Over the course of human history, cities have painted their built environments creating eye-catching and mesmerizing color palettes. Colors in the urban environment have risen to counter the environmental factor of heat and solar gain as well as establish what would later become a tradition. These cities have, not very surprisingly, attracted the eyes of both tourists and architects and urban planners alike who have been mesmerized by the colorful urban fabric that greets them.

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Humans have developed colorful urban environments over time_© Martin

The Psychology of Color in Architecture

Colors have always been an important part of architecture and urban design at large, much before they were established as vital professions. Painters and builders have found to use color as a way of depicting an emotion or feeling or tying it to a prevalent and prominent local symbolic belief. The use of red and its hues have been used to show emotions ranging from passion and sensuality to fear and danger. 

Depending on the amount and space, it could either make a structure or space stand out, or keep people away from it. On the other hand, shades of orange are more welcoming and friendly connoting spaces as being cheerful to their inhabitants. Along the same lines, hues of yellow have for long been a favorite as highlighting colors in kindergartens and libraries, radiating friendliness and a place with continuous activity. Blue, on the other hand, is painted in places where calm and secure emotions are required.

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Red interiors can arouse sensuality when used correctly_©Trendir

White has been the foremost amongst all colors. Used extensively for exterior as well as interior facades, the color symbolizes purity, calmness, and cleanliness, amongst other local metaphors. Connotations of a minimalistic worldview and magnifying the details in design have emerged with purists believing in the strong poetic narrative of this color. With the rise of concrete architecture, grey in its different shades has also risen to become a color for modernist and minimalistic architects and designers. 

The emotions of the simplicity of form and its inherent material-derived conservative nature have often seen it being used alongside white by the likes of Corbusier, Gropius, and Tadao Ando.

Much empirical and scientific data has shown that colors dictate the human-space relationship. Color studies have involved the fields of architecture, psychology, and neuroscience and have shown results involving visual, symbolic, and emotional responses. No doubt colors have a prominent effect on human behavior concerning space. Commonly occurring visual fatigue due to wrong color choices in a space receiving a lot of sunlight or emotional problems in navigating a residential space due to overbearing bright colors are all too well attributed to the importance of color psychology.

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Colors in the urban fabric conduct emotional responses from its dwellers_© Jaeger and partner architects

Colors as a Language of the Urban Fabric

While colorful palettes have often been touted by modern architects as being ostentatious, there are urban fabrics that have developed a language through color, thereby setting apart a distinct identity for themselves. Local folklore, color symbolism and even navigating issues have been motives for cities choosing to color their built environments in particular colors over time. 

For instance, the built environment of Burano Island, Italy flaunts a colorful facade with the residents repainting them every two years. The motive for doing so arose when fishermen living on the island would find it difficult to navigate back in and started painting their houses in bright colors so that they could be spotted from the sea. The Venetian practice became a tradition and still carries on.

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Brightly colored Burano Island_© Manu Gupta

Visual fatigue due to colors in the urban space has also been a motive, and one that made the Dutch governor Albert Kikkert order all the houses in Curacao, Lesser Antilles to be painted in any color but white. Apparently, according to local history, the governor suffered from migraines and they were made worse by the reflection of the Caribbean sun on the built structures. Reflection and glare are common factors for visual discomfort surrounding colors in the urban environment and although modernism might paint white as a form of structured purity, it is responsible for a lot of reflection of light in the urban fabric.

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Curacao in Lesser Antilles_© Vistra

The city of Izamal in Mexico is a prominent example of a city dictating its architectural language through the use of color where cultures and color symbolism play an important role in the urban fabric. The city was an ancient worship center for the Mayan god Itzamná, and the sun god, Kinich-Kakmó. The Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century saw the establishment of a large monastery that was painted in yellow, paying homage to the Mayan civilization upon which the monastery sat. This idea was thrust into motion and soon the streets were lined with varying shades of yellow houses in an attempt to symbolically reconnect with their Mayan roots.

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The yellow city of Izamal_© Des Recits

Environmental Motives for Colors in Cities

More often than not, one will find that the unforgiving and harsh environment has been a motivating factor for the color of a particular place. Tropical and equatorial climatic conditions of heat and solar gain have played a primary part in decisions related to the color in the urban fabric.

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City of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria_©Wallup

The city of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria Island flaunts colorful rooftops that are visible from overhead flying airplanes. When walking the street or flying overhead, one can look at the prominently painted colors of blue, orange, red, and green that helps to reduce solar gain in the buildings, keeping the interiors cool on hot summer days. The resulting effect is also shared by the urban fabric, with the whole city being cooler than it would be without these colors.

Khong Sam Wa is another famous example of the city using colors to keep itself cool. Located in Bangkok, Thailand, the city has painted its roof in primarily yellow and red colors to considerably reduce the solar gain and keep the interiors cool, given the humid and hot conditions of tropical Asia.

