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Color for Schools

The school environment is a clear example of how color shapes human experience and behavior.  Unfortunately, many public school color choices are relegated to administrative and maintenance staff.  Classroom colors are often chosen based on ease of cleaning and cost cutting, so dull, institutional colors like grey and beige prevail.

But thoughtful color choice in school environments is crucial to student engagement.  Several significant studies show that children behave and perform better in spaces where color is carefully considered.  Dr. Harry Wohlfarth performed a study in the early 1980s among schools where institutional colors prevailed.  Students were “least stressed” in the school where drab walls were replaced with warm yellow and light blue and full spectrum lighting was added.  The students also showed reduced aggression and higher I.Q. test scores. Other studies have shown that school color choices can have an important impact on issues like attention span and absenteeism.

The entrance to De Anza High School in El Sobrante, California. DLM Architects photo by Tim Maloney

De Anza High, a public school in El Sobrante, California is a case in point.  Built in 1955, the facility was long considered inadequate and had a reputation as a troubled school. Test scores and enrollment had sunk to new lows when the district broke ground on a new building in 2010 designed by the San Francisco office of  DLM Architecture.  Colour Studio was hired to develop both the  interior and exterior color palette.  “Color is relatively inexpensive way to bring energy and dynamism to a school,” says Colour Studio principal Jill Pilaroscia.  For De Anza,  lively shades were chosen for active spaces like the entry, corridors, gymnasium, and cafeteria/multi-purpose room.  Quieter hues were employed to encourage focus in classrooms. To bring balanced energy into the auditorium of warm and cool hues, Colour Studio used warm woods, theatrical red velvet curtains, cool  temperature paint and upholstery colors in deep blues.


Active colors are used in heavy trafficked areas at De Anza High School. DLM Architects photo by Tim Maloney
The gymnasium at De Anza High School. DLM Architects photo by Tim Maloney
The auditorium at De Anza High School. DLM Architects photo by Tim Maloney

The results of the new design and dynamic color program have been impressive. Enrollment grew significantly after the building opened in 2013, and grades have improved appreciably. The principal has also reported improvement in attitude.

For the Filipino Education Center, a public school in San Francisco, Roberta Wahl of PLUM Architects used color and thoughtful landscaping to energize the design. An urban school site for more than a century, this former preschool was converted into a middle school for 230 students in response to community outreach and feedback. A small footprint maximizes open space, which in turn is utilized for play yards and open garden seating.

The Filipino Education Center designed by PLUM Architects. Photo by JD Peterson
The Filipino Education Center designed by PLUM Architects. Photo by JD Peterson
The cafeteria at the Filipino Education Center designed by PLUM Architects. Photo by JD Peterson

Because the redesign relied on public funds, Wahl explains, “It is our challenge to find an architecture that is delightful while meeting the limited budget given to us.  We take this on with pleasure.”

Color can energize a built environment in a highly cost-efficient manner. Wahl envisioned the building as a “little red schoolhouse,” she says. At the same time, “There was a lack of green in the area so that was added to give vibrancy and a sense of urban “greenery.”  Additionally, striking redwood staircases and lounging benches provide warmth and dynamism to the campus. “I wanted something ‘precious’ for the kids, something beautiful that they would typically not be given because people had little trust in them.  This is where the wood came in.  They loved it and after nearly ten years, it’s yet to be marred.” PLUM was awarded a Coalition for Adequate School Housing Award of Merit in 2009 for the project.

Nueva Upper SchoolLeddy Maytum Stacy Architects

Color is also an integral element at Nueva School in San Mateo, California, a private school designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco. The firm used a Le Corbusier-inspired color palette of primary hues to add a playful, dynamic appeal to the building. Punches of bold color on the mostly warm gray exterior help bring distinct design elements into focus.

Nueva School – Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects
Nueva Upper SchoolLeddy Maytum Stacy Architects
Nueva Upper SchoolLeddy Maytum Stacy Architects

The firm also employed strong color pops to connect the building to the outdoors, where generous public spaces are highlighted by splashes of blue, yellow, and red.  For the interior, LMS maximized daylight with white surfaces that reflect sunlight to create a luminous environment.  The school provides a variety of innovative educational environments – from flexible classrooms and outdoor seminar spaces to science laboratories and tech shops – designed to inspire the 21st-century student and offer a replicable new model for all schools.

As the stellar examples above show, there is no one formula for using color in an educational setting. However,  a number of factors must be considered, Pilaroscia explains.  A cross-disciplinary approach – one that considers grade level, demographics, culture and geography, biological and psychological responses – is the best way to bring color into our school’s classrooms and corridors.

Colorful Destinations

Wanderlust runs deep in summer, so this month we’ve rounded up some of the most colorful places on earth to whet the appetite for travel. From a sea of golden flowers in China to a rainbow-hued idyll in Italy, each is a destination worthy of an adventure.

