How painter-architects brought built spaces to life
Architectural designs were limited to mostly monochrome in Europe until color appeared in the 17th century. Over the next 200 years, the use of color in architectural plans gave rise to a new category of creator: the painter-architect. Unessential Colours: Architecture on Paper in Modern Europe by Basile Baudez (Princeton University Press) explores the reasons for the introduction of color into architectural design and its various functional and decorative uses throughout this period.
“Almost nothing has been written about the history of the use of color in the representation of architecture, either by architectural historians or color historians,” writes Baudez. Its meticulous and methodical study will probably appeal more to scholars than the general public, but whatever the audience, this richly researched and lavishly illustrated book sheds new light on this overlooked aspect of architectural history and practice. .
Architectural drawings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance were executed in a restrained palette of black and, in rarer cases, red inks. In Italian debates between the importance of color and design, influential thinkers like Alberti and Vasari warned against the use of color, which they believed could corrupt the purity and truth of a design. . Architects at the time occupied a more amorphous professional category and were keen to conform to a black and white standard.
As the Italian stance against polychromy spread to other parts of Europe – notably Spain – architects in regions like France, Germany and the Netherlands embraced color as a tool to imitate building materials and natural elements in their designs. This quality of imitation – green washes to indicate grasslands, for example – would soon be joined by conventional color codes developed in other fields like cartography and military engineering, where different hues visually classified, prioritized and organized information. The most enduring example of the symbolic meaning of color in architectural designs was pink, which represented masonry for decades.
In the second half of the 18th century, color transcended its original usefulness to take on sensual and decorative qualities. This stemmed in part from an explosion of saturated color in the daily domestic life of European elites, whose wallpapers, tapestries, furniture, and other household objects were then tinted with bright colors. Additionally, contemporary printmaking techniques have rapidly advanced, allowing architects to print their color images cheaply and efficiently.
Above all, Baudez points out, there was a lively cross-pollination between painters and architects, both of whom sought to entice viewers with dazzling painterly effects that brought the built space to life. As the French neoclassical architect Claude-Nicholas Ledoux wrote: “If you want to become an architect, start by being a painter. Non-essential colors retraces the complex history of Ledoux’s advice.
Unessential Colours: Architecture on Paper in Modern Europe by Basile Baudez is published by Princeton University Press.