Color in Architecture: How color affects the emotions & visual effects of buildings

Color in architecture refers to the intentional use of different hues, tones, and saturations of color to shape the visual and emotional experience of a space...
Color in Architecture

Colors play an important role in shaping our perception of the world around us, and this is particularly true when it comes to architecture.

From the use of bold hues to create a sense of drama, to the subtle use of neutral tones to evoke a feeling of calm, the way that colors are used in architecture can have a profound impact on the way we experience a space.

In this article, we explore the relationship between color and architecture, looking at the different ways in which architects have used color throughout history, and examining the emotional and psychological effects that different colors can have.

We will also take a closer look at the cultural and symbolic associations of color and the role that light plays in shaping our perception of color in architecture.

Color in architecture

Color in architecture refers to the intentional use of different hues, tones, and saturations of color to shape the visual and emotional experience of a space. It is an integral part of the design process, and can be used on various elements of a building such as walls, floors, ceilings, facades, and even on the surrounding landscape.

Color is used to create a desired ambiance, guide the viewer’s eye, create a sense of depth and movement and even influence the way people interact with a space. The use of color in architecture is not limited to the interior of a building, but it also plays a crucial role in shaping the exterior of a building and how it relates to its surroundings.

Why is it important?

The relationship between color and the built environment is complex and multifaceted. Color can be associated with psychology, symbolism, and even mysticism. It can take on different meanings depending on the artistic, historical, or cultural context, and be perceived differently based on ever changing factors such as lighting and surface texture.

It plays a crucial role in shaping the overall ambiance and atmosphere of a space, and can create desired emotional responses, such as tranquility, excitement, or warmth. It can also be used to guide the viewer’s eye and create a sense of depth and movement.

What does it do?

The visual effects of color on the perception of space can be striking. When applied to different surfaces in a neutral environment, colors can create the illusion of depth, movement, and spatial manipulation.

For example, a darker shade on the ceiling can make an area feel lower, while applying color to the central wall can create the illusion of a “spatially shortened” area. On the other hand, applying color to all walls can create the perception of a much longer space.

Additionally, painting only the lateral walls can create a sense of narrowing, while painting the central wall and ceiling in the same hue can make the a room feel like its expanded. The use of color in conjunction with the placement of darker tones can also be used to lower the perceived height of a space or draw attention to a specific area.

The use of warm colors can create a sense of intimacy and coziness, while cool tones can create a sense of spaciousness and openness.

A sense of harmony and balance can be achieved by choosing colors that complement each other and work together …the list goes on.

It’s important to note that colors don’t exist without light, and the way light interacts with a space and its surfaces can greatly affect how colors are perceived.

Historical examples

Throughout history, many architects have used color in unique and creative ways. For example, Luis Barragán’s use of color evokes emotions and creates a sense of spatial purity, while Siza Vieira’s use of achromatism creates a sense of simplicity and minimalism.

Ricardo Legorreta, on the other hand, uses exuberant colors inspired by Mexican culture, creating a lively and vibrant atmosphere. Other architects such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Alvar Aalto, also have made use of color in their designs, each with their unique approach and style.

Le Corbusier, for instance, was known for his use of bold, primary colors in his buildings, which he believed would create a sense of harmony and balance. He also used color as a way to highlight certain architectural features and direct the viewer’s eye through the space.

Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other hand, was known for his use of natural colors, such as earth tones, to create a connection between the building and its surroundings. He also used colors in a way that would enhance the natural light in a space and create a sense of warmth and coziness.

Alvar Aalto, similarly, used natural colors to create a sense of harmony and connection to nature in his buildings. He also used color to create a sense of movement and guide the viewer’s eye through the space. Each architect’s use of color, whether it’s through bold statements or subtler hints, serves to enhance the overall architectural experience, and adds a layer of meaning and significance to the spaces they create.

The emotional and psychological effects of color

Color plays a crucial role in shaping the user’s experience and perception of a space, creating moods, influencing the user’s behavior, and evoking specific emotions and associations that are closely linked to cultural and symbolic meanings.

Visual effects of color on perception

Color can have a significant impact on out visual perception, creating the illusion of depth, movement, and texture. The use of warm colors such as red, orange, and yellow can make a space feel smaller and more intimate, while cool colors such as blue and green can make a space feel larger and more expansive.

This is because warm colors tend to advance, or come forward, while cool colors tend to recede, or move backward. As designers we can use this effect to create a sense of depth and movement in an area, making it appear larger or smaller than it actually is.

