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An Apologia for the inclusion of the combined study of Light and Colour in the

Process of Architectural Design


Joo Perno 1
CIAUD Research Centre for Architecture, Urban Planning and Design Faculty of Architecture, University of Lisbon
APCor Portuguese Colour Association,

La recherche de l'espace, de la lumire, de la joie, de la srnit, nous invite faire appel la couleur
fille de la lumirei
Le Corbusier [1]
1. Introduction
This paper aims to reveal the importance that the study of light and colour should take in the decisions
of the architectural project from its beginning to its implementation on the working site.
The colour among architects is often thought as something that is added at the end of the architectural
process, often already at the working site, and when in doubt always using white. According to this
idea, Werner Spillmann observed that colour decisions usually came when everything is already
determined; that is, most often colour was considered in the very last moment within an extremely
short time period without any consideration of the building structure, function and surroundings [2].
On the other hand, light is considered a mysterious and elusive entity, something that many architects
talk about, but only few can really master. And if we consider artificial lighting, most of them rely on
electrical engineers to control the space appearance when sunlight is not enough, or at nightime.
At a time where it is increasingly impossible to control all the aspects of expertise, specific legislation
and areas of knowledge that contribute to the development of an architectural project it is natural that
the architect look for experts to help him in these various areas. But he should not give up on
controling fields that intrinsically belong to architecture and its presentation (meaning communication).
And colour and light are certainly among the most important ones for this goal.
For this reason Light and Colour should be considered a specific branch of specialisation that could
help architects to convey their objectives concerning aesthetical, functional, ergonomic and comfort
issues. Colour consultants should work together with light designers to promote the knowledge that
architects need to communicate the complex and transdisciplinary objectives of architecture.
To illustrate these premises we present some results of our practice both as Colour Consultant and as
Light and Colour teacher at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Lisbon.
2. There is no space perception without light

Fig.1: The interplay between light and matter. Convent of Christ, Tomar, Portugal.

Light is the genesis of visual perception and sight is the main resource for our communication with the
space that surrounds us. Therefore, in this two-way process, space communicates with us primarily
through visual perception.

The search for space, light, joy, serenity, invites us to appeal to colour, daughter of light.!

Whenever there is light there is visual information. Light organizes the world around us. Without it
there is chaos, and it fosters our worst fears (remember the use of darkness in suspense and horror
movies). What we do not see, we do not know.
Zumthor shows a great sensitivity on this subject when it states that the materials should be chosen by
the way they reflect the light [3]. In fig.1 we can see the importance of the interplay between colour,
light and matter: light, coming from the window at the end of the corridor, reveals the quality of the
space through the properties of the surfaces like the polished stone and matte ceramic tiles on the floor,
glazed tiles (azulejos) and matte lime mortar on the walls and the rythm of the coffered wooden ceiling.
Light is a key theme in architecture, not the light in an abstract way, but the relationship between light
and matter.
3. Whenever there is light there is colour
As long as we have light in our perceptual field we get surface and volume (and therefore space)
information through our eyes from different electromagnetic spectra wavelengths, that is, different
So we can say that it is through the interpretation of the perceived colours that we can sense the space.
Colour is the form of space. And thats why it is so important: if colour gives us the perception of a
space, we can use it to enhance or to change its perception.
Patrick Heron, a painter cited by Michael Lancaster [4], said:
... for the human eye there is no space without its colour; and no colour that does not create its own
space. When you open your eyes the texture of the entire visual field consists of one thing: and that is
Le Corbusier [5] again reveals this intertwined relation between the quality of light and colour
Pour exister vritablement, des tons rclament la pleine lumire (le rouge); la pnombre les tue.
D'autres supportent le clair-obscur, mieux que cela; ils y vibrent intensment (certains bleus)ii.
The perception of a space is derived from the relation between observer, surface and light. Our
movement through the space alters the colour perception of the surfaces because this three-way
relationship is changed. If the light changes, the colours of the surfaces will change, and our perception
of that space will be different. Colours are not immutable properties of the objects, they only exist
ephemerally while the light and the observing conditions dont change.

