Paradigms of Colour
In architecture, the question of colour has almost always been conceived and interpreted through dualisms. Colour often is the misfit in ideological oppositions: abstraction vs. figuration, appearance vs. reality, content vs. aesthetic, primary vs. secondary qualities of a space. Furthermore, even though these oppositions are inscribed in precise epistemological patterns and ideological backgrounds, they also refer to a similar metaphysical frame: the distinction of content from appearance, and form from aesthetics; as if these were diametrically opposed realities. This is probably because “colour” is difficult to situate both within the act of designing, and in the formal discourse of architecture: in both of these practices, “materials” and “composition” tend to prevail as defined and categorised cultural values. Moreover, although architecture has often been interpreted as a language, there has not been any serious attempt of describing colour as a linguistic element. After all, is colour a symbol? a referent? a trace? What is it?
Almost any of the semiotic analyses of architectural language, by reducing architecture to diagrammatic relationships of parts and symbols, shows their limitations in solving this conundrum. The sense of this essay is to pose a different theoretical hypothesis about colour, by analysing a series of specific cases. The thesis of this text is that colour cannot be interpreted as a merely superfluous and potentially unnecessary aspect of a space/building, but rather that it has to be considered as a true property of the object and, in turn, is mandatory in the consideration of “perception”, of the way in which appearances imbue reality with meaning, in this case, the reality of architecture. In other words, as Robin Evans once wrote:
“appearance must be the measure of truth, at least temporarily. […] Appearance is never the whole truth, but it is true to itself”.
To do so, the work of three Austrian masters of architecture will be analyzed -Adolf Loos, Josef Frank and Hans Hollein - as examples of three different paradigmatic ways of thinking about the question of colour, appearance and, ultimately, forms of producing knowledge through architecture. [Continue Reading]
Please note that, as observed by Thierry de Duve, “the arbitrariness of the names of colours is the favourite example of linguists who want to show the primacy of language (language) over speech (parole)”. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to Readymade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p.135
 Robin Evans, Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries, in AA Files, No 19 (Spring 1990), p.60