Additionally, the use of contrasting colors can create the illusion of texture. Where we can use different shades of the same color to create a sense of depth and movement, or use contrasting colors to create the illusion of texture. For example, the use of a light-colored wall next to a dark-colored wall can create the illusion of texture, making the space appear more interesting and dynamic.

Color can also be used to create a sense of hierarchy, by using different colors to draw attention to specific areas or elements, such as using a bright color to highlight a focal point or using a bold color to create a sense of drama. This technique is often used to guide the user’s eye and direct them towards a specific elements or feature.

Psychological and emotional effects of color on users

Color can evoke specific emotions and associations that are closely linked to cultural and symbolic meanings. Different colors can evoke different emotions and associations, such as red being associated with passion and excitement, while blue is often associated with calmness and tranquility.

We can use color to create specific moods and atmospheres, such as using warm colors to create a cozy and inviting atmosphere, or cool colors to create a serene and peaceful atmosphere.

The psychological effects of color can also vary depending on the context and the individual. For example, while red is often associated with passion and excitement, it can also be associated with danger and warning.

Similarly, while blue is often associated with calmness and tranquility, it can also be associated with sadness and depression. as designers, we must take this into account and ensure that the colors they use evoke the desired emotional response in the user.

Color can also have a significant impact on the user’s behavior. For example, warm colors such as red and orange can increase heart rate and blood pressure, making us feel more energized and stimulated. Cool colors such as blue and green can have the opposite effect, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure to evoke a calm and relaxed feeling.

This effect can be appropriated for specific activities, such as using warm colors in a gym or workout space to increase energy and motivation, or using cool colors in a library or study area to promote focus and concentration.

Cultural and symbolic associations of color

Different cultures have different meanings and associations with color, and we must take this into account when designing for a specific cultural context. For example, in traditional Chinese architecture, red is considered a lucky color and is often used in auspicious occasions, while in Western architecture, white is often associated with purity and innocence.

In traditional Islamic architecture, the use of geometric patterns and bright colors is common in decoration, these patterns and colors have a symbolic and religious meaning, they are used to create a sense of awe and to evoke a spiritual connection.

In addition, the cultural and symbolic associations of color can vary within a culture as well. For example, in Western cultures, black is often associated with elegance and sophistication, while in Eastern cultures, black is often associated with mourning and death.

We must be aware of the cultural and symbolic associations of color when designing for a specific demographic or community. For example, when designing a space for a religious community, we must take into account the religious and cultural associations of color and ensure that the colors used are appropriate and respectful.

The role of light in shaping color perception

Light plays a significant role in shaping color perception, with different colors appearing differently in natural and artificial light.

Natural light can greatly influence how a color is perceived. For example, warm colors such as red and orange appear brighter and more vibrant in natural light, while cool colors such as blue and green appear more muted and subdued.

Natural light can be used to enhance or change the visual perception of an area and the emotional impact of color. For example, by designing a room with large windows to take advantage of natural light, we can create a warm and inviting atmosphere using warm colors.

Artificial light can also have a significant impact on color perception. Different types of artificial light, such as incandescent, fluorescent, and LED, can change the appearance of a color. For example, incandescent light can make warm colors appear more yellow, while fluorescent light can make cool colors appear more blue.

In addition, intensity, direction, and quality of light area equally as impactful. The intensity and direction of light can greatly impact the perception of color, with bright light making colors appear more vibrant and dark light making colors appear more muted. The quality of light can also impact color perception, with warm light making colors appear more yellow and cool light making colors appear more blue.

What is the role of color in architecture?

As discussed, the colors used in a building or room can have a profound impact on how people feel physiologically and psychologically.

In architecture, the use of color can have complex effects on the user’s emotions. The color of a room can create a specific mood, while the façade of a building can be perceived differently depending on its color. This section will explore the emotional associations of different colors and how they can be used in architectural space to create specific moods and atmospheres.

Yellow

Yellow is a vibrant and attention-grabbing color that can have a significant impact when used in architecture. Its intense nature commands attention and draws the eye. Psychologically, yellow is often associated with happiness and invigoration.

When used in a building, it can evoke these emotions for the inhabitants, even if it was not the intention of the designer. Yellow can be used to create a cheerful, lively and optimistic atmosphere. Its ability to make people happy is undeniable, but should be used with caution as too much yellow can be overwhelming and overbearing.

Its friendly and quirky associations make it a popular choice for children’s spaces such as daycares and kindergartens. Its radiance can also make a grey or somber space instantly livelier. Paler or more orange hues of yellow may appear calmer and less intense, making them a good option for spaces that need a touch of warmth without being overwhelming.

