I was having cocktails with friends at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, and some architects from Korea joined us. One of them asked what I did for a living, and when I told him I was a color consultant, we talked about the relationship between color and architecture. He asked me to submit a paper for an exhibit he was preparing in South Korea for the 2009 Gwangju Design Biennale. He wanted the color perspective to relate to his theme Global Living, One Earth, One Sun.
For this second blog entry, I thought I would share a modified version of what I prepared for him. I added some extra visuals for your viewing pleasure. Every so often (well, at least four times a year), I hope to share my process or observations. Your feedback is welcome.
In the same way that customs, language, and food define a culture, color and light contribute to the experience of place. Careful observation will reveal a location’s visual impression. Cities and towns are distinctive and unique. People select colors in their surroundings, preferring certain combinations and avoiding others. Color sense and color experience appear to be collective vernacular expressions. Color choices respond to a location’s specific physical characteristics and the natural environment.
Why do the bright colors of a sun-drenched coastal city look garish in a foggy landlocked metropolis? There are many answers.
First, the angle of incidence of the sun’s rays determines the quality of a region’s light. It shifts daily and seasonally. It controls the depth and intensity of shadow. It also influences the apparent intensity of environmental color. Polar locations such as Nome, Alaska, receive much less sunlight than an equatorial location like the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. When the sun’s light is perpendicular to the earth, the colors are evenly illuminated and have an overall flatness. In Ireland, the angle of light incidence grazes low across the horizon. Each blade of grass appears to be vivid emerald green.
Second, around the globe, sunlight varies in duration and intensity. There are locations we can describe as having bright light, median light, and shadow light. In Clue One: “One Earth, One Sun,” bright locations would be Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Cairo, Egypt. A median light location would be Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and shadow light cities would be Osaka, Japan, and London, England.
Third, all wavelengths of color race toward the earth’s surface at the same speed, the speed of light. But earth’s atmosphere sets up an obstacle course containing dirt particles, dust, pollution, and water molecules. The long wavelengths with slower frequencies such as yellow and red have an easier time avoiding obstacles. The short wavelengths such as blue have a high frequency, and they oscillate quickly. When the blue wavelengths hit an obstacle, which they are more likely to do, they are thrown off course and scattered, causing the sky to appear blue. Less blue remains in the light as it reaches the earth’s surface, so the light appears sunny to our eyes. Its main components are the longer wavelengths of red and yellow.
Fourth, the climactic conditions of our atmosphere—dry or moist, hot or cold—influence the molecular shape and size of the air molecules, which interact with the sun’s light. When the sky appears white, not blue, it is because the airborne molecules of water, sand, and snow in the atmosphere are large enough to bump all of the wavelengths off course. Dry air molecules, which accompany hot temperatures, are small and dense. They can also deflect light rays. The rays are refracted into a shimmering mirage of colorless light.
Finally, the altitude of a location influences the clarity and intensity of its light. At higher altitudes, the light is more reflective. Conversely, lower altitudes will have softer light as more obstacles interrupt the light’s path to earth.
Lois Swirnoff writes in her book The Color of Cities that our collective color reactions to our environment develop as an expression after prolonged exposure of the eye and brain to the conditions of environment. The specific colors common to a particular place arise because everyone living there has similar reactions to the qualities of light and local color in their environment. Regional color is not a product of designers or planners applying subjective color preferences or their individual tastes. As geographic markers, the colors of regions reveal the global range and diversity of vernacular expression.
Here are two specific descriptions of regional and local color characteristics.
London, England, at latitude 51 north, longitude 0, and an altitude of 49 feet, is one of the world’s foremost global cities. It is also the embodiment of a city of shadow light. The temperate climate, with its characteristic fog and light precipitation throughout the year, lowers the intensity of the sunlight and subdues color contrasts. Large areas have been left to gardens and parks. The parks contribute the largest areas of color to the urban fabric. London is physically large, with distinct neighborhoods. The medieval layout of the streets either meanders randomly or originates from a central point and radiates outward in an orderly pattern. The impression of the architecture is heavy, solid, and formidable. Sand-colored limestone was quarried near London and used on many of the major structures. Smaller structures were built with London stock bricks, whose distinctive color and soft appearance came from yellow Kent clay. These natural materials have matte surfaces that absorb the light. Over time, pollution has turned both stone and bricks grey. The visual memory of London is dark. Stoic humility and understatement are character traits of the British. Color comes mostly from the pageantry and ceremonial monuments that represent the traditions of the culture. The local color of London illustrates a palette that is staid and reserved, with bursts of strong color found in small accents on uniforms, family crests, ornamental shields and banners.
Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, sits on a plateau at an altitude of 2600 feet. At 45 west longitude, the Tropic of Capricorn bisects Sao Paulo at 23 south latitude. This location marks the most southerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead at noon. This occurs at the December solstice, when the southern hemisphere is at its maximum tilt towards the sun. The climate is tropical and moist. The city lies between two rivers, and is a fertile plateau where coffee plantations thrive. The region was subject to flooding. Alluvium deposits provided the clay cladding the exteriors of early rustic buildings. Later, the clay was fabricated into brick and masonry materials to construct larger and more substantial structures. To resist deterioration caused by the moisture and humidity in the region, the buildings required painting on a regular basis. At this altitude, the bright light causes the pastel palette to appears lively and energetic. Frames, cornices, and moldings on the building exteriors are typically white, while the building colors range from cool blues and greens to warm yellows and terra cottas. With traditions that embrace music, festivals, and celebrations, weather that supports an outdoor lifestyle, and a spirited cultural attitude of joie de vivre, the streets have an air of vibrancy. These conditions make for a visually stimulating experience of local color.
Every region has a unique sense of ambient light and color. Although each of us experiences the colors from our individual perspective, everyone shares the collective experience of light and darkness regardless of where we are located on earth. Developing an awareness and sensitivity of different cultures is important to further our global understanding. Color can be a teacher, because it can reveal much about traditions, culture. and the natural setting of place. When we embrace both our universality and acknowledge our differences, we can appreciate the power of color and light in the environment.