The Perception of Color in Architecture

Last week, an intense debate erupted on social media about what seems like a very non-polarizing issue: the color of a dress. One camp held fast to the opinion that the dress in question was blue-and-black, while another equally fervent contingent saw it as white-and-gold.

Wired addressed this debate from a scientific angle. And it turns out the reason people perceived the dress so differently was because the image “hits some kind of perceptional boundary” with regards to the way our eyes are wired to balance the color of light versus the color of an object.

This issue raised what could be an equally polarizing—but interesting—question: Does color matter to architects?

The simple answer seems to be yes. As noted by the Center for the Study of Art and Architecture, “the architect must consider the color effect of every element of a building's construction, from the earthy colors of primary construction materials like wood, stone, brick, and marble, to the expansive variety of colors available for paint, doors, windows, siding, and trim.”

However, these choices aren’t just about aesthetics. “To paint or not to paint, to restrict oneself to the colors of the building materials or to choose from a wider color palette, is not only a question of what is considered beautiful or fit for the specific situation,” says Karin Fridell Anter, PhD. [PDF] “There are many architects who see color and light as important, maybe decisive, means for the forming of spaces.”

Designing for Health

But there are even deeper implications for architects to consider when selecting colors than simply construction or decoration. Frank Mahnke says that decisions regarding color should be made with the “best possibilities for the welfare of human beings” in mind.

This is because color impacts humans in a variety of ways—pyschologically, neuropsychologically, and psychosomatically. It also serves as a primary means of communication and visual ergonomics. As Mahnke writes, “In the last 11 decades, empirical observations and scientific studies have proven that human-environment-reaction in the architectural environment is to a large percentage based on the sensory perception of color.”

Despite this data, color seems to be an area that both the architectural profession and the schools are—pardon the pun—turning a blind eye to.

The “Application Gap”

Mahnke references a document on the effects of light and color written by Dr. R. Küller for the Swedish Council for Building Research. In it, Dr. Küller states, “During the course of this work, it has become evident there is an enormous amount of facts and results that is almost never considered in practice and education. Thus, one finds a gap between research on one hand and practice on the other; the infamous application gap.”

Mahnke also points out the concerns of the International Association of Color Consultants/Designers (IACC) with regard to “an absence of competent training in the professions that demand the use of color,” with architecture being one of these professions.

Jacob Reidel makes a similar point in ArchDaily. He states that architects are being instructed that it is better to “focus on ‘important’ and ‘architectural’ decisions such as form, space, materials, program, and organization,” as opposed to color.

So why is this happening? Reidel says architects have a “mistrust of applied color,” and points out a number of reasons why this suspicion exists. For one, color seems like the most subjective decision in a project, emerging purely from an architect’s taste. He also states that many contemporary architects relegate color to the category of ornament, “incompatible with a design approach that equates structural and material expression (or ‘honesty’) with morality.” Then there is what he describes as “the profession’s well-known controlling tendencies” and the “mutability” of color.

Despite all of this, Reidel admits that when architects do not consider color in their work, “they relinquish an effective yet simple tool.” He feels that the case studies cited in his article demonstrate “color’s ability to communicate at a level more basic and universal than architectural form or style.”

Where do you stand on the importance of color in architecture? If you are a student, do you feel your school is taking color into consideration as part of your education? If you are an architect, do you make color a priority in your work?