Jul 24, 201412:28 PMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

The Politics of Paint

The Politics of Paint

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Courtesy flickr user dannymac15_1999

 This article, written by architect and CLOG editor Jacob Reidel, originally appeared as “Powerful colors” on Saturated Space, a forum for the sharing, exploration, and celebration of color in Architecture.


Let’s admit it, architects are suspicious—if not a little scared—of color. How else to explain the default contemporary architect’s preference for exposed finishes such as concrete, brick, COR-TEN steel, stone, and wood? Perhaps this is because an architect’s choice of applied color may often seem one of the most subjective—and hence least defensible—decisions to be made over the course of a project.* Indeed, applied color seldom performs from a technical standpoint, and it is the architect’s taste, pure and simple, which is often on the line whenever a specific color is proposed to the client. Or perhaps architects’ mistrust of applied color owes something to the profession’s well-known controlling tendencies and the fact that color is one of the most mutable aspects of a building; better, we architects are instructed, to focus on “important” and “architectural” decisions such as form, space, materials, program, and organization. Indeed, it is far easier for a future owner to repaint a wall than it is to move it.

Nevertheless, the power of paint cannot be ignored. In fact, under the right circumstances architectural color can prove strikingly effective, trumping architectural style and form in its ability to communicate through clear and simple terms. This phenomenon is demonstrated by three official residences of heads of state: the White House in Washington, D.C, the Pink House (La Casa Rosada) in Buenos Aires, and the Blue House (Cheongwadae) in Seoul—three iconic projects popularly defined far more by their exterior color than by any formal or stylistic architectural characteristics.

The oldest and probably best-known example of these is America’s White House. Initially completed in 1800 following a revolution that cast off British colonial rule, the White House was originally referred to in more grandly descriptive terms as the “President’s Palace,” “Presidential Mansion,” “Executive Mansion,” and “President’s House,” though by 1811 the public had begun to refer to the building by its distinctive exterior paint finish, a white mixture of lime, rice glue, casein, and lead over a sandstone façade. In 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt had “White House—Washington” engraved on the President’s stationery, thus making the name official.

Color has an ability to neutralize power associations and to strive for more general, enduring associations.

There are at least two prevailing explanations for the choice of white paint, one with overt political and symbolic overtones and the other focusing on technical performance. The former claims that after the 1814 burning of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812 and the subsequent repair and completion of the White House, the gray President’s house was painted white to mask—and, presumably, to erase the memory of—fire damage caused by British troops. While the inherent themes of erasure and renewal are no doubt appealing, this story is little more than a myth as the building had been referred to in writing before the war as the “White House”

The performative explanation, on the other hand, is that the White House was given its distinctive exterior whitewash in 1798 to protect the sandstone façade from winter freezing. While perhaps more likely from a chronological standpoint, this explanation remains somewhat unsatisfying in its framing of the choice of color as a purely technical decision. Perhaps a third hybrid explanation is therefore worth considering. In the late 18thcentury the polychromy of ancient Greek and Roman architecture was not yet widely known, and Classical architecture was imagined to have been marked by a platonic whiteness. In post-Revolution America at the birth of a new Republic that modeled itself on Classical Rome and Greece, white buildings would have carried a particularly potent associative power. Thus, if the sandstone President’s house had to be painted to protect its exterior—and even if it didn’t—what better choice of color than white?

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