The Colour of Culture

Angel:”Is that red?”

Passerby:”Have you hurt yourself?”

Angel:”Is today a good day?… The pipes?”

Passerby:”They’re yellow.”

Angel:”What about him?”

Passerby:”He’s grey-blue… He’s orange… ochre.”

Angel:”Ochre or orange?”


Angel:”Yellow, red… and him?”

Passerby:”He’s green.”

Angel:”And what’s that… over the eyes?”


–Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire (1987)

Conceive of a system of metric measure calibrated to the finest grain imaginable–not metres, centimetres, or millimetres, but nanometres (nm)–one billionth of a metre. Imagine a dimensional range of 400 nm to about 700 nm. This is the entire wavelength range of the visible spectrum. Beginning at violet’s 400 nm, through blue, green, yellow, and orange to the 700-800 nm of red, the space of visible light is as illusory as thought itself. The astonishing fact–and the miracle of vision and colour perception–is that the human eye can perceive 8 to 12 million shades of colour within this microcosm of electromagnetic radiation.

The human eye may be among the keenest of instruments for perceiving colour, but every eye (and mind) is different. It is impossible to prove that one’s perception is either unique or, on the other hand, universal. Cobalt blue, light grey, orange brown, alizarin crimson, viridian, clear yellow, brown black, grey green; the late summer sky, a flag, a place, a painting, a city, a season, money… To hold these colours in the mind’s eye is to provoke a cascading surge of memory by association–to assign an empirical interpretation to such coloured imagery impossible. This is at least one of the reasons why architects are reluctant to use colour, and why we most often resort to intuition, precedent, and habit.

The profusion of colour that we take for granted in media (film, newsprint, and television) is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one way to contemplate the increasing colouration of the world is to revisit a contrasting black and white version. Three examples come to mind: the introduction of colour television, the use of colour in film, and the chromatic fall-out of the World Trade Center towers.

The most famous American black and white test pattern is the Indian Head monoscope pattern. Developed by RCA in 1939, it was generated by a monoscope for the calibration of television signals. In 1951 CBS launched the first commercial colour cast using the FCC-approved CBS Color System. The first prolonged television colour cast outside of a controlled studio environment was the broadcast of the famous Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California in January, 1954.

We can get a strong sensation of what this colour shift must have been like by watching the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire (1987). Having loitered in Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek (1966-78) and wandered through pre-unification Berlin’s no-man’s land, the angel (Bruno Ganz) gains his mortality on the free side of the graffiti-inscribed Berlin Wall. Wenders frames the angelic-human transfiguration by switching from black and white to colour–an exponential amplification of visual stimulation. One becomes aware of the black-and-whiteness of the previous scenes as the film sequences that follow become chromatically alive, mimicking the angel’s incarnation.

It is also possible to conceive the inverse of this transition. Asked to comment on the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, I tried to look at it from the perspective of visual culture. It occurred to me that the absence of chromatic value is a powerful metaphor for the corruption of the world. If the colours of power and wanted dead-or-alive retribution are red, white, and blue, then the colour of death and annihilation is the collapsing of all colours into neutral grey–the colour of ash and airborne asbestos fibre. In war the spectrum is neutralized as chromatic and moral entities intertwined: in New York the colours and fibre of modern steel and glass architecture blended with the immateriality of religious fervour.

Having proposed that colour has a physical, metaphysical, and moral dimension, a brief survey of the use of colour by Donald Judd, Gerhard Richter, and Agnes Martin sets the stage for a deeper appreciation of the three projects documented in this essay. To begin with, try to follow this mental exercise.

