Painting the Town: Part 2 - Buildings

“When colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started transforming the spirit of the people … People started to drop less litter in the streets. They started to pay taxes. They started to feel something they’d forgotten … Beauty was giving people a feeling of being protected. This was not a misplaced feeling — crime did fall.”

Painted apartment buildings, Tirana, Albania

“I love the joy that color can give to our lives and to our communities,” said Edi Rama, President of Albania and former Mayor of Tirana. Under Communist rule, Albania was extremely poor. Buildings deteriorated and new Communist-era housing blocks were constructed to minimal concrete standards. When Edi Rama became Mayor, he wanted to give people hope for the future. He started by painting one old building a vibrant golden orange and continued across the city with an ever-increasing palette of rainbow colors and patterns.

As we discussed in part 1 of this series, people often use their creativity and artistic abilities to add color to sidewalks and streets - the “floor” of the city. Throughout the world, color has also been be used to liven up buildings, neighborhoods, and even entire towns to raise the spirit and make people smile.

Before the industrial age, most buildings and cities were constructed from materials close at hand – earth (bricks, adobe), stone, wood – that could easily be shaped into buildings. These buildings ranging in all shades from dark reds, golden yellow, to white and brown, would age gracefully, gaining texture and showing their grain. They were further embellished with colors from local organic materials. Throughout history, important buildings, such as ancient Persian and Egyptian palaces, Greek and Hindu temples, and medieval cathedrals, were awash with color.

The unique red brick of Bologna, Italy. Photo: Wikipedia

The locally available building materials endowed each city with a predominant color palette still recognizable today. Bologna was known as “The Red City” not merely for its political bias, but for the deep earthen red tones of almost every building in the city. Oxford and nearby Cotswold towns have a pale golden tone from the limestone used in construction.

When the structure was felt to lack visual appeal, colored plaster or stucco was applied. The whole Hapsburg Empire was once recognizable through the predominance of its golden yellow buildings, the color favored by Empress Maria Theresa. The selection of this color may have helped to unify the diverse nationalities: Austrian, Hungarian, German, Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Slovenian. According to the color psychologist, Charles A. Riley II, golden yellow is almost universally people's favorite color and is thought to express “the apex of spirituality, and intuition[1]”.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Kai Bates

One of the best examples of a streetscape that is brought to life by color is Nyhavn in Copenhagen, Denmark. This several block long waterfront entertainment district is lined with numerous shops, bars, and restaurants, and it bustles with activity, especially in the summer months.

Sometimes cities have used color to give a unique character to a neighborhood. Old San Juan is a historic section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, that includes numerous brightly colored buildings throughout the entire area. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, the waterfront and Jelly Bean Row area include lots of colorful rowhouses. In addition, the city’s downtown area, particularly along Water Street and Duckworth Street, also includes many colorful buildings filled with shops and restaurants.

Old San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo: Stephen Anderson

Some cities have used color citywide, creating wonderful places. Guanajuato, in the colonial area of Mexico, is a gorgeous little town nestled in a valley filled with pastel buildings.

Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo: Kai Bates


Burano, Italy. Photo: Suzanne Lennard

In Italy, there are several towns that are particularly noteworthy: Vernazza and Manarola in the beautiful Cinque Terre area, Portofino, and Burano, a small island town just outside of Venice. Burano, the fishing and lace-making community in the Venetian lagoon has long been known as “the island where the rainbow fell to earth”. In the 1990s, islanders adopted an even more brilliant range of colors that included startling purple, crimson, and turquoise in addition to sky blue, sea green, Venetian red, and Hapsburg yellow.

Main Square, Poznan, Poland. Photo: Suzanne Lennard

Polish cities are often gloriously colorful, particularly since the fall of the Iron Curtain. On Poznan’s main square, Stary Rynek, a row of small arcaded fish sellers’ houses were built in the 16th century on the site of the fish stalls. These buildings were destroyed during World War II but lovingly reconstructed. While the more resplendent Baroque merchant’s houses around the square are painted in earthy reds, ochre, and green, the fish sellers’ houses are awash with more vivid tones.

Main Square, Wrocław, Poland. Photo: Suzanne Lennard

Buildings around Wrocław’s main square, Rynek, were rebuilt after the war to their pre-war Baroque and Classicist grandeur. Their 4-7 story shophouses are painted with vibrant colors of green, red, ochre, blue, and pink. This square is the pride of Wrocław. It is one of the largest public squares in Europe, and serves as the heart of a thriving downtown pedestrian zone.

Colorful façade in Singapore. Photo: Suzanne Lennard

Singapore is a multicultural city of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and others, in which each ethnic group has its historic settlement. The Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar, Little India, Arab Street, Kampong Glam, and Peranakan Place neighborhoods are filled with vividly restored 19th and 20th century painted shophouses. Hindu temples take the significance of their intricately painted sculptured facades to a spiritual level. These buildings joyously celebrate their human scale and ethnic roots amid an ever-taller morass of colorless international skyscrapers.

San Francisco’s Victorian "Painted Ladies"

The historic San Francisco houses known as the “Painted Ladies” can be seen all over town, but some of the most photogenic are in the Lower Haight and facing Alamo Square. These belles dames are the Victorian stick style architecture of single-family homes and row houses built from 1850 – 1920. Even when they were new, they were brightly painted: ", yellow, chocolate, orange, everything that is loud is in fashion...if the upper stories are not of red or blue... they are painted up into uncouth panels of yellow and brown..."[2] Today, the color palette is more sophisticated, combining on one building azure and king fisher blue with white trim, or old gold, seaweed green and sand, while some run to violet, damask rose, and pink.

