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view of some colors which we can use in architecture

The Mesmerizing Magic of Color in Architecture

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Have you ever imagined how the world without color would look like? How plain and dull would everything look if there were no colors?

You want to hear the real kicker about color? Color, quite the way we perceive it, doesn’t physically exist. The world and everything in it is a gigantic collection of colorless atoms.

It’s like we’ve put on shades to view something stark and monotone and give it a sensible beauty. The fact is that all the show is played by light. Pure white light is made up of all colors, and by all, we mean the ones you see through a refracted light ray when it hits a prism on its way.

A rainbow of colors; that’s what white light is made of.

Every object around us (or each different atom element to be more precise) absorbs a certain color off the rainbow of light beam that hits it and gives a different color back to the beam that is now reflecting off.

The reflected light beam meets our eyes and our brain chooses to interpret the absence of the absorbed frequency as the color we see.

So basically, it is how our brain likes to understand the code that’s written in a manipulated color beam and the bottom line is that the color we see doesn’t exist in the object we see!

Let’s pass the mic over Neil DeGrasse Tyson and continue on with the discussion at hand; how color influences the spaces around us. We want to see what role and potentials color in architecture can have.

To achieve that, we discover the basics of color theory in architecture to get the lay of the ground first; then we skim through color psychology in architecture.

We then finally get to the examples where the potentials of color psychology in architecture are skillfully used. Let’s get to it.

What are the basics of color theory in architecture

Let’s see how professionals define and categorize colors and how they best use them together in terms of their aesthetics our perceptions of them. That will help us understand the importance of color in architecture down the road.

You’ve probably seen those circles of color palettes with almost all rainbow hues spread across them. They call it a lot of things, but we go with the Color Wheel. There are different ways they sort colors on these circular palettes but to better understand different types of colors we’ll go with the one you see below.

Let’s first get it out of the way; you should know that there are two different sorting types for colors in nature. Additive and Subtractive; you can probably relate to these by thinking about how paintings and lightings are.

As you add more and more colors together on a canvas or a paper with say, pencils, your ugly stain will drift down more and more to black. This means painting colors are subtractive. As opposed to different colors of light beams, the same collection would result in white; hence additive.

We have to come to grips with both types of colors in architecture since we create physical spaces we paint up first (subtractive) and light them up next (additive).

The wheel of Color in architecture

The colors you see at the center are “Primary Colors”; Meaning they cannot be made by mixing other colors together. Yellow, Red, and Blue are the main hues to create all other colors.

Colors on the second tier away from the center are called “Secondary Colors” and they are made by mixing equal amounts of a pair out of the three primary colors. You can guess which pairs make which secondary colors so let’s skip explaining that!

The outer layer of colors or “Tertiary Colors” are product of mixing varying amounts of two primary colors together. Like for example, a brightly yellowish green color means lots of yellow with a little bit of green.

As you might have suspected, some color hues are absent here. Black, white and their offspring, grey, that are called Neutrals. They help with brightness or darkness of any color they mix with and the more they’re used, the harsher their effect. There’s a Semi or Near Neutral branch too, which includes beige, brown, and their mix with grey.

Color wheel generally tells you how to pick colors you wanna use in an artwork, a painting, or say in the façade of a building or interiors of a room you’re redecorating or designing from scratch.

There are some basic concepts that decorators and graphic designers use for any collection of colors in their work. Concepts like warm and cool color theory in architecture.

Yellow, red, and all their mixtures are considered to be warm, while blue-based and green-hued colors are counted cool.

Calatrava’s World Trade Center Oculus

As it might be the most common case when you choose colors, different types of color “pairs” are defined too.

Complementary Color Schemes use pairs of colors that sit across in the color wheel. Bold dualities of colors in architecture or any other artistic field usually use this combination.

Semi-Complementary Color Schemes though take a milder approach. To steer clear of schemes that might be too bold for your taste, you can choose a base hue and then pick the two on either side of your base hue’s opposite color. It often helps with less intense color schemes for your space.

Analogous Color Schemes, should be mentioned, take adjacent colors on the color wheel and so usually create the vibe of a dominant color and two other hues supporting it in different proportions throughout your space. As a rule of thumb, the proportions are advised to be following the 60-30-10 rule; ascending from the color you want to be the most eye-catching to the one in the backdrop.

Psychological implications of color in architecture

We humans, have different traits and dispositions to interpret colors; especially when it comes to the importance of color in architecture.