Fig.2: Ephemeral colours. Church of the Holy Family, Barcelona.

The material but also the intangible properties of architecture are revealed to us by colour, and it is
through colour, as it is recorded in our memory, that we, architects, think and create new spaces.
It is not understandable the lack of knowledge and the gap between the architects and this inevitable
property of architectural image, both in their professional practice, and in architectural education.


!To truly exist, certain tones claim a bright light (red); the twilight kills them. Others support the dusk, better than that; they
vibrate intensely there (some blues).!

4. Colour and Architecture

If we look back at the History of Architecture, colour was always something that was inherent to it; the
tissue (etymological root to texture) of architecture was a colourful one, even through paintings over
the stones of its walls, from Egyptian and classical temples, to medieval churches, to renaissance,
baroque and neoclassical palaces. From the true colours of the materials to the faked colours of their
imitation, from the painted surfaces to the paintings over the surfaces, colour has always been an
unavoidable and efficient media used by architects and by architecture to communicate its goals (fig.3).

Fig.3: Colour as communication. XVI century chapel, Moncorvo, Portugal and Max-Joseph-Platz, Munich. Germany

The Modernist Movement react to an over-decoration and to the complexity of this past as well as
attempting to make new synthesis out of new concepts, new materials, and abstract aesthetics praising
the materials in its own truth.
However its not true that Modernist architects dont use or think about colour. Beyond the well-known
preconception of the new white architecture conveyed by the black-and-white magazines of the time,
they used a lot of colour in painted surfaces and also through the use of coloured materials. Just think
of Mies van der Rohe colourful stone plates used in vertical surfaces in Barcelona Pavilion (Fig.4) or
the wooden panels in Farnsworth House. In fact every material has its own colour or colours,
constituting an important part of the architectures colour palette. What normally distinguishes the
presence of natural materials, like stone or wood, from painted surfaces, is the richness of their visual
texture. And remember that this texture is noted by visual perception through colour separation.
Materials have always been used for their rich and ornamental colour/texture/surface characteristics,
and even Adolf Loos, the herald of Ornament and Crime, used stone and wood panels in this way both
in Villa Muller and in the American Bar in Vienna (Fig.4).

Fig.4: Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe and Muller House, Adolf Loos., photo: Erwyn van de Meer ;

Most of the modern writings about Colour and Architecture are related with the relationship between
the disciplines of Painting and Architecture, which I think is a misunderstanding, because both have its
own domains. This relation in Art History gave rise to ephemeral movements, manifestos and

