clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The color of your city

As neighborhoods change over time, color is a bridge between tradition and invention

When you think about your city, what colors come to mind? When I think about London my head fills with an image of the gray water of the Thames, under a gray sky in the rain, surrounded by the raw gray concrete of Brutalist architecture. There’s the white of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance, and the black edge of the endless, demanding city. This monochrome is either dull or sharp depending on the day, but it’s not the whole story.

Because there’s a third color to London, and it’s the one that gives the city its heart: gold. Go up to King’s Cross, the neighborhood at the northern edge of central London, and it’s right there, alongside the black and white: two Victorian marvels of architecture in golden colors. Looming large on one side is the redbrick beauty of gothic engineering that is St. Pancras station, and on the other side is the plainer King’s Cross station. For me the simpler building is the more elegant of the two, for the main attraction of King’s Cross rail terminus isn’t the wide, sweeping arches. It’s the classic London stock brick: the yellowbrick. There are plenty of grandiose buildings around the city, but plain yellowbrick is the bread and butter of this city. Gold is the perfect color for a place so often covered in fog and rain, providing an uplifting sunny yellow that looks almost better when it’s wet.

But this was never a conscious decision: The gold tones of London were an accident of nature. The yellowbrick is made from London clay, which is rich with minerals deposited by the river Thames on its journey to the sea. When fired, the bricks come out in a range of yellows, from whitish and ochre to brown and purple. London’s ever-present yellow is the result of a Georgian building boom that relied on local materials.

All over the world, the colors of cities can be traced back to similarly unglamorous practicalities. A color scheme that begins with weather and materials becomes habit and tradition. These patterns are then broken by whims: A local personality decides to add a whitewash to his or her brick house and suddenly everyone on the street wants to do it too. The old, grimy bricks are derided and dismissed in favor of more fashionable materials—stucco, paint, wooden shingles—before bricks are eventually rediscovered and celebrated as the original. Nowadays we can choose to build in pretty much any color, material, or style, but a city can only have so many rule-breaking statement buildings before it starts looking like a place without history. As the city changes over time, color can be a bridge between tradition and invention.

Walk around the back of King’s Cross station and you get to Pancras Square, an extensive brownfield regeneration scheme spanning the Regent’s Canal. There are lots of classic yellowbrick buildings there still, as well as several looming wrought-iron frames, the biggest now transformed into a park. These former gasholders are what inspired Eric Parry, founder and principal of Eric Parry Architects in London, when he conceived of the 11-story commercial building I’ve come to look at: 4 Pancras Square. It’s a thoroughly modern building with strong ties to the past: The whole thing shines with a blazing golden color as it’s made from contemporary weathering steel, a material that deepens in color over time without risk to its integrity.

“You get a skin on the material over time. The rust brown is beautiful,” says Parry. He chose to use weathering steel because of its color and the way it expresses material: “The rawness of that post-industrial place seemed to me to give it a sculptural quality, and an integrity that other materials wouldn't.” Offsetting the bold color are sharp black edges, as well as shading made from the same white glazed ceramic used throughout London’s history in an effort to combat grime. There’s not a brick in sight, but the building has all the traditional colors of London in one grand, modern package. It’s traditional yet cheeky. “Four Pancras Square is of that [London] palette of warmth,” says Parry, referring to the tradition of using brick in golden hues across the city. “Brick is inherently warm. Rust is gorgeously warm. It has this rich quality in terms of chromatics, but also tone and texture.” This is how 4 Pancras Square makes its mark while also fitting in with the nearly 2,000-year-old story that is London: by using the colors that have stood the test of time.

"London is sepia-to-gray. Paris is sepia-to-absinthe. New York is sepia-to-Coca-Cola. That’s it.” Will Self emailed me this—spaced across four lines like a poem—when I asked the writer about which colors he associated with major cities. But I daresay Self full well knows that that is not it, as he wrote a whole book on psychogeography, the idea that the urban environment affects the people who live there.

There’s a myriad of color behind the gray and sepia, and if you pay attention, you’ll soon start to notice that a neighborhood, and even an entire city, has its own color palette. New York is brown, Berlin is red, Paris is aquamarine, and San Francisco is a pastel rainbow, I thought after visiting each of them. Sometimes this impression is based on the color of paint and stone, other times it’s natural elements, and sometimes it’s just a feeling. A city’s color palette may be so subtle that perception differs from person to person, while other times cities have blatantly obvious colors due to deliberate choices: Catania in Sicily is black, courtesy of the volcanic rock used to build many of its buildings. Greek Island towns are white because white reflects the light, and the Chefchaouen area of Rabat in Morocco is blue due to the belief that the color wards off mosquitos.

Color represents a city’s heritage. New York gets its brown color reputation from its classic brownstone buildings, found all over the city but most famously in Brooklyn and Harlem, and on the Upper West Side. Elizabeth Dillon, a principal at the Historical Concepts architecture firm in New York and a fellow of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, says the brownstone tradition started after the great fire in 1835, in an effort to find an affordable material that was more durable than wood. “It became the predominant middle-class building material,” says Dillon. “Marble was a little too rich, and limestone would have to be imported from farther away, so that’s where brownstone came in.”

