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North Hills Monthly

Why Color?

Jun 30, 2018 11:50AM ● By Matthew Schlueb

Why are roses red and violets blue? Would not the fragrance from a bouquet of white roses be just as pleasant?

Red petals are lost on pollinating bees drawn by nectaries and scent. Whatever influence color may have, red does not play a part since red is not in the visible spectrum of bees; their eyes shifted toward ultraviolet with red appearing as shades of grey. 

So, what need is there for roses to be red? In particular, why do they appear red to us humans? Don’t they remain roses when petals turn black in the shadows after the sun sets? Couldn’t we function just the same living in an Ansel Adams’ world?

What need do we have for cones, if rods suffice? Black and white is more efficient, requires less information, narrower bandwidth. What gains are justified for the increases necessary to produce color? Is anything lost from a sunset in black and white? Does inspiration or emotive power diminish without the glowing reds setting a sky in flames? 

When television came along, we did not stop at black and white. In fact, we did not stop at color—today we are seeking for higher and higher definition televisions, reproducing the natural world in ever increasing clarity and vibrancy.

Color may convey emotion, even spirituality in a particular context, yet the most critical role for color is in the colorizing, bringing a thing to life. This is the reason prehistoric cultures around the world covered their built environments in pigments, to animate their homes, civic buildings, and religious structures. Color may have had varied symbolism or customs in different regions, but buildings were never thought of as inanimate. Living, breathing, possessing life was a universal belief for the ancients and color was an integral part.

The earliest human settlements of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Orient were densely packed dwellings clustered closely together, rooted in tribal tradition of solidarity and proximity, sharing common walls and narrow maze passageways. Austere blank walls, conserving modesty toward the public streets, turned inward to an open courtyard garden where sunlight, rainwater and a cooling breeze were let in, offering mental release as much as physical from the density.

It is in these internal spaces we find color, painted plaster frescos, gilded moldings, vermilion-decorated posts and beams inlaid with lively mosaics. Only on the exteriors of the religious structures is the outward display of color acceptable, for the private dwellings such indulgence and excess are hidden away.

Nevertheless, it is still there, an essential element celebrating the privacy and importance of the family unit. The religious structures of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztec of Central America were decorated in pigments extracted from the regional minerals and foliage, in the same manner as the ceremonial pyramids found from Egypt to Indonesia. Color was an expression of sacred reverence and devotion, so it is no surprise that the temples of the European continent from Ancient Greece to the Roman Empire were also accented in a polychromatic display inside and out. Our neoclassical white buildings of today are merely misinterpretations, a romanticized aesthetic propagated and sensationalized by academia, in the excavations and study of ruins stripped of all color by the ravages of weather and time.

Civilization first sprouted along the waterways and trade routes connecting the fertile valleys prospering from the domestication of plants and animals. Within these marketplace centers structured on the exchange of material goods and services between distant cultures is found the Turkish bazaar, a model repeated from the Venetian piazza to the far reaches of Samarkand, Kashmir, and Kathmandu. These open marketplaces were lined with colored tents and kiosks veneered in exotic stone, selling opulence and wealth, the envy of consumers fascinated by the mysterious customs and traditions of faraway places. Merchants and traveling gypsies understood well the allure of storytelling. And the decorated architecture that set a stage for such transactions knew no limit of multicolored display in their competition for attention.

Where today are the painted ziggurats? Where are the vermilion beams, the tiled mosaics, the plastered frescoes? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before a summer sun. The color of our homes has been muted, diluted, whitewashed. We no longer see in red, blue or yellow. Everything has become shades of white; occasionally with a hint of color, but you have to hold it up to pure white to notice.

The paint manufactures know this: take a look their offerings in the fan decks provided to designers – the dozen or so colors available transition to white on each swatch toward the outer ends, where it is most easily held up against a wall.

What is our fear of color? Why have our minds flattened to the dull monotone of rainy day skies, masking out the warmth and energy of bright sunlight? Our lives have lost the curiosity and inspiration of starlight, forgotten the magic of colors contained in the full spectrum of light. Will we let ourselves be destroyed without a struggle, give up our homes and everything that is sacred to us, to be lifeless without color?

A red tie instills power to a suit, just as a red dress commands attention. We do not shy away from making such statements in our professional lives. We take weekend cruises in muscle cars painted the boldest tints and hues, never in white. Yet, when it comes to our homes, the places we inhabit most of our lives, conservativism permeates. The external modesty of early civilizations has turned into an attention-starved Facebook culture, yet inside, where color was once relished, is now empty. 

Even when color is found, it is only as an accent, on a single wall—certainly not saturating our field of view, in the multitudes found within the homes of our ancestors. The monochromatization of architecture is draining the life and passion out of our environment, by the same heavy hand that has laid waste to the natural world. We have lost our way, precisely because we have lost touch with the color of our origins, that which infused our vitality and spirit as a people.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.