The Myth of Pure White Architecture: How Architects of Modernity Used Color

The Myth of Pure White Architecture: How Architects of Modernity Used Color

Given that the architects of modernity were in search of purity of form, it stands to reason that the image of this modern architecture is almost inevitably rendered in white in the collective imagination. Relieved of superfluous decorations, modern architecture became associated with the predominant use of white surfaces to highlight the volumetric composition. Combined with the concept of “material truth” first articulated by Victorian critic John Ruskin, white-colored architecture is often understood as straightforward, clear, and sincere.

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During the early 1920s and 1930s, however, color theory was widely discussed and implemented by leading architects, including Le Corbusier, Theo van Doesburg and the group de Stijl, and Bruno Taut, thus creating a more colorful rendition of what we now call Modernist architecture. While moving away from the use of color as decoration, a variety of approaches dictate its use, which was carefully considered from the beginning of the design process.

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Eileen Grey’s / E-1027 Villa, Restored . Image © Manuel Bougot

The recent restoration projects of modernist buildings, such as Eileen Grey’s E-1027 Villa or Le Corbusier’s private apartment in the Molinor Building in Paris, reveal the widespread, yet contained, color schemes. This opposition between white and colored architecture can also be observed in the Weissenhofsiedlung, a development opened in 1927 in Stuttgart, Germany, which gathered the most renowned architects of the Deutscher Werkbund to contribute to the masterplan led by Mies van der Rohe. Despite the name, which translates to “settlement of white houses,” only a third of the units were, in fact, completely white.


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A Restricted Color Palette

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Master Plan for Chandigarh. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

Le Corbusier’s approach to color, defined through his early text, is cautious, using a restricted palette of what he qualified as “architectural colors,” favoring primary and earthy tones. His color theory is described at length in his book “PolyChromie Architecturale,” translated as Polychrome Architecture, published in 1931. His design process aimed to create an intellectual, systematic, and rational system for chroma application. This aligns with the general direction of architecture, which was moving away from figurative expression and into the abstract world.

Influenced by the neoplastic art movement, exemplified by painters like Piet Mondrian, the members of the De Stijl movement also restricted their color palette to only include subtractive primary colors, red, yellow and blue, and neutral tones of white, gray, and black. Bruno Taut used his experience as a painter to distinguish between hues best suited for architecture versus others more appropriate for painting. He also favored intense colors while being less restricted in his compositions.

Color to Define or Transform Volumes

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Weissenhof-Siedlung House / Le Corbusier. Image © Wikipedia user AndreasPraefck licensed under CC BY 3.0

In addition to the restricted color palette, a second non-definitive principle emerges from the architectural practices of modernity. Colors are used not as mere decoration but as one of the elements contributing to the overall composition. While shapes and volumes are the primary concern, colors can be used to highlight geometry. In his book, Color for Architects, Juan Serra Lluch describes how Le Corbusier takes cues from painter Fernand Léger’s theory of the “elastic rectangle,” using chrome to transform spaces and make walls “move backwards or forwards.” This calculated approach means that color is applied to cover entire architectural elements to define distinct limits. Solid colors are mandatory so as not to create confusing gradations that would distract from the volume itself.

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Villa Savoye / Le COrbusier. Image © Flavio Bragaia

The image of Le Corbusier’s iconic Villa Savoye demonstrates this principle. Color is used throughout the building to create subtle adaptations of space. In addition to the pink, red, and blue walls at the interior, the ground floor is rendered in dark green to mimic the surrounding garden and help highlight the rectangular upper-level volume supported by slender columns. While it remains one of the most well-known works of its time, the intended image is the subject of some controversy, as even more color might have been included. The renowned 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed a model of the renowned structure with its rooftop solarium rendered in blue and pink as opposed to the white curved walls we are now familiar with, further altering the perception of its volume.

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Rietveld Schroder House / Gerrit Rietveld. Image © Maria Gonzalez

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, one of the most prominent architects of the De Stijl movement, is also using colors to not only enhance but even to alter the image of his buildings. By applying distinctive hues to various elements, he breaks down the architectural volume into its components. This is easily observable in the case of the Rietveld Schröder House, which uses modular elements in strictly controlled proportions to create a flexible and dynamic living environment. Through color, the house’s components gain visual independence, contributing to the plastic composition of the whole.

Offsetting Errors With Color

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Unite d’ Habitation / Le Corbusier. Image © Gili Merin

Despite the rational and calculated approach to the use of color, which would dictate it is considered from the beginning of the design process, color’s ability to alter spaces was also used retroactively to offset errors or correct the perception of the composition. In a few cases, Le Corbusier added color after the building was completed. In the now iconic Unite d’ Habitation project in Marseille, France, where, as described by himself, an error led to an unacceptable change in the proportion of windows and awnings, which became less noticeable through the use of polychromy. In another example, Les Quartiers Modernes Frugès was also modified after construction to visually increase the distance between the homes and enhance the welcoming atmosphere of the complex.

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Quartiers Modernes Frugès / Le Corbusier. Image © Filippo Poli

During the busiest period of construction, there was never a false step, not an ugly wall, not a blemish, not a dead space… With the exception of two liberties taken by a careless engineer…: windows outside the regulating proportion and cast concrete squares of a different module… Such off-hand behavior of numbers in the midst of Modulor’s harmonies was, to me, so distressing that, near exasperation, I hit upon the idea of exterior polychromy. But a polychromy so dazzling that the mind was forcibly detached from the dissonances, carried away in the irresistible torrent of major color sensations… But for these faults, the exterior of the Marseille Unité might, perhaps, not have been multi-colored. – Le Corbusier in Modulor 2, 1955 (Let the User Speak Next)

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Otto-Richter-Street with multi colored painted houses in Magdeburg, Germany, designed by Carl Krayl and Bruno Taut in 1921. Image © Augenstern via Shutterstock

Acting under the conviction that the architect should “shape the appearance of light,” Bruno Taus is among the few architects of modernity who prioritized the use of color over shape, stating that “color is the starting point of a new style before form is refined,” as illustrated in Juan Serra Lluch’s book. While acting as a councilor of public works for the city of Madgeburg, Germany, Bruno Taut also used colors retroactively, applying bold compositions to preexisting facades to transform their form and reinterpret their classical composition.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Color in Architecture. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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