The Tetrisception / Renesa Architecture Design Interiors Studio. Image © Vibhor Yadav

Examples

Inter-Generation Centre by Dominique Coulon & Associés, Venarey-les-Laumes, France

Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre by Hashim Sarkis Studios, Abbasiyeh, Lebanon

Morangis Retirement Home by Vous Êtes Ici, Morangis, France

Red

Red is a warm and vibrant color that can evoke a range of emotions and associations. It is often associated with passion, excitement, and warmth, making it a popular choice for interiors where energy and excitement are desired. For example, it is often used in restaurants, nightclubs, and other entertainment spaces to create a lively and dynamic atmosphere.

Red can also be associated with danger and warning, making it appropriate for areas where caution is necessary such as emergency exits, fire alarms, and other safety features. For example, in a public transportation system, red is often used to mark emergency exits and other safety features, making it easy for people to find them in case of an emergency.

In addition, red can be associated with love and passion, which makes it a perfect color for romantic and intimate areas such as bedrooms and hotels. It can also be associated with power, strength, and confidence, making it appropriate for spaces where these qualities are desired such as executive offices and boardrooms.

Examples:

The Couch by MVRDV, IJburg, Netherlands

Serpentine Gallery by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, London, United Kingdom

The Red House by Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects_ JVA, Oslo, Norway

Innovation Lab / AIM Architecture. Image © Dirk Weiblen

Orange

Orange is often overlooked as a color in architecture, seen as too subtle to make a statement or too dull to evoke strong emotions. However, this warm color has the ability to imbue a space with a sense of life and vitality. Its associations with energy and enthusiasm make it a powerful tool for architects to create spaces that inspire strength and courage in their occupants.

Orange is less intense and aggressive than red, making it a calmer option while still being bright and cheerful. Additionally, because it is less aggressive, it can be used in larger quantities without being overwhelming. Orange can be a great way to add warmth, vitality and cheerfulness to a space.

Examples

The Orange Cube by Jakob+MacFarlane, Lyon, France

Why Factory Tribune by MVRDV, Delft, Netherlands

Cykelslangen/The Bicycle Snake by DISSING+WEITLING architecture, Copenhagen, Denmark

Missouri State University – Level 1 Game Center / Dake | Wells Architecture. Image © Architectural Imageworks

Green

Green is not a typical color used in architecture, but it can be highly effective in creating a soothing and relaxing environment. Emerald green or pastel green are particularly effective in this regard. Even neon green, while bright, can appear calmer than other neon colors.

However, it is important to be mindful of the shade of green used, as yellow-green can appear clinical when used in conjunction with white.

Externally, green walls and green roofs can convey a sense of sustainability and suggest friendly warmth. The use of green in architecture can not only create a calming atmosphere but also communicate a commitment to environmental responsibility.

Examples

Habitat 825 by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA), West Hollywood, Calif., United States

Expansion of Government Offices by CrystalZoo, Alicante, Spain

hERZberg by feld72 architekten zt gmbh, Vienna, Austria

Family Box Qingdao / Crossboundaries. Image © Xia Zhi

Blue

Blue is a cool and soothing color that is often associated with calmness, tranquility, and security, making it a popular choice for spaces where serenity and peace are desired. For example, it is often used in bedrooms, bathrooms, and other relaxing spaces to create a peaceful and soothing atmosphere.

Blue can also be associated with trust and reliability, making it appropriate for areas where trust and security are important such as financial institutions, hospitals, and other public spaces. It can be used to create a sense of trust and professionalism, making it easy for people to feel secure and comfortable in these environments.

In addition, blue color can be associated with the sky and the ocean, which makes it a perfect color for where these associations are desired such as nature-inspired spaces, or spaces that need a sense of open and vastness such as waiting rooms and lounges.

Examples

Stade Océane by SCAU architects, Le Havre, France

BIG by BUREAU A, Geneva, Switzerland

Swimming Pool in Bagneux by Dominique Coulon & Associés, Bagneux, France

Wehrhahn-Line Düsseldorf / netzwerkarchitekten. Image © Jorg Hempel

Purple

Purple, like blue, can create a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere, particularly when using pastel shades in diffused light settings. However, neon purple, particularly in lighting, can add a sense of fun, brightness, and excitement to a space.

Its unique and striking nature can make a lasting impression on those who see it. It is a color that can evoke feelings of luxury, elegance and mystery, making it suitable for high-end spaces such as hotels, spas, and upscale spaces.

Purple is not a commonly used color, but it can have a powerful impact when used correctly. Its association with royalty and wealth can convey a sense of sophistication and privilege. Even small doses of purple can create an impression of prestige and exclusivity.