A typical bar using the red color in architecture

Some are coded deeper into our body as evolved species to survive in the nature that’s groomed us and some depend more on our different upbringings and backgrounds.

We’ll start with the more rigid ones that are shared among almost all of us and then get to the ones that can vary from culture to culture and maybe even for each person.

We start with biological effects of color in architecture where for instance, warmer colors (shades of red in particular) have an amplifying impact on our heartbeat, as opposed to cooler colors like blue with the opposite effect.

Some effects might be more innately coded in our genes. For example colors like blue conjure up the serenity of sky or the ocean and yellow bring the sun in mind, or red may remind some of blood.

There are also some added meanings to colors in architecture or other art majors that different cultures can create. For instance, mourning is represented differently in middle eastern cultures than how it is interpreted in the Japanese culture. An Iranian might see black as the color of choice for mourning where the Japanese might prefer white.

There are other ephemeral or cursory perceptions of colors in architecture, fashion, and other fields too, all of which might not be the best baseline for the color scheme of architecture, since they don’t stick over time.

a subway hallway

In terms of how a society responds to different color schemes, it should be noted that younger and extrovert people tend to be more inclined toward warm, bold, and eye-catching combinations of color in architecture while elder or introvert people are predisposed toward more moderate and neutral palettes.

Effects of color in architecture don’t limit to emphasizing certain parts or volumes in a building or emboldening particular characteristics in the space you design. It can provoke visual implications or emotions that are not merely expected of the space’s geometry.

Impressions, like feeling the space is narrower, smaller, taller, lower, bigger, and wider than it actually is.

Things like painting the top half of a room with darker shades to make it feel lower in height or lighter for the opposite effect. Painting all the lateral walls or all the room for that matter, to make it look bigger than it actually is; or painting the front-facing wall and the ceiling for making it look longer, in front of someone that enters the place are examples of such notions.

There are also other benefits to the proper use of color in architecture; using especially sharp or bold complementary colors or warm analogous colors to create a rejuvenating healthcare centers is one.

Another is to induce excitement and innovation in kindergartens and child-care facilities or giving a sense of renovation and livelihood to an urban arena by the same use of warm bold complementary or analogous color schemes. These are all examples for the importance of color in architecture.

What’s left is to talk about the effect of each individual color in architecture.

Red encourages excitement, energy and impulsiveness which makes it pretty favorable to use at restaurants or shopping centers.

Blue provokes a sense of security and safety. It is mostly used in places where you feel the need to feel safe; places like banks and big corporations where a lot of people work together are usually prime candidates for blue color.

Yellow induces a sense of curiosity and cheer. It can be painted on places like restaurants or any establishment that means to attract the eyes.

Green is usually associated with relaxation and calmness and that’s why they use it more in places where such qualities are required. Places like rehabilitation centers.

Orange is often about warmth, enthusiasm, and excitement. It can be used where you need such qualities built into your space like a shopping mall, an indoor amusement park, or an office.

As we said earlier, color is nothing without light; if anything, it exists because we choose to interpret light the way we do. So, you have to keep in mind that all the effects we mentioned here can be dampened or cranked up by changing colors’ shades through the intensity of light in our spaces.

How color is used in architecture

Let’s take a look at a handful of examples where such principles of color theory in architecture have been appropriately used.

You may notice the use of complementing, analogous, and bold colors that are specifically picked to appeal pleasantly to the eye. Enjoy!

a classic style mansion with contrasting colors blue and orange

interiors of a luxurious hotel lobby

Use of a complementary color scheme

Sydney Opera House entry stairs to the main theatre hall

an indoor basketball court

colorful apartments in The Netherlands

Conclusion

Colors are a lie! They don’t exist in the real world and they are nothing but a figment of our imagination. But all the same, they inject life into our world.

The importance of color in architecture can come to attention when you see how much of a positive or destructive influence it can have on a person’s feeling inside or around a place and by proper use of color psychology in architecture, how much more than the sheer space your place can be.

Wherever you live, you sure must have visited places where color has been the real player. Tell us below how color made your experience a pleasant or a regrettable one. We are color psychos and we want to hear all about it!

Mitchel Sardy
Author: Mitchel Sardy
I am a Computer Engineer and an architecture enthusiast, graduated on both majors up to the master's degree from the University of Washington; I'm an advisor to early-stage architecture startups all around the globe; the ones using computer-based solutions to design in architecture.


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