Imagine an assemblage of enameled aluminum boxes, synchronized in two horizontal rows, each box 6-15/16″ high, and either 11-7/8″ or 23-3/4″ long. Sixteen aluminum boxes, sorted in pairs as follows:

This code is, in fact, a precise description of Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1987, enameled aluminum, 2 units, each 11-7/8″ x 141-1/2″ x 11-7/8″. Judd spent his latter years perfecting the study of colour at his studio enclave in Marfa, Texas. Following Mondrian, Malevich, van Doesburg, and Albers, his work stands as this century’s epitome of colour abstraction. For Judd, colour could, for example, stimulate subtle reminders of the post-war road culture. The use of automotive paints and finishing techniques–disengaged from the actual production of cars–led to the discovery of cultural cues imbedded in the reflective and absorbing capabilities of paint. The forms of his sculptures were neutral, the colours exuberant. In his 1993 article “Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular,” Judd wrote that “Color in architecture began and ended with De Stijl.” Like Mondrian, Judd believed that art was to be put to the service of humanity. He expected that his research would be perpetuated by both artists and architects. His own high regard for architecture was evidenced by his reconstruction of a surplus military base in Marfa (now managed by the Chinati Foundation). Judd demonstrated that colour could be used to explore spatial dynamics, memory, material, and culture.

Two years ago I visited Mies van der Rohe’s Cullinan Hall at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston (1958). With most of the museum’s pre-20th century collection moved to the new Raphael Moneo-designed annex across the street, Mies’ large glazed mezzanine held a sprawling exhibition from the museum’s abstract art collection. Three pieces in particular galvanized my chromatic sympathies. A box of 1/4″ thick copper sheet by Donald Judd rested on the floor. Orange light emanated from inside the open box–from its floor. Reaching into the box, it seemed possible to scoop up a handful of colour, purely a function of the reflection of orange light from a painted orange surface at the bottom of the box, yet the colour generated had an extraordinary tactile dimension: Judd had created a new atmospheric entity. Nearby, Gerhard Richter’s diamond-shaped red-orange paintings were, figuratively speaking, on fire. Both works were right off Albert Munsell’s chroma-hue-value scale.

At the west end of the mezzanine hung a 6′-0″ x 6′-0″ painting by Agnes Martin. Martin was first introduced to the world of architecture, as far as I am aware, in “The Grid, The /Cloud/, and the Detail,” art critic and historian Rosalind Krauss’ contribution to The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994) edited by Detlef Mertins. Martin, born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, is little-known outside the art world, but she is one of the most highly-regarded living painters of the 20th century. Her minimal line paintings–steadfastly refined over 30 years–are attempts, as she says, to paint beyond the object, beyond narrative, and indeed beyond colour. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Judd and Richter works, the Martin painting was little more than a series of grey on grey horizontal lines. The numinous colours she prefers to work with (greys, faded greens, pale yellows, grey-blues) are supplemented only by pencil lines and white gessoed canvas. Verging on the imperceptible, the faintly coloured paintings palpitate. They convey everything and nothing. “I’m looking for perfect space,” Martin said. In contemplating the paintings, it’s difficult not to draw associations with the prairie landscape where she grew up. Martin has proven that infinite vistas and a
meditative state of mind can be folded and compressed into a single canvas.

Judd and Martin have analogues in recent Manitoba art and architecture, and three projects documented here describe how experiments in colour can bridge the gap between art and architecture.

Rodney LaTourelle is a graduate landscape architect and writer who–in his most recent work–has crossed over from landscape design into the realm of art. Based in Winnipeg, LaTourelle has discovered a spatial/artistic hybrid. He has transcended the experiments of Judd, by providing for the full immersion of body in coloured light–a walk-in painting. LaTourelle’s experiments are transitional–they bridge the gap between art and architecture. His prototypes suggest endless possibilities for spatial and metaphysical life. The Donald Judd box in Houston was the first time I had experienced the possibility of tactile colour. LaTourelle’s boxes allowed me to submerge myself in a green/silver and red/gold ether.

Following Judd, LaTourelle has de-materialized the setting. Using only household paint on gypsum wallboard and wood stud framing, the boxes are, materially, almost worthless. But there are important and fundamental lessons to be learned from this work. LaTourelle is leading us into a new field of colour experiment, where art and architecture merge as they respond to the complex psycho/physio/social possibilities of our existence.

