Architecture Then / Architecture Now: Color

Paleo Retiree writes:

Why don’t people — including critics — complain more than they do about the colorlessness of so much of what’s being designed and built these days? It’s a question that seldom comes up but that has always leaped out at me: What’s with all the white, black and gray buildings anyway? It’s not that white, black and gray weren’t used in traditional and classical architecture; they were. But in the old days they were part of a very expansive palette. (It’s peculiar that the Bad Old Days are often associated with racism and fascism because, so far as architectural color and style went, they were far more diverse than today’s world.) Yet the colorlessness of much chic architecture isn’t only seldom discussed, it’s seldom even noticed. Time to correct that.

Here’s a snap I took the other day near the West 14th Street Apple Store.

ne_nyc_2013_11_arch_color_contrast01It was an overcast day so the colors weren’t screaming. Even so: Compare the colors of the older buildings — the gold/tan of the building in the lower left and the red/orange/brown of the building in the upper left — to the black-and-gray of the all-too-typical recent addition. Which makes for the richer visual experience?

Since I often find that many people aren’t used to thinking of bricks and stones as having colors, and since I want to drive my point home here, I’ve treated myself to some fun with the eyedropper and paintbucket tools. Lower left / new addition / upper left:


On the left and right: loads of muted, earthy color. In the middle: all the warmth and appealingness of wet charcoal.

And don’t get me started on the topic of the sensuality of brick and stone vs. the cold impersonality of metal and glass …

Another example, shot on the same dull day:



  • Blowhard, Esq. is a fan of the way neon signs enliven the visual atmosphere.
  • I gabbed about color (and some other general topics) in this epic, if I do say so myself, posting about Nevada City.
  • I see that the Kindle version of James Howard Kunstler’s great “Geography of Nowhere” can be had for $3.99. Now that’s a sensible way to price an ebook.
  • Dallas comes up with a seriously wacky way to solve a shiny-curved-building/death-ray problem. (Link thanks to Will S.) Here’s another way to take the problem on: How about not designing and constructing shiny, curved buildings in the first place? What do you think: Too radical?

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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15 Responses to Architecture Then / Architecture Now: Color

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Looks like the Apple store is raping that nice brick building.

    There’s also the variety of textures that trad materials provide. They often look even nicer as they age. Can’t say that about many modernist buildings.


    • The way texture is dealt with in recent architecture and design is a great topic in its own right.


    • I may have worded lazily: the pic isn’t OF the W. 14th St. Apple Store, it was snapped near the store. The black thing (it reminds me of Darth Vader, or maybe one of those crab-like alien monsters that clamp onto people’s faces in sci-fi horror movies) is … well, I don’t know what. A recent addition to the building beneath it, in any case. And it does kinda look like it’s raping that poor nice brick thing…


  2. agnostic says:

    That lower-left building even has two colors by itself, gold on the front and red on the side. And with a nice interlacing rhythm along the edge where they meet. Unfortunately that red wall doesn’t read so much as a side of the same building as the gold front, because it’s interrupted, parasitized, and dwarfed by that cancerous black block — an act of architectural rape, frozen for all time.


  3. agnostic says:

    (I had this window open for awhile before commenting. Beaten to the “rape” idea! Just goes to show how vivid it is, that two people would independently think of that immediately upon viewing.)


  4. Toddy Cat says:

    Modernism can and has produced some beautiful buildings. That ain’t one of them…


  5. agnostic says:

    Ancient architecture and design was usually polychrome, not monochrome “marble” or “sand” like we think when looking at them today. Too bad that paint washes off. That tradition has lasted better further over in the Middle East, where glazed bricks and tiles haven’t lost much of their color at all. Or Egyptian jewelry, death masks, and coffins.

    Lately scholars have been trying to reconstruct the look of Ancient Greek and Roman polychrome statues and buildings, but somehow I don’t think it’ll ever make much of an impression on the public. They’re too accustomed to the idea that monochrome = monumental, tough enough to withstand time, and so on.

    Ironic how much East Asian inspiration the Modernist’s claim, when Chinese architecture couldn’t deliver a more garish range of colors. Or all the neon in Japan. But Tadao Ando signed off on unadorned monochromatic blocks, so I guess it’s cool after all.


  6. slumlord says:

    Ray, you gotta understand, they actually like that shit. When they see concrete and glass they orgasm.


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  8. electricangel says:

    It’s like that in opera, too. Not far from this photo, you could go visit the Met and see bad modernizations of classic operas. But then, there’s the “Las Vegas” version of Rigoletto. Visually stunning, it updates the classic in riotous neon and color.

    The dullness of modernism is part of its mission.


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