In a world where black is the new black, at least for those ‘no-nonsense’ architects, it would be no understatement to say that color and architects have had a somewhat estranged relationship. To the skeptics, color can be dismissed as trivial; to the purists, perhaps provocatively confronting; and to the ignorant, color is purposefully decorative. And yet, our human response to color is both psychological and physiological- it is a way of feeling architecture. To quote Le Corbusier’s poetic sentiment, color is the “daughter of light”. This sensory process is a powerful form of expression for architects in it being: symbolic, emotive, and associative. There is also a striking dualism within these effects as both an individual, and universal, human response. Through color, architecture is invested with an intimate symbolism, one that has the ability to positively influence our well-being.
For those who have scoffed and turned away from color, perhaps too ‘frivolous’ for their work, there are those who have embraced the power and beauty of this phenomenon. One such architect is Luis Barragán, whose smooth planes are consistently, and unapologetically, swathed with bright colors. And yet, despite bold, and often contrasting colors, his work in no way translates to mindless noise. Rather, a sunshine yellow shares visual continuity to a blue wall, bright pink is vibrantly layered against an equally-bright orange, a rust-brown descends into a pool of aqua- every color is just as deserving as the next; the culmination of a fearless and brilliant imagination. It is this understanding of color, texture, and light which simultaneously inspires an almost mystic wonder, but also resonates on a human scale.
This idea of an “emotional architecture” profoundly revolutionized the modern movement. For Barragán, the house was not “a machine for living in”, but rather, a refuge of solace and repose – and the architect’s own house, Casa Barragán, is the perfect evocation of his thoughts. On the streets of Cuerámaro, this UNESCO World Heritage site could only be described as modest, its blandly austere facade, inconspicuous and humble amongst the vecindades. However, it is perhaps this paradoxical anonymity which only heightens one’s experience within these interior spaces. Every space chromatically complements one another: the honey-yellow entrance hall is a pause before the creamy-pink vestibule, which in turn, prepares for the dense greenery of the garden.
Similarly, Casa Gilardi, also reveals a poetic tranquility one can find in color. Unlike Casa Barragán however, the pink, stucco facade does not shy away from attention. Even through photographs, these spaces are beautifully evocative – a testament to the architect’s mastery over light, color, and texture, and unsurprising that it should culminate in the architect’s last completed residence. Another yellow entry hall greets visitors, however here; it is yellow glass which bathes the nave-like corridor in a warm, golden haze. This ethereal play with light continues with the indoor swimming pool. Here, the wall planes are dramatically slashed by a sharp light through the void, whilst a red wall emerges from the water; a De Stijl painting brought to life through an enthralling composition and reflection. These series of moments are an enduring realization of Barragán’s ideas, much of which undeniably revolutionized the modernist movement.
Also typified for his colorful architecture, albeit of a much more labyrinthian complexity, is Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill. One of his most renowned projects, La Muralla Roja (Spanish for ‘The Red Wall’), reinterprets the traditional casbah – a fortified defense when under attack. With its fortress-like silhouette and tonal dynamism, La Muralla Roja is a photographer’s paradise. The exterior facade is treated with a variety of reds only reinforcing its contrasting position within the arid landscape, whilst the areas painted blue, seek to connect with the expansive sky and sea. As one moves up and down, and through the spaces, this intentional separation is also of seamless continuity. The overall chromatic softness lightens the looming rectilinear masses but also draws the individual out to the beautiful views. As pastel pinks and blues are simultaneously compared and related, the individual is immersed in an otherworldly psyche of colorful calm and intrigue.
However, although the architecture of both Barragán and Bofill resonate through their awe-inspiring intensity, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Ronchamp offers architects with a much more subdued alternative. The church’s strangely obscure architectural style is certainly not invested with the traditional Catholic connotations of its predecessors. Yet, as light filters through the hand-painted glass windows, the interior space is emotionally, and expressively, poignant as place worship, and of reflection. The white, stone walls are washed out by the light, thereby producing soft glows of red, green, and orange, a half-light that is salient in alleviating anxiety, almost through spiritual tranquility. It is ultimately this interplay between light and color which elevates the architecture to a space of emotional resonance.
Each of these projects holds differing historical, cultural, and artistic connotations, and therefore varies in their approach to color. Whilst Barragán’s colors are explicitly reminiscent of so-called Mexican colors, Bofill’s gradients explore the visual boundaries between architecture and landscape, whilst Le Corbusier’s colored glass is in-tune with the religious program. Ultimately, however, each project seeks to translate such universal symbolism into individual moments of feeling.