Operating as DIN for several years, Neil Minuk and Jae-Sung Chon have built a reputation for innovative and craft-based design (see CA July 1998). DIN has worked consciously to engage landscape, craft, and colour in their projects. Their knowledge of materials and construction has been acquired through a strong legacy of design-build experiments. The power and expanse of Lake Winnipeg provides a formidable visual frame for the latest project by DIN. Folded neutral plates shape the space of the house, interlocking it with the sky. Beach sand is drawn up to the house, and ramps span from house to land on both east and west facades: derivatives of marine vocabulary.

It is not difficult to surmise how colour might be extracted from such a saturated landscape. In the late 1970s I spent several summers teaching sailing and canoeing on Lake Winnipeg. On the water every day, I learned something about the colour reversal of that particular sky. We looked east to watch the setting sun–east because colours of orange and fuchsia were most often reflected by the ever-present cumulus clouds hovering above the lake. At night, under moonlight, we canoed miles from shore on silver liquid-mercury water.

The essence of the project benefits from an auspicious intertwining of like-minded individuals–LaTourelle, the landscape architect/artist; Chon, teaching in the Graduate Architecture program at Manitoba; and Minuk, teaching architecture, designing, and promoting international art and culture through his heavy involvement at Winnipeg’s Plug In Gallery.

Stone House

A new house on Henderson Highway north of Winnipeg has been designed by Sotirios Kotoulas for his family. The house rests comfortably within a historical and geographic setting: a reiteration of the early Scottish domestic architecture from more than 200 years ago that still exists across the Red River. Much of Manitoba’s essential architectural history is manifest in the region. The house is situated on the eastern shore of the Red facing west, with gnarled oak trees enfolding the rectilinear forms.

Agnes Martin’s work resonates with the Stone House. This architecture arises out of a desire for a meditative state of mind and is based on reflection and abstract imagery. While the designer’s intention was to extract colour, it is overwhelmingly colourful. The blues and greys of the sky and trees are reflected in the highly polished white Grecian marble floor. The windows establish selective views from the house into the oak forest, the reflexive and reciprocal image of which is cast back onto the polished marble floors–a forest within–and colour in season floods the house. The sunset reds and yellows of winter pierce the stark blue-white volumes.

I suspect Agnes Martin would appreciate the lines within lines of subtle colour that penetrate the voids and volumes of the house at various times of the day. Made of the heaviest of materials, the house is the most ephemeral of recent projects in Canada. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the stoic modernism of Scandinavia; perhaps modernism is, in essence, best suited to the northern latitudes, where the full complexity, subtlety and range of scattered opalescent light is available in a pristine winter landscape with high levels of ambient light.


The body is an instrument that absorbs and processes light and colour irrespective (or beyond the capability) of the functioning eye. I once walked through the National Gallery in Ottawa with Kitty Scott, Curator of Contemporary Art, who had installed a particularly moving exhibit on the theme of beauty. On one wall hung a series of three huge cloud paintings by Gerhard Richter. To their left was a series of photographs of unusual quality by Sophie Calle (Les Aveugles/The Blind, 1986). The photographs were based on conversations with people–blind from birth–about what they saw. In particular “No.16: This view from my balcony” led me to think about the visual properties of the body, and the possibility of lightless sight–or conversely, sightless light.

It may be that Calle’s representation of the intangible and bodily absorption of light best explains colour phenomenon in architecture: the unmistakably euphoric feeling one gets walking through Rodney LaTourelle’s chromatic spaces; the passing seasons under a big blue sky in the Z House; the overriding primitive/modern calm of the Stone House. And if a case can be made for this hidden dimension of colour–that we are able to perceive subconsciously both visible and invisible electromagnetic waves passing into and through the body–then the intelligent use of colour in architecture becomes even more critical.

Herbert Enns is Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba and a Contributing Editor to Canadian Architect.