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Khong San Wa in Thailand as seen from an airplane_© Maxartechnologies

Political Motives for Colors in Cities

Often the rulers of the land would decree a particular color for exterior house painting and the citizens would hasten to apply it changing the urban fabric of the place. Politics as a motive for the colorful language of the urban fabric can be seen in several places, mostly those governed by a singular authority.

Here at home, the city of Jaipur is famously called the pink city. According to local oral sources of historical data, King Sawai Ram ordered the city be painted pink to welcome Prince Albert and Queen Victoria to India during the British rule in 1876. This decree became a tradition and has been followed since attracting millions of visitors from all over the world.

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The pink city of India, Jaipur_© Annie Spratt

Similarly, the city of Jodhpur, also in India, is painted in a peculiar blue all over. The motive can be traced back to the prevailing social class system wherein the Brahmins or ruling priestly class painted their homes in indigo blue. As time moved on and migration and economics affected the place, the blue color became a tradition and every house picked up on it. Today, the city shines under the desert sun – a convolution of blue boxes against mighty Mehrangarh Fort.

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The blue city of India, Jodhpur_© Turistaingiro

Color as a Narrative for Urban Development

In all the above cases of brightly painted colorful cities, one can gather that color narrates the urban development of the place. Surely it is not the sole narrative but it nevertheless is an important one. In the latter half of 1970, Newfoundland planned to revive its Victorian architectural style and in the process of doing so decided to paint them in bright colors. Though originally all white and grey, the Victorian houses found a new identity through their colors. The decision narrated the urban development of Newfoundland through its new identity dictated by color psychology.

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Reviving older Victorian houses in Newfoundland gave them a new narrative_© Curbed.

The city of Mértola in Portugal is a serene sight for beholders who are gazing upon the dazzling white city. The city has its roots in Classical Antiquity and has survived various raids and conquests, all to emerge into the UNESCO spectacle it is today. The white boxes with red roofs are jumbled against an old castle bringing to mind the blue city of Jodhpur. Here too, the distinct white color of the town narrates its own story of wars, colonization, and its current peaceful statea story of urban development.

The beautiful city of Mértola in Potugal_© Claire

References

Archinect (2012). Color in Architecture – More Than Just Decoration. [online]. Available at: https://archinect.com/features/article/53292622/color-in-architecture-more-than-just-decoration [Accessed 19 July 2021].

  1. Lily (2019). How Color Affects Architecture. [online]. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/930266/how-color-affects-architecture [Accessed 19 June 2021].
  2. Claire (2020). The stunning village of Mértola (Portugal). [online]. Available at: https://www.zigzagonearth.com/mertola-portugal/ [Accessed 19 June 2021].
  3. Megan (2019). The 25 most colorful cities in the world. [online]. Available at: https://archive.curbed.com/2018/2/2/16947758/colorful-cities-streets-architecture-world [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Martin (2019). Humans have developed colorful urban environments over time. [online]. Available at: https://archive.curbed.com/2018/2/2/16947758/colorful-cities-streets-architecture-world [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Trendir. Red interiors can arouse sensuality when used correctly. [online]. Available at: https://www.trendir.com/red-bedrooms-that-will-ignite-your-passion/ [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Jaeger and partner architects  (2017). Colors in the urban fabric conduct emotional responses from its dwellers. [online]. Available at: https://fordham.libguides.com/c.php?g=688915&p=4913207 [Accessed 19 June 2021].

  1. Manu (2013). Brightly colored Burano Island. [online]. Available at: https://voyageur-attitude.fr/les-villes-les-colorees/ [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Vistra (2017). Curacao in Lesser Antilles. [online] Available at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-capital-of-curacao.html [Accessed 19 June 2021].

  1. Des (2021). Yellow City of Izamal. {online]. Available at: https://travelerdreams.com/izamal-charming-town-in-mexico-colored-in-all-shades-of-yellow/ {Accessed 19 June 2021].

Wallup. City of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. [online]. Available at: https://wallup.net/spain-houses-las-palmas-gran-canaria-cities/ [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Maxartechnologies (2019). Khong Wa Sam as seen from an airplane. [online]. Available at: https://archive.curbed.com/2018/2/2/16947758/colorful-cities-streets-architecture-world {Accessed 19 June 2021].

  1. Annie. The pink city of India, Jaipur. [online]. Available at: https://unsplash.com [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Turistainigo. The blue city of India, Jodhpur. [online]. Available at: https://www.turistaingiro.it/1193/jodhpur-la-storia-della-magica-citta-blu-dellindia/ [Accessed 19 June 2021].

Unknown (2019). Reviving older Victorian houses in Newfoundland gave them a new narrative. [online]. Available at: https://archive.curbed.com/2018/2/2/16947758/colorful-cities-streets-architecture-world [Accessed 19 June 2021].

  1. Claire (2020). The beautifyul city of Mértola in Portugal. [online]. Available at: https://www.zigzagonearth.com/mertola-portugal/ [Accessed 19 June 2021].
Author

Adriel is a spatial designer who believes writing about design is just as important as the design itself. He believes that architecture and design are instruments of human expression which ought to be unfolded to enable a deeper connection with our surroundings.

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