Central Saint Giles
Central Saint Giles, 2010. Renzo Piano’s Italian colours © Alamy

Think of London and what colour do you think of? My guess is that the first that comes to mind is grey. Think again of those things that characterise London and colour becomes a little easier: red for buses and ex-telephone boxes, blue for Boris bikes, black for taxis. Or the array of Tube lines: green, blue, yellow, brown, depending on your route through the metropolis. Colour here is symbolic, synonymous with nostalgia. I was affronted to see New Routemaster buses painted black during the World Cup. How dare advertisers neutralise one of the key colours of our capital.

Colour is a deeply emotive subject. It divides and unites people. Our preferences are developed through experience and association, and we all relate to colour differently, but what is certain is that it has a significant effect. Colour is a powerful tool capable of influencing three-dimensional perception, emotional wellbeing and intellectual stimulation. So why is our built environment so often devoid of it?

I used to think muted cities were due to grey clouds reflected in glassy buildings – until I visited Scandinavia, where deep reds and yellows burst from every street corner. The blazing skies of Brazil, Mexico and India burn down on constructions of vivid hues. Perhaps it’s the British reserve, or an education system focused on the teaching of respect for context and sameness, with differentiation made through form and mass rather than colour. Even the ubiquitous architects’ uniform is all restraint: the sea of black means that wearing a colour (or being a woman) makes you conspicuous at any construction industry event.

There are exceptions. Lord Rogers has always worn bright colours – hot pinks, oranges and lime greens – and one always finds colour in his work. Generally it is used to emphasise structural or mechanical elements and helps code his buildings. One of the best examples is still his collaboration with Renzo Piano at the multicoloured Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1977, which paved the way for the more subtle silver and blue Lloyd’s building in London.

Golden Lane Estate
Golden Lane Estate, 1957. Mid-century modernists used colour to punctuate their buildings © Getty

This was one of the legacies of mid-century modernists, who used prime colours to punctuate their buildings and add highlights to what was an architectural movement focused on white: Le Corbusier’s iconic Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, for example, or its counterparts nearer to home, such as Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s Golden Lane Estate next to London’s Barbican. Colour in such large repetitive buildings offers a sense of identity and belonging – “I live in the red part” as opposed to “the grey block, third from the right”.

There has always been colour in architecture, from the painted stone of the Greek temples to the polychromatic European brickwork of the 19th century. Inside our buildings colour has never been absent. One of my favourite London interiors is Sir John Soane’s Museum, a mix of the heady yellow of the Georgians and the deep blood reds used later by the Victorians, whose sombre palette led to the reactionary cheerfulness of Edwardian pastels. It is actually the 20th century, with its default mode of “truth to materials” – so often concrete, steel and glass – in which colour has had to take a back seat.

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of colour in our built environment, whether coincidentally – new cycle lanes spilling blue on to black Tarmac – or through the work of architects, including our own practice, who have been using colour as an integral part of the design process for some time. Where has this new sensibility come from? Richard Woods is an artist we have collaborated with in the past decade. He transforms buildings and spaces with painted colour and printed pattern. “My colours tend to be influenced by memories of growing up in the 1970s – purples, oranges and lime greens,” he says. Perhaps it’s a generation of architects who grew up under the influence of psychedelia that is now coming of age.

Clapham Manor primary school
Clapham Manor primary school, 2009. Taking colours from the surroundings

In our practice, we see colour as a “normal anomaly” – an opportunity for contradiction, a way of connecting but standing out at the same time. Buildings, we are taught, need to respond to their context. But this can just as easily be the sky and the trees as the adjacent building. At Clapham Manor primary school in Lambeth we took colour clues from the gradation of sky to ground; from the trees to the existing Victorian interior. We then exaggerated them into a spectrum of coloured glass, mixing the new building with its neighbours in a way that resonates with and yet distinguishes it from its context as an independent and joyful building. At Wansey Street – an affordable housing scheme in Southwark – the façade gradually changes, mixing the yellow of the Victorian terrace brick on one side with the red brick of the Edwardian (former) town hall on the other, all with a palette of three plain colours. The buildings stand out from the grey of their surroundings, yet fit seamlessly into the streetscape.

The muted yellow of London stock brick has been as close to a consistent and defining colour that the city has ever had. But with the resurgence in the property market, residential developers are interested in using colour. Colour can offer a unique selling point. How long will it take, then, for this new-found interest to permeate through to the more conservative commercial sector? We can take heart from schemes such as Renzo Piano’s multicoloured office building at St Giles Circus. Recalling giant Lego blocks, the strong Italian colours – ochre, green, burnt orange – give power and life to a confident composition.

Colour is an easy effect but it’s all too easy to get it wrong. It demands a response; it elicits conversation. For me the many messages of colour have an immediate effect, lifting me out of the grime of a grey London day. Modern architects need to see colour almost as a building material, an integrated part of any design process. Its use should be bold, unselfconscious and from the heart.


Sadie Morgan is founding director at de Rijke Marsh Morgan Architects (drmm.co.uk) and president of the Architectural Association; dRMM won Building Design’s 2013 Schueco Gold Architect of the Year award and a London RIBA award for WoodBlock House in 2014

Photographs: Alamy, Getty

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