“Do architects have to think about color?” I was recently asked. “Or is that just for interior designers?” The short answer is, “Yeah.” Here’s a much longer one…
Most people live in places with awful weather.
By “awful” I mean temperate, stable climates with seasons. One season in particular gets a bad rap. To those living far from the tropics, winter is a beautiful yet somber stretch of time. Daylight is muted and short. Plants wither to brown. Everything takes on a cast of grey.
I’ve found that just a little color will lift my mood during these months. People treasure the time around Christmas, in no small part for the warm lights and bold red decorations. The first green of spring is a blissful relief. October’s blazing leaves are tinged with melancholy; they mark our descent into winter again.
Some cities are more comfortable in winter, simply because of their architectural palette. Chicago’s tan brick and cold Modernist facades do nothing to ease its harsh climate. Without greenery or clear skies, which is guaranteed several months each year, it becomes pretty desolate. The city would benefit from a bolder use of color. My favorite neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park on the north side, are lined with red sandstone and warm brick facades. These solid yet cozy buildings harmonize with any season. Stockholm, Sweden, where the sun hardly rises between December and February, relies on its architecture for color and light. There is an obvious preference for bold color in the vernacular buildings of far-northern settlements.
I was once told by a professor, “never make a building the same color as the sky.” It makes sense that a house should have presence, weight, and harmonious contrast with its setting. But for an imposing skyscraper, it may be best to dematerialize. If not for the dark cut-out near its peak, Philadelphia’s Comcast Center would vanish into the clouds.
Architects use color as a pillar of design. Certain tones have deep, visceral effects on our mood, that are similar across cultures. Color theory is a philosophy unto itself. Color is symbolic. Babylon’s Ishtar Gate was covered in deep blue glazed brick, which simulated lapis lazuli. This precious stone is native to Afghanistan and was treasured around the ancient world – the ultimate symbol of wealth, power, and reverence for the goddess Ishtar. The pigment Ultramarine is made from crushed lapis lazuli and was treated with similar adulation among painters.
In a practical sense, color defines character, and can transform a blank wall into a feature. Dark colors are known to visually shrink a room, while lighter colors make it appear more generous. To show off a space’s complexity, white is an appropriate choice; we can better appreciate the play of shadow on form. Francesco Borromini mastered this contraposition in Chiesa San Carlino‘s interior. Any color can be right, so long as we use it with intent.
I’ll wrap this up with a nod to South Bend, Indiana: a climatically-challenged city where I first studied architecture. The “Golden Dome” of Notre Dame’s Main Building is a landmark. It’s said to gleam brightest on gloomy days. Downtown, a sculpture by Mark Di Suvero crowns the fork of St. Joseph River in brilliant red. Only my brother can cast a shadow on it. Last, my rambling design for a hotel overlooking St. Mary’s Lake, in red brick to echo South Dining Hall.
Designing with color is deeply complex, and hard to quantify in value. It’s at the soul of what we create. Choose wisely.
This one is for the introverts.
The year is 2050 (give or take); humanity’s gravitation to urban centers reaches its peak. The sheer density of cities tests our limits as “social animals”, and we starve for solitude.
A typical citizen rises at dawn in their trendy micro-apartment: 200 square feet, artfully configured to sleep three, with collapsible furniture and partitions. A crowded train delivers them to work, since the private car vanished during the global fuel crisis. However, our current “Open Collaborative Office” trend has survived. It is simply cheaper to seat colleagues shoulder-to-shoulder, and the lowered productivity of exasperated workers is balanced by easier surveillance. The process reverses each evening, as the tide of human stock eddies back into residential streets.
In these conditions, privacy is treasured. As usual, the market provides a solution. Small chambers quietly proliferate within office towers, transit stations, and residential blocks. An unassuming door leads to a soundproof, indestructible room with a single light source. For a fee, desperate citizens have space to relax, meditate, and act out whatever impulse our social brains inhibit. Most people sing, or scream, or bask in silence, tuning out the world and recovering their individuality. Some exploit the space for darker uses. Organized crime was quick to see potential and now controls access to urban tranquility.
As tech companies well know, our private thoughts have value. Marketing firms and governments crave data on our desires, needs, and seditious opinions. Will the corrupt networks monetizing our solitude cave to their pressure? Will the sovereignty of our inner life hold?
Beauty is felt, before it is understood.
While making something beautiful, we discover patterns that resonate. An artist will sometimes find common threads linking mathematics, natural forces, and our own mythology. Philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists of every field all originated from the same cloth: creative people seeking a universal order. Great artists tap into that knowledge as they master the language of aesthetics, which most of us can hear but not speak.
Beauty is important. It is not the domain of a cultured elite – any person can tell a bad tune from harmony. That rule is universal, from music to architecture to a fleeting moment in nature. The presence of beauty lifts our spirit. Once, we reserved our greatest splendor for the public realm – city squares, gateways, and places of assembly that encouraged pride and civility. Can we decode something so vague yet self-evident? How can we design the intuitive?
Symmetry is one of the most powerful aspects of beauty; a resonance of proportion that unites various scales of a composition. It creates a satisfying sense of order. When we detect symmetry, we smile knowingly – we believe the subject was created with intent and skill. It reassures us that an order defines our universe, and we may yet grasp it; a window to understanding. We find it in the branches of a tree, the forks of a river, and splintering lightning.
Symmetry is also present in good design. Consider this project for a chapel by Eugene Bourdon, a student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the 1890s. The floor plan has grace, order, and solidity. Looking closely, similar ratios appear at the finest scale of the plan. The rhythm of the main crossing vault and corner masses carries through the vaults and piers that nest within those corners. This “A-B-A” proportion could be applied throughout all tripartite elements of the plan – window divisions, the columns of the main façade, and more.
