From Morris to LGBTQ+

Colour in Architecture UK

Ros Diamond

In the past thirty years, colour has hardly been used conceptually in UK architecture, aside from affects related to ‘natural’ building materials. The British relationship to colour is complicated by its political and social connotations, as with many things associated with outward appearance. Complex historic ironies have included the previous adoption in interiors, of colours and finishes associated with its imperialism. British architects’ recent relationship to exterior building colour has been one of fear, as much from a lack of understanding of its treatment, as from a rejection of post modernist tendencies. Something which might also be explained by Its equation to ornament.

In a typically British picturesque interpretation, a Modernist primary colour palette has resurfaced to signify regeneration, validating much private commercial development, particularly of housing, for example Park Hill Sheffield’s phase one renovation1. Yet there are recent projects where colour has reappeared as a conceptualised design component of multiple meanings, with its potential to engage the viewer. Notable examples include a recently completed permanent project by David Kohn Architects, and a temporary building by Pricegore and the artist Yinka Ilori.

In the nineteenth century, an exuberant use of colour is associated with the Gothic revival and the interest in polychromy appearing in ecclesiastical and other interiors, and in some striated brick building exteriors. This was sustained by craft skills, championed by William Morris and his followers. If there is a more recent British antecedent to the idea of using colour as an architectural act, it exists in James Stirling’s work, where colour can carry multiple meanings: from his earlier ‘red trilogy’projects2, where engineering brick simultaneously referenced industrial elements and Russian Constructivism, to its graphic application at Olivetti Haslemere, and its playful historicism in No One Poultry in London. In the Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stirling decontextualised a public art museum, with provocatively juxtaposed colour uses: a modernist primary spectrum denoting steelwork and codifying elements, and its playful child safe pink and blue exterior fat handrails, while its utilitarian green studded rubber flooring promoted universal access through its resemblance to a supermarket.

Green and Red of David Kohn

David Kohn’s non adjacent pair of small four storey commercial blocks, are part of the new north Greenwich Design District adjacent to Rogers Stirk Harbour’s O2 arena. Several well known and emerging architects, including 6A, were commissioned to design sixteen new buildings with affordable rent space for the creative industries. These are arranged in a dense, unorthodox urban morphology3. In an area devoid of conventional urban references, where radical envelopes of free form were invited, David Kohn Architects’ buildings A4 and B4 (2016–22) are developed as a pair of colourful urban palazzi, or decorated guild houses, as David Kohn describes them, with a base, gridded body and top. Sited on the only external street, opposite the entrance to North Greenwich underground station, A4 is the more expressive with its declamatory sign capping the building. Whilst their engineering brick recalls Stirling’s ‘red trilogy’, its substantial brick columns, which allow the upper part of the building to float, forming an overscaled micro colonnade, reference the iridescent red of Stirling’s Tate Liverpool, and Stuttgart’s entrance drums. The green gridded glass block front facades and red brick rear facades, with their ornamentations of statue plinths, and on B4’s rear, inverted ‘rock crystal’ windows, cross reference the Maison de Verre in Paris, with Stirling projects, such as the Tate Britain’s Clore wing with its brick and stucco gridded facades, playfully nodding at the neighbouring buildings.

David Kohn’s interest in the complementary relationship of green and red started with the interior tiled floor pattern he developed for a two family apartment in Barcelona, where the two colours transform into each other across the design. Kohn’s use of green and red, brought to the exterior of the Design District buildings, also references the Arts and Crafts preoccupation with the art of polychromy, manifested in interior treatments, in the drawing room in William Morris’s Red House (1859-60) in Bexleyheath near London, Augustus Pugin’s Blessed Sacrament chapel Nottingham cathedral (1841-44), and William Butterfield’s All Saints Church (1850-59) London, where it emerges in a two colour striped brick exterior. The colours resonate in the British psyche: red as the eponymous brick and its clay composition, green, the shade of grass, forever associated with the domesticated unchanging lawn, the most artificial of natural materials.

