Wild Color: Architectural experiments in color physiology

Entitled “Wild Color – Architectural experiments in color physiology,” this Washington State University graduate studio in architecture is led by Professor Paul Hirzel and is dedicated to artist Rudolph Schaeffer (founder of the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco). Hirzel says “he was a Yoda-like character who lived to be almost 102 and once told me (at his knee) that architects, in general, are afraid of color.”

Schaeffer is best known for his introduction “rythmochromatic” and prismatic color theory to artists, photographers, architects and interior designers in the mid-20th century. He was particularly interested in introducing “frightened” architects to the potentials of color in building design.

Hirzel has continued his interest and observations of the how architects use color and how color theory is made a part of architectural education. Over many decades of practice and teaching Hirzel’s observations indicate the rarity of an architect (or architecture design studio) emphasizing the importance of color in design choices.

Form – shape, mass and void; structure; material – brick, stone, steel, glass; lighting; and texture (occasionally), are justified by their response to context (landscape and culture), program, and budget. Rarely does one hear mention of color in architect’s rational for building design. Yet all solids (the ingredients of architecture), liquids, and even gases have color.

The natural world (which Hirzel defines as all that is not created by humans) has evolved a color palette that is, for the most part, not arbitrary. The color of something has significant origins, purpose, and rationales – there is a reason why some fruit is red, why there are different shades of green in plants, why the absence of light is black.

Quoting John Barrow in his provocative book The Artful Universe: “We can identify four adaptive uses of color in living things. First, it is used to attract attention: for example, flowers signal their presence to insects; colored fruits signal that they are good to eat. Second, it gives warning: for example, luridly colored reptiles signal that they are poisonous. Third, it makes for the possibility of camouflage or mimicry. Fourth, it acts as a stimulus to the emotions. Courtship displays make abundant use of color signals and baboons display brilliantly colored regions of their posteriors to indicate their sexual availability.”

Following these clues to natural color selection, Hirzel proposed to his graduate design studio a question: “Can we, as architects, look at how and why the natural world creates color and apply those principles to our design decisions? Can the architecture that we make be made more vibrant– bring more emotional effect to our created world, if we apply critical rationales to our color choices? Can we apply physical and biological principles of color selection to architecture?”

Ultimately, and simply, the goal of this studio was to give voice to more thoughtful rationale color selection –whether it is a wall, a floor, a roof/ceiling, a stair, a window, or a door, how can we bring reason to color and not thoughtless default, fear and indifference?

The following eleven projects focus on a variety of interpretations of these challenging questions. Carpenter Hall on the campus of Washington State University, the home of the School of Design and Construction, was chosen as an appropriate case study to showcase how color might become a more integral inspiration for architectural form – a foreground versus the more typical background condition.

  • Marianeth Becerril explores the importance of light and shadow on color rendering of materials and space.
  • Jared Bradshaw’s fascination with random color in the natural world is translated into a mixing of colored light and brick.
  • Vlanka Catalan cuts a canyon through Carpenter Hall to create color illusions using after image and simultaneous contrast.
  • Duy Dang focuses on the color illusions of physical objects – how color choice can change perceived size, weight and distance.
  • Piya Iselin brings water and material together, to show how wetness can influence (in both an ephemeral way and permanent way) material color.
  • Jason Johnson draws from both the cultural history of Washington State University and its natural setting to explore how pink can become a rationale choice for a design and construction school.
  • Adam Louis’s interest in sound is married with a neurological association called Chromesthesia which associates color and sound to produce a series of rooms that “hear” Carpenter Hall in colors.
  • Chelsea Merkel brings the physics of light prism rainbows to the design studio to both calm and excite the student imagination.
  • Matt Schuchardt pushes beyond the typical camouflage solution to distort and enhance Carpenter Hall façade profiles, materials, and decorative neo Georgian details.
  • Brandon Stover applies the power of red to Carpenter Hall from very small existing moments of red 3”x3” tiles to a 5 story glowing hot core.
  • Richard Tung introduces black and white to Carpenter Hall to illustrate their power to bring light and heat to its interiors.

All of these projects endeavor to illustrate how color can become a more active primary influence on a building design solution. If this effort convinces the reader to, at minimum, pause to consider the increased richness of experience that can be found in color, this studio will be considered a success. And perhaps, architects will be just little less “afraid of using color” in their next project challenge.

Arch 513 color introduction Spring 2017 (PDF)


Nature 2

Nature 1

Nature 3

Nature 4

Wild Color Poster Large