteriors of communist-era buildings in Europe demonstrate the havoc that freeze-thaw environments and limited maintenance can wreak on that material.[10] 

There is also the fact that we tend to prefer what we find familiar, sometimes expressed as the 'preference-for-prototypes' theory.[11]  Many classical buildings of antiquity, those that have served as models for centuries of new development, were originally brightly coloured, but over time weathering had its effect, so the developing renaissance civilizations were presented with buildings that were largely the colours of the materials they were constructed from - any colouring having faded or fallen off centuries before. 

In addition, until fifty or so years ago, most architectural representation was black and white - being either sketches or photography.  Coloured paintings were relatively rare (and expensive).  Even today, in the education of architects, colour is usually pushed into the background - think of all those models being built with pristine white foamboard, and those black and white sketches.  In my own experience, I don't recall any of my instructors in architecture school spending much time discussing colour. 

The Victorians, rediscovering the medieval past, were not ashamed of using colour, both inside and outside, and some architects such as William Butterfield (1814-1900) who used brick and ceramic colours and patterns extensively and architecturally - perhaps even riotously.[14]  In other settings, iron structures were often picked out with colour, to differentiate materials.  However, in early functionalist modernism, colour, like ornament, was seen to be superfluous, and white walls were the ideal.[13]  As Eric Arthur (1898-1982) suggested "...modern materials and construction have an intrinsic beauty..."[14]  Arthur supported the concept of modernism, but again there was no experimental evidence for such a statement - it was the opinion generally accepted by the architectural leading edge of the time. 

Research undertaken since the 1960s has indicated that too many materials or colours can decrease the esteem given to a design - one reason being that excessive complexity will decrease the legibility of the building.[15] [16] [17]  A small study using interior spaces found that appropriateness may be a major determinant of evaluative responses to interior colour, supporting the more general hypothesis that such responses to colour are partially dependent upon the object with which the color is associated.[18] 

Differences between some styles (Modern vs. Georgian or Art Nouveau) have been found to have an impact on the selections of appropriate colour.  In a study using colours and two-dimensional shapes subjects used "...a complex rule in which the weight attributed to one element depends on the value of the other element."[19] The results, it was determined, did not depend on whether the subject was an 'expert' (artist or architect?).  In other words, preference for architectural colours is highly dependent upon what they are being used for, and where they are being used - all of this underlining the level of cultural dependence.  

Historically, in numerous Eurasian societies, bright colours were a marker of lower class - people of taste did not display bright colours, which were often seen as "...superficial, subjective, irrational, self-indulgent, sensual, disorderly, and deceptive".[20]  While we may not know why this is the case, we recognize that different cultures relate to colour differently, in keeping with differing historical, political, economic and religious conditions, as well as the practical reasons of the availability and cost of different pigments. 

Colour and colour combinations are highly subject to fashion - with shifts in fashion being shorter than buildings' life expectancies, or even shorter then the periods between refurbishments, which may make it difficult to undertake research that could offer long-term guidance, especially for long-lived assets.  Recall the pastels (combined with splashes of bright colours) that were favoured in the 1950s and 1960s, the psychedelic-inspired bright colours from the hippie/LSD period, the earth-tones of the late 1970s, and the reappearance of pastels in the 1980s.  It is difficult to perceive building colour fashions in the 21st century, perhaps because we are in the time, and affected by the fashions themselves, but also that with societal change, we are less tempted to follow fashion, and that diversity reigns. 

Although we might hope for the appearance of some insightful empirical research on building exteriors that will allow a more evidence-based approach, this may never happen.  William Braham, of the University of Pennsylvania, suggests "At the outset, one must wonder if color offers a wholly stable historical subject for examination",[21] implying that previous generations, in particular the ancients, simply saw a more limited pallet of colours, and that modern discussions of colour have increasingly related to the individual and the subjective.  Perhaps we are to be permanently left striving for a full explanation of how colour works on the minds of people.

Yet in spite of the uncertainties, colour is one of the tools most readily available to the building designer or manager to manipulate the effect of a building exterior.  Moreover, it can be quite an inexpensive implement.  When we put together Golden Towne Manor in Meaford, Ontario, the architect[22] designed the exterior with simple bands of contrasting brick colours.  Curious, part-way through construction, I asked the contractor what this added to the cost of the building - the response was that it added nothing...  in fact the bricklayers themselves rather liked doing something out of the ordinary.  It only involved a bit more supervision - and the foreman was there anyway.  Quite apart from preferences and ornamentation, there is some evidence that the use of colour can change the perception of space and form,[23] at probably a lower cost than physical manipulation of the space and form themselves.

Applied colour can be changed in keeping with changing trends, but still required careful consideration of the ease (and cost) of implementing such change.  For example, a curtainwall manufacturer recently told me a scary story about the issues of changing the now-unfashionable mullion colours on buildings a couple of decades old.