Luoping, China

In China’s eastern Yunnan Province, the fields in Luoping county turn yellow when thousands of acres of canola flowers – also known as rapeseed plants – bloom.  Farmers harvest the abundant crops to extract oil for cooking. “As the plants sway in the breeze, the fields appear to be an endless sea of golden flowers,” Vision Times explains. According to those who have visited, the best time to capture the dramatic scene is at dusk or dawn, when the surrounding mountain shadows create a distinct contrast against the golden fields. The Lingyan Temple atop a neighboring hill is an excellent spot to view the splendor.

Procida, Italy

This tiny island off the coast of Naples served as the cinematic backdrop to the film The Talented Mr. Ripley. At only 4 kilometers long, Procida is the smallest island in the Bay of Naples and is often overlooked by tourists flocking to nearby Ischia and Capri. Just a 40-minute hydrofoil ride from the mainland, Procida’s main village forms a tangle of houses painted in pink, yellow, blue and green.  The island is awash in pink bougainvillea and white jasmine, with lemon groves dotting the land.  The main attraction is the colorful fishing village of Marina Corricella, a 17th-century settlement built into the rock that can only be reached on foot by stairs in passageways through the houses.

Procida is the smallest island in the Bay of Naples.

Lavender Fields of Provence

The largest cultivation of lavender in the world, the famed and fragrant purple fields of Provence bloom every summer from June to August. Lavender is cultivated for use primarily in perfumes and soaps but is also employed to flavor local honey and ice cream. The fields are concentrated in the Luberon region, where the two most spectacular viewing spots include the Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque and the village Simiane la Roland.  Visitors can tour lavender farms and distilleries; many offer open houses in the summer.

Lavender fields at The Abbaye de Notre Dame de Senanque in Provence

Tulip Fields of Holland

Often called the flower shop of the world, Holland’s tulip fields and gardens are at their most colorful March through May, when the renowned fields outside Amsterdam are awash in pink, purple, red, orange and yellow blooms. You can visit the impressive Keukenhof Gardens, a dazzling display planted on 79 acres at the Vondelpark castle estate, one of the largest flower gardens in the world. Visitors can also walk or bike through the extensive surrounding farmer’s fields. Aerial views of the countryside reveal stunning saturated color blocks not unlike abstract painting.

An aerial view of the tulip fields in Holland

Namaqualand, Namibia

A kaleidoscope of color blooms every spring in this arid region of Namibia and South Africa. It’s the flowering season known throughout the area as the Namaqualand daisy season. Orange, white and pink daisies as well as hundreds of other wild flowering species carpet the otherwise barren landscape. This beautiful region of wheat fields, vineyards, and river valleys is named for its wide fertile plains that turn black each winter after the rains.

Wildflowers in Namaqualand, a region of Namibia and South Africa

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The iconic Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and home countless species of colorful fish, coral and shells. Orange and white striped clownfish swim among purple anemones; polka-dotted stingrays dip between bright pink coral and blue iridescent shells. According to an article in National Geographic, scientists are learning to decipher the messages that these colors convey and to see them the way fish do:

“Only in the past decade or so have we begun to understand how wavelengths of light (and therefore color) appear at different depths and how various marine creatures’ eyes perceive and see each other – far differently than humans see them.”

More than 3.5 million tourists come to Vermont annually to witness the dramatic display of autumn leaves. This heavily forested state is ablaze in fiery color each year during September and October. The best spots for leaf peeping are the less traveled Northwest Kingdom and the southwest lake region along the New York border. One in every four trees in Vermont is a Sugar Maple – easily the star of the season’s show.  Maples display their red pigment and turn bright crimson as the days shorten and the leaves stop producing chlorophyll. There are many driving and biking routes throughout the state for optimal viewing.

Colorful marine life in the Great Barrier Reef

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Located in the Serrania de la Macarena province of Meta, the Caño Cristales River is commonly called the “river of five colors” or the “liquid rainbow” due to its striking hues. From the end of July through November, the river bed is variously colored yellow, green, blue, black and especially red.  The ubiquitous red, which ranges from pink to blood red to maroon, is caused by large quantities of the endemic plant species Macarenia Clarisera which adhere tightly to the rocks. Though shades of red are most common, the plant turns green in shaded areas. Other colors come from the blue water, black rocks, and yellow sand, which create an iridescent effect.

The rainbow-hued Caño Cristales in Colombia

Pamukkali, Turkey

This surreal landscape, dubbed “Cotton Castle,” derives from springs in a cliff almost 200 meters high overlooking the plain of Curusku in Southwest Turkey.  The calcite-laden waters have created mineral forests, petrified waterfalls, and a series of terraced basins. People have bathed in these pools, which date to the 2nd century B.C., for thousands of years.  Unfortunately modern hotel development has caused considerable damage to the area. Pamukkali was declared a world heritage site in 1988; since then, the hotels and main road have been demolished and replaced with artificial pools.

Terraced basins at Pamukkali in Southwest Turkey

As these images illustrate, color in both the natural world and the man made world can profoundly shape our experience. The earth science of a particular location — it’s soil, light, longitude and latitude, temperature and climate — all influence how we feel and respond to a palette of colors. We hope you enjoy a vibrant summer season.