interventions that in most cases are very "dated" from the point of view of their cultural assumptions
and, also inevitably, of their results.
The avant-garde movements of the first part of the XX century, as De Stijl, stipulated common goals
between the two arts - Mondrian spoke of an Architectural Chromoplasticity - and discussed the
moments of complicity between architects and painters [6]. The Russian avant-garde architects,
educated also in the field of painting, used a revolutionary aesthetic, a scenic statement for their
aesthetic objectives where the graphic language mingled with the three-dimensional achievements,
assuming the red as a symbol of post-revolutionary dynamics designed for a new and more fair world.
The unity of the artwork, combining painting, architecture and all the applied arts, was one of the main
points of Weimars Staatliche Bauhaus manifesto published by Walter Gropius in April 1919, whose
ultimate goal was the abolition of borders between Monumental and Decorative arts.
Following these ideas, during the 60s and 70s painters and sculptors were invited to conceive and
place their work in architectural spaces, but always considering architecture as one thing and the other
arts as something else.
We dont want here to discuss colour as an aesthetic feature that could be applied to architecture. We
want to state that colour is part of the architecture, and, in that way, it embodies its own premises.
Nowadays we often see architects applying a white paint that was not possible before, based on
Titanium dioxide, causing a light reflection that, in most cases, is not advisable for human comfort.
When Le Corbusier talked about white referring to it as a pot de crme colour (for Maison LaRoche,
for instance) he was not referring to Titanium White of course! This misunderstanding about the use of
the colour white finds its contrast in some architects opposite approach, using colour just to follow
some painting and sculpture contemporary trends, without centring its use in the realm of the
architecture discipline.
Although architecture find its richness in the plurality of its various expressions, I believe that colour
should find its place in the communication of architecture in a natural way, supporting and informing
the entire creative process, taking a stronger voice when its justified, and remaining almost silent when
5. Light, colour and education
The lack of a curricular unit in the subject of colour in most architecture schools, where students could
receive information and apply it into architecture design laboratory, is obviously a fault. And if we also
consider the subject of light integrated in architecture project, the absence is even worse.
Ludovico Quaroni [7] in 1977 stated that:
Ma c' sempre una notevole ignoranza sul modo di scegliere e comporre i colori, ignoranza che
particolarmente grave per chi, come un architetto, deve per forza di mestiere avere a che fare con essi.
I progetti cha escono dalle facolt di architettura hanno forma, ma non colore, cos spesso non sono
chiariti nei materiali componenti e cio nella loro realt anche tecnologica: si tratta spesso di
astrazione pi o meno gradevoli, o di pure esercitazione grafiche. iii
This general lack of knowledge concerning colour, comes from the architects education and still
remains today.
In response to this gap, the work of Werner Spillmann comes with special relevance, both in his role as
a Colour Consultant linked to architecture (his work with Rob Krier for instance), in which advocates
the integration of Colour Study in Architectural Project from its early stages, as well as his action as a
teacher, considering colour as a primary component in the education of Architects.
6. Light and colour in the design process
From our experience as a Colour Consultant we have developed three main concerns about light and
colour study:
a) Follow Architectural Project goals.
It is fundamental to understand and reinforce the identity of the project at all scales and help to
communicate the aesthetical approach of the architect(s) as well as to contribute, through light and
colour use, to the definition of its relationship with the natural or the built environment, the relationship
between exterior and interior, between different spaces and even between different functions in the
b) Fulfil ergonomic goals.



We often confuse questions of taste with rational reasons, concerning light and colour application.
There are ergonomic reasons to choose the location of the light source(s), which type, intensity and
colour temperature, in order to avoid glare and excessive surface reflection, and to promote, together
with colour choices, figure/ground distinction and an overall comfort of use for specific functions.
c) Balance Cultural/Psychological/Aesthetical use of colour with space function.
The balanced use of the cultural, psychological and aesthetical aspects of the colour phenomenon in
order to meet the needs and functions of the human being, leads to a successful architectural
communication, and to an adequate interaction with its users.
It is very important to clearly understand the rationale behind the main architectural ideas from the
beginning, in order to reinforce them through the light and colour study.
In order to develop the right colour and light atmospheres for each space, we use Frank Mahnke [8]
idea to establish a profile (Polarity Profile) that by opposing concepts, allows you to define the
characteristics of the environments to be created: calm/dynamic, hot/cold; casual/institutional, etc. This
idea helped us to continually question the fundamental reasons for the application of certain colour
palette or a certain light solution to each specific space at the design stage.
7. The stages of the Colour Study
a) Survey
Our first contribution for the project is to complement the historic and iconographic information about
the site with a colour survey. This survey should always include data from the natural and artificial
environment, and the data from the building, if it is a renovation process (fig.5). For heritage sites we
should follow a complete and rigorous survey intertwined with restoration processes and qualified
technicians and specialists.

Fig.5: Colour survey examples

b) Conceptual design goals and general approach.