Colour Palace of Pricegore and Yinka Ilori

Whilst from different antecedents, the colour affects of the Dulwich pavilion in South London were equivalently dazzling. The Colour Palace (2018-19) was an open cubic form pavilion, erected for four months, to engage a wider audience with John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and its environs. The temporality of the building encouraged an uninhibited design. A collaboration between the architects Pricegore (both of whom coincidentally worked for David Kohn before establishing their practice) and the artist Yinka Ilori, resulted in a layered timber structure, where colour, used as the primary material, conveys multiple meanings. Its conceptual starting points are palace gateways, the Kanogate Nigeria, tented structures, and West African fabric stalls, connecting it to the diversity of a nearby community and London. Whilst the colour stacking resembles Nigerian fabric bolts, its four fat circular feet, elevating the cube, are formed from bright red painted manhole chambers .

The Palace’s colours mix different scale references: the contrasting colours on adjacent faces of the vertical 5x5 centimeter timber studs, interfere with the two dimensional large scale exterior patterning. They alter, playing with the constantly changing nature of light. Here, the tendency of the colour towards two dimensional graphics, is resolved by its expression as continuous, interpretable ornament, linking it to another nineteenth century reference, Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament (1856).4The singularly blue interior structure and lower pink panelled lining constitute a grand internal salon. Whilst the colourful structure engages with its multifarious visitors, it fizzes with the ironies of its location, a counterpoint to the imperialism behind the Picture Gallery, with its period’s tradition of collecting objects from other nations. The Colour Palace sits in a sequence of other South London follies, including William Chambers’ Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens (1762), also with red columns and balconies, and the Gothic of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill (1749-76).

Colour code of diversity

In the act of painting on the colour at the Dulwich pavilion, the polychromy is akin to the ancient tradition of brightly painted stone temple exteriors. Simultaneously, as with David Kohn’s buildings, it also connects, to British Pop Art’s juxtaposition of graphics, patterns and material references, of which through his friendship with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, James Stirling was connected. Another recent group of projects also do this, re-envisioning parts of the urban fabric. They include Yinka Ilori’s Happy Street, lining a drab South London Underpass (Happy Street Thessaly Road Railway Bridge 2019), which again uses graphic pattern and colour, this time with text. Ilori is one of the ‘New London Fabulous’ designers identified for their ‘maximalist’ colour use, by Adam Nathaniel Furman who coined the group title, and runs the ‘Saturated Space’ research cluster at the Architectural Association, celebrating colour in architecture, design and urbanism.5 Whilst acknowledging Eduardo Paolozzi, particularly his designs for Tottenham court Road Underground station, Furman’s exuberant colour and pattern saturated designs, including his new version of the town hall, the temporary ‘Democratic Monument’ (2017), urban installations such as ‘Look Down To Look Up’, Croydon, (2018), and ‘Proud Little Pyramid’ (2021) for the queer or LGBT communities, signal a social and ethnic diversity of which his nineteenth century predecessors could not envisage or be so explicit.

What the architectural projects have in common is the idea of colour bridging abstract and accessible meanings, signalling cultural diversity. Their explicit colour use echoes Adolf Loos’ claim that colour is to be treated as a cladding, as its own material not an imitation of another6. Stirling’s colour use had a directness, at times iconoclastic, which rebutted conceptions of high and low culture in favour of inclusivity. These recent colour dominated projects, represent changing moves even in some conventional, neo liberal commissioning, although it is unclear how far this risk taking colour use might alter general UK development.

1 Park Hill housing estate, Sheffield, 1957-61, architects Jack Lynn, Ivor Smith, Sheffield Council. Phase 1 of renovation, 78 apartments, 2013, architects Hawkins/Brown with Studio Egret West
James Stirling’s Red Trilogy are the Leicester University Faculty of Engineering 1959-63, the Cambridge Unversity History Faculty Library, and the Florey building, halls of residence, Queens College Oxford, 1966-71
3 Developers Knight Dragon, master planners HNNA. The architects were generally unaware of their neighbours’ designs
4 Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856, which was made as a design sourcebook. His work included decorating the interior of the 1851 Great Exhibition building, London.
New London Fabulous’ a movement named by Adam Nathaniel Furman who described it as "design and architecture as a visual and cultural pursuit, which is highly aesthetic, sensual and celebratory of mixed cultures" ‘Saturated Space’ Directors: Antoni Malinowski, Adam Nathaniel Furman
Adolf Loos ‘On Cladding’ Originally published in Neue Freie Press, September 4 1898