So many of today’s cities – particularly in the U.S. and in the old Soviet countries – are drab and colorless. In addition to all of the other damage to cities brought on by Modernism/Brutalism, architects of these styles also systematically stripped our cities of color. In rejecting everything that related to the past, the Father of Modern Architecture, Adolf Loos, eschewed all color. He called for buildings to be white: “Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven.[3]”  But with modern manufactured materials, concrete, cement, steel, and aluminum, what we ended up with was grey.

Post-Modernism cautiously reintroduced architectural colors, but it is to the artists and community that we must turn for a more uninhibited celebration of life through color.

The rehabilitation of the Los Heroes Building in Santiago, Chile, in 2008 is a dramatic example. The change that the building underwent from gray 1970’s brutalism to vibrant contemporary mixed use is stunning.

Santa Marta Favela Painting, Riode Janiero, Brazil. Photo: Haas & Hahn

In the Santa Marta district of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, in 2010 buildings around a little plaza were painted with brilliant radiating rays of rainbow colors. The project was led by Dutch artists Haas & Hahn with the participation of favela community youth as a way to bring peace between warring gangs and to bring art and beauty to the built environment.

Neal’s Yard, London, England. Photo: Fanny Laerdsen

Neal’s Yard in London’s Covent Garden district is a quaint and colorful little plaza with a number of unique shops and restaurants. A somewhat more extreme but nevertheless brilliantly colorful example is Superkilen park in Copenhagen, Denmark. Built in 2012 by Bjarke Ingels Group and Topotek1, the nearly 1/2-mile long park features a section covered with beautiful reds, oranges, and pinks, bringing much-needed color to a somewhat dreary part of town.

But, perhaps, one the best examples of the power of bringing color back to cities is the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser. After a long and successful career as a painter, Hundertwasser was invited by the City of Vienna, Austria, to design a public housing project. The façade of the Hundertwasserhaus built 1983-1985 is painted vivid sky blue, purple, crimson, orange, or white so that residents can identify their home from the street. In addition, the building features undulating floors, roofs, and balconies covered with earth and grass and trees reaching up the façade from small balconies.

Hundertwasser accused modern architects of building “prison cells in which the human soul is destroyed.” He called for the “straight lines and uniformity of Bauhaus architecture” to come to an end “because they are unfeeling, sterile, cold, heartless, aggressive, and unemotional.[4]” Instead, he called for creativity and life in harmony with nature. Of the exuberantly colorful public housing project he wrote: “The moon, the sun and the street lamps shine on the mirror tiles. The rich and powerful have always had towers and domes but it is new for normal average contemporary people to have towers and gilded ones at that. Architecture should elevate people, not debase, oppress and enslave them. A golden onion tower on one’s own house elevates the occupant to the status of a king. Grey mass-misery is at an end, the golden age is dawning… ”

Hundertwasserhaus, Vienna, Austria. Photo: Suzanne Lennard

“The pillar is an essential element of Western architecture, one feels good near a pillar as if under a tree. A pillar must be beautiful and colorful and also shine with its own power in the rain and the moonlight. Figures, lions, statues, eagles, spheres. When they are weathered and moss grows on them, they are as beautiful as the statues of ancient Rome. Destroying man’s roots in the past blocks off his future. Romanticism has been declared kitsch and so we have been robbed of Romanticism. May one not dream? The right to dream is the last human right. If a man is robbed of his dreams and yearnings, he will die. The absence of kitsch makes life unbearable.”

Bad Blumau, Austria. Photo: Wikipedia

Since 1985, Hundertwasser has designed many buildings throughout Europe and around the world, such as the Forest Spiral (a 12-story apartment building in Darmstadt, Germany); Bad Blumau, a spa hotel in Austria composed of a cluster of multicolored buildings beneath rolling turfed roofs; two Ronald McDonald houses, one in Essen, Germany, the other in Valkenburg, Netherlands; as well as restaurants, a school, a church, and various industrial buildings.

Colors engage our emotions. Vivid primary colors, red, blue, and yellow - are energetic and catch our attention. More complex, intense hues – royal purple, golden orange, and dark green – are commanding, suggestive of power. Pastels are more gentle in their impact. Colors make us feel cheerful or sad, excited or calm, whereas greys are unemotional. While we may not want to be surrounded by vivid colors all the time (particularly those of us living in temperate climes), colors connect us through their associative power to nature: the golden yellow sun, the blue sky, the green of grass and trees, and all the variety of colors of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Nature and climate have produced different color palettes in different regions around the world – in the tropics, flowers and birds are more brilliantly hued than in temperate climes. But as research has so persuasively demonstrated[5], the experience of nature, even through images and color, is beneficial to our mental and physical health.

Hundertwasser: Ronald MacDonald House, Essen, Germany. Photo: Wikipedia

[1] Riley, Charles A. II. “Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology”. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995, p. 307.

[2] California Architects and Builders News, April 1885.

[3] Adolf Loos, Excerpts from Ornament and Crime (1908)

[4] Hametna, Kristina and Melzer, Wilhelm, (1988). Hundertwasser Haus. Vienna: Verlag ORAC

[5] Kaplan, Rachel and Kaplan, Stephen (1989). The Experience of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press & Kellert, Stephen et al (2008). Biophilic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.