Chronochroma is a series of works that investigate the relationships between light, colour, space, and the body. The series developed a vocabulary of “three dimensional painting” by using a variety of spatial transitions, colour associations, and oscillating rhythms of reflection and absorption. The installations combined painting and architecture not to produce discrete objects but to explore territories of space with various qualities of light.

The installation in Winnipeg’s Plug-In Gallery (April 1999) consisted of two tunnel-shaped rooms (24′ x 8′ x 8′) painted with oscillating bands of saturated colour and metallic paint. The rhythm of light bands allows the visitor to be immersed in a space created by modulated light. The space changes in response to shifting window light as well as the reflection of the viewer in the space. The viewer cannot help but affect the light and space, which in turn affect the perception of the space.

There was a totally different experience of space in the two rooms. For many people, the green and silver space seemed more expansive, open, cooler, distanced, and futuristic, and people felt lighter and more exposed. The red and gold room had connotations of exoticism, of drawing rooms, parlours, decadence. The room seemed hotter at the opening and seemed more sheltering and cozy.

In the Fehrbelliner Hoffe in Berlin (September/October 2000) I constructed the installation in collaboration with Gruppe Bromsky and it was situated in an abandoned factory occupied by an independent artist group, CC4. Solidity and transparency (prominent devices discussed in recent architectural debates in Berlin) were invoked primarily as perceptual tools.

This piece used much more evocative colours in an attempt to create and compose spaces of colour like a painting. There was a striking entrance area of orange and fuchsia that
led past a yellow-green threshold into a silver passageway that looped back across the yellow-green threshold into a tunnel of blues. A parallel tunnel worked with a sequence of fleshy pinks.

In this work, the high chroma of the colours was important and provided a depth of colour that seemed to dematerialize the wall or ceiling surface. The strange juxtapositions of strong colours (pink, orange) with the use of colour gradations (blue, light blue) seemed to construct diverse spaces and feelings to the installation.

–Rodney LaTourelle

Z House

The Z House is a seasonal residence of approximately 2,600 sq. ft. Commissioned by a Winnipeg family and intended as a leisure destination for extended family and friends, it is located at the northern edge of Gimli, a community of Icelandic origin on the south Lake Winnipeg basin. The residence sits next to a new golf course and lakefront subdivision and has a private beach.

The form is intended as a mediation between two differing conditions: the sandy beach landscape of Lake Winnipeg to the east and the prairie landscape to the west. To the north and south, the building form responds as a wall relative to adjacent residences. The primary focus of the views is towards the lake. The east side is the most porous, visually and physically, whereas the west side is more restrained.

The construction of the residence is wood frame on concrete grade beam. Major materials consist of large blocks of flat grey stucco, fir plywood flooring and wall panelling, white drywall walls and ceilings, and grey linoleum. All furniture, inside and out, is either built in or custom designed. Many of these millwork items are painted with dense colour (orange, green, fuchsia). These are intended to be read as abstract colour patches in a neutral field.

–Jae-Sung Chon, Neil Minuk (DIN)

Client: name withheld by request

Design team: Jae-Sung Chon, Neil Minuk

Colour consultant: Rodney LaTourelle

Structural: Kowalchuk Engineering

Contractor: Jeff Genn

Millwork: James Jordan, Jim Nowicki

Area: 2,800 sq. ft.

Budget: $280,000

Completion: 2001

Photography: Kathryn Stuart unless noted

Clients: Chrysoula and Konstantine Kotoulas

Design team: Sotirios Kotoulas, Francisco Rodriguez

Structural: Hanuschak Consulting Structural Engineers

Mechanical: D+L Mechanical

Electrical: Derek Pakosh/Derek, Werx Electric

Contractor: Alpha Masonry (Konstantine Kotoulas)

Kitchen: John Pawson, Obumex

Area: 6,000 sq. ft.

Budget: withheld by request

Completion: July 2001

Photography: Sotirios Kotoulas