Examples

Garware Club House by Shashi Prabhu & Associates, Mumbai, India

Boutique Almira Sadar by SADAR + VUGA, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Woo Nam Jai by IROJE KHM Architects, Seoul, South Korea

Ziggo Dome / Benthem Crouwel Architects. Image © Jannes Linders

White

White is a commonly used color in modern architecture due to its connotations of purity, cleanliness, and simplicity. Its ability to create a sense of minimalism and uncluttered look makes it a popular choice for contemporary homes and art galleries.

Spaces such as hospitals, laboratories, and other interiors where cleanliness and hygiene are important often use white as it is associated with purity and cleanliness.

White can also create a sense of calmness and serenity, making it a popular choice for areas such as spas, meditation rooms, and other spaces where relaxation and tranquility are important. The use of white walls and ceilings can help diffuse light, making interior spaces appear brighter and more spacious.

However, white can also be associated with coldness and sterility, in certain situations it can be perceived as uninviting and unfriendly. It can therefore be important to use different shades of white, as some shades can evoke different emotions and associations.

Additionally, it is important to use other elements such as texture, lighting, and furniture to create a warm and inviting atmosphere to mitigate the potential negative effects of white.

Examples

Kaffee Partner Headquarters by 3deluxe, Osnabrück, Germany (pictured above)

Vilnius University Library, by R. Paleko Arch Studija, Vilnius, Lithuania

Extension of Hamborn Abbey by ASTOC Architects and Planners, Duisburg, Germany

Living Foz by dEMM arquitectura, Porto, Portugal

Black

Black is not a common color used in building design, but when used thoughtfully, it can create a cool and contemplative atmosphere. It can be used to evoke a sense of mystery and elegance, making it an effective color for spaces that want to create a sense of intrigue or secrecy.

For example, a black exterior façade on a high-end hotel or restaurant can make the building appear more sophisticated and exclusive.

Black is also associated with power and authority, making it a popular choice for spaces such as government buildings, law offices, and other spaces where power and authority are important. It can convey a sense of seriousness and gravity, making it a popular choice for spaces such as courtrooms and other spaces where a sense of gravity is important.

However, black can also be associated with negativity and depression, and in certain situations, it can be perceived as ominous and oppressive. It is important to use black with caution as it can create a feeling of negativity and depression if used in excess.

Thoughtful lighting within black interiors and on black exteriors can reduce the feeling of darkness and oppression. Black wooden architecture can appear rustic and introverted, while black metal detailing can feel sleek and modern.

Examples

No99 Straw Theater by SALTO, Tallinn, Estonia

Luxembourg Apartment by Metaform atelier d’architecture, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

ABC Building by WISE Architecture, Seoul, South Korea

Prestige Mall by DILEKCI Architects (DDA)

To conclude

In conclusion, color plays a crucial role in shaping the user’s experience of a space. The way a room is colored can have complex effects on how its users feel, while a façade can be perceived in dramatically different ways depending on how it is colored.

Architects use color in various ways to create specific emotional and visual effects, and the case studies demonstrate the diversity and complexity of the relationship between color and architecture.

The use of color in architecture is an important aspect of design that can greatly enhance the overall user experience of a building.

FAQs about color in architecture

What is an architectural color?

An architectural color refers to the use of color in the design of buildings and structures. This includes the use of color on the exterior and interior of a building, as well as the use of color in architectural details such as trim, molding, and other decorative elements. The color choices used in architecture can affect the overall aesthetic, mood, and functionality of a space.

Architects use color in various ways to create specific emotional and visual effects and to enhance the overall design and user experience of a building. Architectural color can be used to create a sense of harmony, balance, and continuity throughout a building and can also be used to help create a sense of identity, character and meaning to a building.

What is the best color for architecture?

There is no one “best” color for architecture as the choice of color is dependent on the design concept, context, and intended atmosphere of the building. Different colors can evoke different emotions and visual effects, and architects use color in various ways to create specific emotional and visual effects and to enhance the overall design and user experience of a building.

For example, white is often used in modern architecture for its connotations of purity and cleanliness. On exterior walls, it is conducive to dramatic shadows and flat, pristine facades, while interior white walls can make users feel calm but alert.

On the other hand, Black exteriors can create a sense of mystery and elegance, while natural colors can help a building blend in with its surroundings and create a sense of harmony and balance. Bright colors can create a sense of excitement and energy, while muted colors can create a sense of serenity and tranquility.

The best color for architecture is the one that serves the intended purpose and creates the desired atmosphere. It’s important to consider the design concept, context, and intended atmosphere of the building, as well as the cultural, symbolic, and psychological associations of the colors being considered.

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