In this stage we discuss the main concepts of the architectural project and how the colour study could
help to define them, from the relationship with the environment to the interior design.
c) First ideas.
In this stage we propose colour palettes for the main spaces, discussing materials, textures and
finishing. The spaces are divided in classes for their functional characteristics (Fig.6).

Fig.6: Discussion of the first ideas: CVDB and LGLS architecture studios.

d) Colour Study simulation

This is a very important part of the Colour Study where simulations of the main spaces are produced
and discussed, depicting some options in colours and materials. Since these simulations represent
perspectives at eye level, they are suitable to be presented and discussed also with the client. In this

pictures we can simulate also some lighting conditions and luminaires (Fig.7).

Fig.7: Colour, materials and lighting simulation: CVDB and LGLS architecture studios.

e) Written Report and Colour Study

A written report is elaborated supporting the colour study options and a colour palette is presented for
each representative space of the project along with the choice of materials. This report and colour study
is included in the overall project to be presented to the municipality and/or other institutional services.
f) Communication to the building site
Specific plans and sections of the architectural project with colour representation and notation are
developed for a complete understanding of the surfaces to be painted. Written specifications describing
the type, characteristics and application procedures of paints and finishes are developed and included in
the execution process for the building site (Fig.8).

Fig.8: Final Drawings: CVDB and LGLS architecture studios.

g) Test Stage
From our experience we draw the imperative necessity of testing the light fixtures and the colour
palette at the building site, exactly on the places where they will be applied. Thats the place where the
final decisions should take place. Light and colour effects are always different from space to space
depending on a multitude of factors, and therefore demand a great deal of on-site tests. We have
learned that its difficult to define good colours since a colour that we have used successfully for one
space could not be adequate to another, with different geometry, dimension, with other colours nearby,
or with different lighting. On this, the teachings of Josef Albers [9] are precious: he stated in his
Interaction of Color that in order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color
deceives continually. This is why the test stage is so important.

8. The final test: the use of space

Many times the architects avoid returning to their works saying that they were not well executed or
because they think they are disfigured with some actions deriving from its use, which unfortunately
sometimes is true. But most of the times we can gather useful information (sometimes not very
pleasant for the authors) from the use of the spaces after the completion of the project, in order to gain
experience and to draw conclusions for further studies.
9. Conclusions
The Light and Colour Study should be understood as a competing skill for the quality of the project,
such as Structure, Electrical Installations, Water and Sewage, Heating, Ventilation and Air
Conditioning, etc., and should accompany all stages of architectural design, from the first ideas to the
building site tests.
The Colour Study should support and enhance the formal and functional options of the Architectural
Project, leaning on the choices of materials, coatings, finishes and, together with the light design, on
how the spaces are perceived, that is, upon the relationship between matter and light (either natural or
Light and colour are inseparable elements in space perception, promoting its quality, aesthetic
relevance, functionality and human comfort and, consequently, its study should take its place in the
architectural design process among the other areas of specialisation.

[1] Le Corbusier, Polychromie Architecturale: Les Claviers de Couleurs de 1931 et de 1959. Arthur Ruegg (Ed.). Birkhauser,
Basel, 2006.
[2] Schindler, V., Colour as Vocation: Werner Spillmann Contribution to Environmental Colour Design, Color Research and
Application, vol.30, n.1,pp 53-65, February 2005.
[3] Zumthor, P., Atmosferas, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2006.
[4] Lancaster, M., Colourscape, Academy Editions, London, 1996.
[5] Le Corbusier, Polychromie Architecturale: Les Claviers de Couleurs de 1931 et de 1959. Arthur Ruegg (Ed.). Birkhauser,
Basel, 2006.
[6] Noury, L., La Couleur dans la Ville. ditions du Moniteur, Tours, France, 2008.
[7] Quaroni, L., Progettare un Edificio: Otto Lezione di Architettura, Edizione Kappa, Roma, 2001.
[8] Mahnke, F., Color, Environment and Human Response, John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1996.
[9] Albers, J., Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1975.