Coloured mullions

In the 21st century, new materials offer colour opportunities not available previously.  Dramatic and long-lived colours and patterns, are more feasible.  Moreover, one might suggest that there has been a decrease in societal conformity, perhaps allowing different expressions of individuality. 

Yet, the practical designer or manager might consider the remaining reasons why colour is still not rampant on Canadian building exteriors.  Building exteriors can be very long-lived - longer than fashion trends, suggesting that transient building elements should be treated differently than the permanent elements.  Interiors can be redecorated relatively easily in keeping with most recent trends, while exteriors may have to exist for decades or centuries and not look excessively dated or weird, until they become esteemed simply for their age.  Some exterior elements that are periodically renewed might be considered for more aggressive colours, especially those that are painted. 

Colour in St.John's maritime climate

There are interesting current developments in techniques, such as projection mapping and colour shifting dichroic glass, that might offer more complete colour flexibility in the near future.  Meanwhile, the increasing appearance of large electronic signage on building exteriors can also give them colour, and the ability to change colour, at least until advertising as a building feature becomes unfashionable again. 


1. Walker, C. Howard; Andrews, Robert D.;  Warren, H. Langford;  Waterman, Marcus;  Tompkins, F. H.;  Bachmann, Max and Hartmann, C. Sadakichi.  "Color in Architecture", The Art Critic, Vol.1, No.1 (Nov., 1893). p.12.
2. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Remarks on Colour. Oakland:  University of California Press, 1977. p.359.
3. Colours being associated with various religious functions and meanings. 4. Elliot, Andrew J.  "A Historically Based Review of Empirical Work on Color and Psychological Functioning: Content, Methods, and Recommendations for Future Research", Review of General Psychology, Online first publication:  20 Dec 2018. p.1.
5. Ibid. p.3.
6. Palmer, Stephen E.  Schloss, Karen B. and Kay, Paul.  "An ecological valence theory of human color preference", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol.107, No.19 (May 11, 2010), p.8877.
7. Finlay, Robert.  "Weaving the Rainbow: Visions of Color in World History", Journal of World History, Vol.18, No.4, (2007), pp. 383-431.  p.13.
8. Racey, Chris; Franklin, Anna; Bird, Chris M. "The processing of color preference in the brain", NeuroImage. vol.191, pp.529-536.  preprint downloaded from bioRxiv, 12 April, 2019.
9. Marcus, Gert and Matell, Hans.  "Colors on the Exterior Walls of the Buildings of the Apartment Complex at Vastra Flemingsberg, Huddinge, Sweden", Leonardo, Vol.12, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), pp. 89-93.
10. The 2017 film Built to Last - Relics of Communist Era Architecture, directed by Czech-Japanese filmmaker Haruna Honcoop, shows numerous examples of buildings with failed exterior tile-clad walls.
11. Slatter P.E. and Whitfield T. W. (1977) "Room function and appropriateness judgements of colour". Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1977, Vol.45, pp.1068-1070. 12. All Saints Church, St.Margaret Street, in London is one example and worth visiting.
13. Braham , William W.  "Solidity of the Mask: Color Contrasts in Modern Architecture". RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics,  No.39 (Spring, 2001), pp.192-214. p.193.
14. Arthur, Eric. "How to appreciate architecture", Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal, February, Vol.13, No.2, (1936) pp.32-33.
15. Kaplan, Stephen and Kaplan, Rachel.  Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an uncertain world, Ann Arbour:  Ulrich's, (1983), p.18.
16. Kumar, Minu and Garg, Nitike.  "Aesthetic principles and cognitive emotion appraisals:  How much of the beauty lies in the eye of the beholder?"  Journal of Consumer Psychology, 20, pp.485-494. (2010) p.487.
17. Stamps, Arthur E. III. "Mystery, complexity, legibility and coherence:  A meta-analysis",  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, (2004).  pp.1-16.  p.2.
18. Slatter and Whitfield op.cit. (1977), p.1070.
19. Lazreg, Cecilia Karpowicz and Mullet, Etienne. "Judging the Pleasantness of Form-Color Combinations", The American Journal of Psychology, Vol.114, No.4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 511-533.  p.530.
20. Finlay, (2018).  p.20.
21. Braham, (2001). p.194.
22. Seppo Kanerva of Sedun+Kanvera, Architects Inc.
23. Braham op.cit.  (2001). p.195.

Ian Ellingham, BArch, MBA, PhD, PLE, FRAIC is the chair of the Niagara Society of Architects, an associate of Cambridge Architectural Research Limited, a UK-based consultancy, and vice-president of Corinium Project Strategies, a Niagara-based property and consulting firm.  He has written numerous papers and books, including his most recent: Understanding Ugly:  Human response to buildings in the environment, 2020.


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