Carrying a dominant proportion through a design is just one step. What proportion should we choose? I believe that a building’s material suggests its form. For trabeated construction, consider the difference in span among common materials. Inevitably, the Greeks who built with marble devised a far different order than the Japanese, who mastered carpentry. The resources of a culture influences the formal language of its architecture.
And with a given material, we have choice. Stone spans the furthest as an arch, which utilizes its compressive strength. There are many forms of arches. The earliest development from post-and-lintel was the corbel: stepped blocks that form a triangular opening. This is not a true arch, since the masonry will fail in tension rather than compression. The next types are the jack arch and segmental arch. In general, the flatter the arch, the more lateral reinforcement must support it. The catenary is designed to perfectly follow the force path within any arch, doing away with the need for buttresses. Antoni Gaudi used this form whenever possible. In the cupola of his Palau Guell, the catenary appears everywhere.
A beautiful composition is not arbitrary. What seem to be mysterious, intuitive qualities often have their roots in practicality. Thus, the material of a building is fundamental to its proper design. We should emulate Nature, the greatest designer, by following the will of our medium. There is great beauty in simplicity.
“Biomimicry” is designing after nature; imitating its patterns and systems. Isn’t this a strange concept? By “mimicking” nature, we admit our deep-rooted feeling of otherness. Though technically animals, we now self-consciously regulate our behavior to minimize our impact. In a planet defined by constant change, we lament how our our industry contributes to global warming – while a volcano is a blameless part of nature. Mankind considers itself a foreign presence in the ecosystem.
When was this balance upset? How have different cultures related to nature through their history? Our buildings can provide insight.
Nature seeks the easiest path. It prefers certain forms: the circle and triangle, which optimize volume and strength. Early man used the same forms for shelter; round enclosures for building footprint, livestock pens, and defense contained the maximum area per amount of building material. Curved walls can follow the contours of the land, reducing the need for costly excavation. Triangular framing is inherently strong and simple to construct, though less optimal for headroom. Our ancestors built structures like this worldwide.
A typical prehistoric village, seen from above, has obvious resemblance to organic patterns.
As societies around the world began to urbanize, labor was specialized and reserves of wealth – and time – grew. Building materials were collected on a greater scale, and traded. During trade, knowledge was exchanged between different cultures. We discovered that planning on a grid, while not the most efficient use of material, was otherwise superior. The rectangle neatly scales down from city streets, to our building plans, rooms, and furniture. Now that extra labor and materials could be spared, usefulness was prioritized.
For thousands of years, builders have defaulted to rectilinear planning, and today a design based on a grid is standard worldwide. A few have tried to break out of the box. Baroque architects, notably Francesco Borromini, sculpted spaces and plans based on the ellipse, triangle, and hexagon. Yet the Baroque style didn’t quite break free from Classical rules of order.
Antoni Gaudi is one of history’s most original designers. After exploring historic styles and the vernacular of his native Catalonia, he stripped away his aesthetic to a powerful statement: “Naturalisme”. “Nothing is invented, for it is written in Nature first.” Beneath the profuse ornament of his works is a daring, and rational, use of complex geometry and structural forms. In one sense, Gaudi planned buildings like machines: the leanest structure possible, with maximum natural light. His plans and engineering truly followed nature’s principles, a pure statement rare for such a prolific career.
In the 20th century, designers continued to explore the potential of organic geometry. By then, we were strangers to our roots in prehistory. Or perhaps not. The emerging science of archaeology jolted popular culture in those times. It revealed how much closer we once were to nature, and raised the question of whether our ancient tendencies had truly left us. Yet today, Naturalism is a willful act of design, no longer driven by necessity.
New architectural movements like parametric design, “Blobitecture”, and autogenerative design have explored further. The results are provocative: is Nature alien to us, or has progress walled off a deep part of ourselves?
By Samuel Gottscho, 1931 Source
The silhouette of Manhattan is unmistakable. It is symbolic of this city and its values to people worldwide: aspiration, wealth, struggle, diversity, sophistication, and a distinct feeling of ordered chaos. The Art Deco towers of the 1930s defined a new vision of urbanity. They broke boundaries and challenged people, and drew criticism as all progress will. I believe the genius of their design is a reference to the past, embedded in their futuristic profile.
A good design resolves countless variables, so neatly that it seems the only possible solution. William Lamb, architect of the Empire State Building, had to consider vertical structure, wind force, airship docking, elevators, and the commercial spaces of the building (and much more). Yet an artist knows to step back, and keep control of the composition. These buildings had to function in unprecedented ways, and have beauty. Louis Sullivan said, “I make a design simple, then complex, then simple again.” Towers like the Empire State and Chrysler have refined proportions, pleasing materials and ornament, and symbolic meaning in their form.
These structures are many things to different people. A lightning rod, a Buck Rogers rocket, masculine hubris. Yesterday, I saw church steeples. One sat in the Brooklyn foreground, Manhattan’s radio age versions loomed beyond, and the Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the center. I wondered if the Art Deco designers recognized a continuum. Since the Middle Ages, European city skylines have been dominated by a Gothic church spire. Colonists brought this tradition to New England towns, and early New York once bristled with churches.
As New York raced into the future, its residents must have found the new towers somehow familiar. By then, the tall spire was an urban symbol firmly rooted in the European psyche.
The Empire State wasn’t the first peaked tower, or the last. By intent or serendipity, its design challenges our imagination while comforting our soul. It shows that to balance progress, archetypes always resurface.