Debenham House, 8 Addison Road, Kensington, by Halsey Ricardo (1905-1908). Image Courtesy of Hidden London
In this essay by the British architect and academic Dr. Timothy Brittain-Catlin, the fascinating journey that color has taken throughout history to the present day—oscillating between religious virtuosity and puritan fear—is unpicked and explained. You can read Brittain-Catlin's essay on British postmodernism, here.
Like blushing virgins, the better architecture students of about ten years ago started to use coy colors in their drawings: pastel pink, pastel blue, pastel green; quite a lot of grey, some gold: a little like the least-bad wrapping paper from a high street store. Now step back and look at a real colored building – William Butterfield’s All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London, or Keble College, Oxford, or the interior of A.W.N. Pugin’s church of St. Giles in Cheadle, UK. They blow you away with blasts of unabashed, rich
Folk art is full of color: two exceptional mid-century Modernist designers—the American Alexander Girard and the Hungarian-born British textile designer Tibor Reich—returned to it time and again for inspiration. Indeed, Girard’s 10,000-piece collection now fills an entire wing of a museum. But elsewhere, Modernism tried to ‘educate out’ bright colors to the extent that today they are not mentioned in polite company, however much you might enjoy buying colorful objects for your home.
There is evidence of this everywhere. See how critics responded to MAKE’s 2008 wedge-shaped buildings for the Jubilee Campus for the UK's University of Nottingham: the pinks and reds of the facades were either derided or completely ignored. There was no attempt to interpret them. Not even the bright red cladding of the recent vast MAS in Antwerp was discussed in terms of what it might mean. Only later do architects emerge from the embarrassment of confronting color – Piers Gough said at the time that he chose a deep blue for the Circle in Bermondsey because it was the “nicest color” in the Shaws of Derwen catalogue; nearly thirty years later he talks about it as a “landscapey” color, of the sky or of the water.
And “landscapey” is what it is. Many of the problems with color are to do with an innate puritanism among clients of architecture. This has religious (or possibly superstitious) origins, perhaps based on a terror of earthly passions. The evangelical churches in England, for example, devised a programme of systematically eradicating color from their buildings, explained in the popular handbook Repitching the Tent of 1996 which tells them how to do precisely that. It is a long tradition. The multi-colored interiors of church after church were whitewashed initially during the Reformation across Europe, then smashed during the English Civil War, then both re-whitewashed and re-smashed Europe-wide in Catholic churches during the 1960s and 1970s.
Puritans have problems with things that they don’t understand; their instinct is to attack. And somehow their fear of color became conflated with Modernism’s horror of ‘dishonesty’, perhaps because it was ‘dishonest’ to add color to building materials. Yet Pugin himself had offered a perfectly logical basis for incorporating color into architecture. Since he was also acutely aware of how precisely he should be spending his time in order for the Revival to have the maximum effect, the fact that he ornamented his buildings in this fastidious, detailed way indicates how important he thought it was. William Morris’ organic designs have outlived his other achievements, and it was one of C.F.A. Voysey’s wallpapers, not a white building, that made Henry van de Velde exclaim that “Spring had come all of a sudden.” One of the scarcely mentioned features of the destroyed library at the Glasgow School of Art is that the timber sticks of the balustrade that projected from the gallery were scooped out and painted to resemble tumbling seasonal leaves. The room was, as James Macaulay has put it, a “sacred grove,” lit irregularly from curious perforated lanterns between the ‘branches’ of the timber detailing.
Terry Farrell’s remodelling of the Comyn Ching triangle near Covent Garden (1978-1985) is remarkable for a number of reasons; one is that you cannot tell at first sight what is new and what is old, breaking the 150-year-old convention that new work must always be distinct. But it is also worth looking at it from the point of view of the use of color around its doors and windows. You notice Farrell’s blue-green porches much more than the brickwork around then; it is perverse to ignore them in the interpretation of his design. Surely Farrell had seen the extraordinary building—“explosive” is how the Pevsner guide describes it—five minutes away, at the corner of Charing Cross Road and Old Compton Street. The two frontages here consist of an assertive Edwardian Baroque frame with aggressive Gibbs surrounds placed improbably high up, filled in with deep green tile-clad walls rather as if the ruins of Rapunzel’s tower, by Piranesi, were looming above a primeval forest. The building was conceived by C.H. Worley in 1904 who designed for it a little brother a few doors down, on the corner of Moor Street. One way of looking at this is that Worley’s forest has been tamed to become Farrell’s internal garden.
If color is about engagement with nature, it is also about is engagement with life. Look at the Debenham House in Addison Road in Kensington, designed by Halsey Ricardo in 1905 for the proprietor of the Oxford Street department store. This building is sensational in its use of color. Ricardo, according to the architect and critic Harry Goodhart-Rendel, was “dark, Jewish, spectacularly good-looking, musical and a typical architectural amateur.” Since Goodhart-Rendel was his cousin, he modestly failed to add that Ricardo came from one of the most brilliant families in Britain.
As an ‘amateur’, and as a confident, clever, rich man, Ricardo could also ignore any carping from professionals or critics. It is difficult to see much of the house from the street because of a tall hedge, currently covered by a taller hoarding. But stand on the other side of the road and raise your eyes. The whole structure is gleaming: what would anyway have been a lush Edwardian villa sparkles from head to foot in fabulous mottled greens and blues. The interior—a favourite location for film directors—is clad in vibrant tiles and mosaics. Ricardo had seen the same blue skies that we see; like us he had seen cherry trees in full bloom such as the one along the same street that today screens the house behind it as if a delicious veil of pink chiffon had been thrown across the facade.
The Debenham House plays not only with memories of Mediterranean seas and forests, but also with a cross-current of London trees, and the London sky as the sun passes through it; also of shiny London shops and broad London culture. In that way it hints at how we see a continent of ideas that have come to rest here. At the back of my mind is the feeling that very good-looking buildings, in common with very good-looking people such as Ricardo, have completely different lives from the rest of us. But specifically, the Debenham House shows that an intense, sophisticated use of color in architecture is not only a sign of high intelligence and exceptional cognitive awareness, but also of what can happen when architects are brave enough to ignore the robotic incantation of trite modernist truisms about the “honesty” of grey materials that, in reality, signify nothing.