Brownstone, which traditionally came from upstate New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, is a fluke of nature: It’s a sandstone that’s particularly dark due to its high iron content. Asked how brown fits into New York City architecture today, Dillon says her own instinct when designing a new building is always to examine the surrounding area first: “I want to make sure that we’re proposing something that’s continuous in the spectrum of the history and the local building materials, and that isn’t going to jump out. I think that’s part of working in a city: being a good neighbor.”

This kind of sensitive architecture is less likely to draw attention than the showier projects—Dillon mentions the Zaha Hadid-designed condo in Chelsea as one example of a building that departs from the standard local building materials. But even here, says Dillon, the color tradition is maintained: Hadid’s 520 West 28th Street “is glass, metal, and concrete in dark colors, it’s almost Gaudi-esque. Even though the geometry is different, the color is compatible with the history of the area.”

Laura Carrara-Cagni, a director at Edward Williams Architects in London, says that all towns begin with zero-kilometer material availability: “It starts from, ‘I’ve got this material here, I am using it, and that naturally becomes our identity.’” Then, as time passes and the town develops, the different social layers start to assert themselves and new trends and traditions are born. London may have started with all that yellowbrick, but as air pollution darkened the stone and people wanted something a little less somber, they started importing redbrick to spruce things up a bit, or they added a whitewash render to the brick. “Other people then see this kind of detailing and copy it. That’s how you get neighborhoods with different identities,” says Carrara-Cagni.

You could call these changes the whims of fashion, but as Carrara-Cagni points out, they become part of the culture, and they’re ingrained in how communities grow. “I’ve recently been in Central Asia and looked into the history of the Silk Road. As soon as the transportation between China and Europe was established, the fact that materials were traveling immediately disrupted the very local nature of [building and color traditions].”

This kind of detachment from history can create some jarring results, as seen in cities like Dubai or Doha that have sprung up seemingly overnight. “Astana in Kazakhstan is another city that hasn’t grown in layers like London has,” says Carrara-Cagni. “It appears as if someone looked around the world for buildings they liked and said, ‘I want one of those, one of those, and one of those.’ The city has some incredibly wacky buildings with random colors. It’s [done] in order to stand out from the Russian-inspired plain palette, but it struggles to come together harmoniously.”

This is why Carrara-Cagni is a big fan of gray—the color often criticized as an overused, boring choice in modern cities. It’s overused because it works. “It’s the combination of two complementary colors, so to the eye, gray is a harmony color,” she says. “It’s peaceful. Over gray, you can put any color and it will shine.” When you’re creating something new in an old city where space is at a premium, a color that knows how to get along well with others will be soothing to the eye.

Color is a vital tool for urban preservation. Stephen Smith, a partner at Wright & Wright Architects in London, says that when designing a new library and archive building for Lambeth Palace in South London, every effort was made to continue using the existing colors and materials. Lambeth Palace itself primarily consists of yellow-gray stone and some redbrick, but the primary inspiration for Wright & Wright’s design was the old gatehouse tower in red, black, and burnt brick. The new library and archive that grows out of the palace’s perimeter wall will have clean, modern lines, but the choice of redbrick ties it to the palace’s traditions. Black metalwork, as well as bronze, brass, and golden oak, are added to enrich the scheme. “We're trying to work with a limited color palette, bringing in richness with texture and patterning,” says Smith, whose practice is known for working in contemporary ways on heritage buildings. “We do a lot of projects where we have to extend, or work within an existing context. You have to take the opportunity to make a contrast, because if you make it too samey you're not offering a point of difference.”

The materials may change over time, but gold is still a color of choice all over London, and not just for heritage projects. Four Pancras Square’s weathering steel (often referred to as Cor-Ten, its genericized trademark name) has been a popular choice in recent years. Bennetts Associates chose it for a dramatic fly tower for the classic Shaftesbury Theatre in central London; Gpad London saw it as the natural choice to extend a yellowbrick building on Rivington Street in Shoreditch; Stiff + Trevillion used it to create a bold ochre roof section on an otherwise plain office building on Borough High Street in South London. “We’ve used Cor-Ten a couple of times on projects,” says Mike Stiff, Director of Stiff + Trevillion, the London architecture practice he co-founded in 1981. “It’s that notion of decay and oxidation that people find attractive. Cities change with time, don’t they, and that’s what Cor-Ten steel is all about.”

Despite not being a traditional material, weathering steel fits into the landscape of London, says Stiff, in part thanks to that London palette of yellow and red brick. There’s also a lot of off-white stucco in Regent’s Park and Belgravia, adds Stiff, and a patch of black brick around Berkeley Square in Mayfair. And everywhere there’s plenty of Portland stone; the white-gray limestone from Dorset that was used for St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace remains a prime choice for building in the capital because it holds its own even under the flat, gray light of English weather. Stiff + Trevillion chose Portland stone for a new building on Bishopsgate: “It’s in the center of the city, and you almost start from the point that you are going to be working with Portland stone,” says Stiff. This classic white was a natural choice for a building that would rub shoulders with both heritage buildings and the modern highrise that is Tower 42.

While Stiff is critical of many brightly colored buildings outside of central London, he’s not averse to the occasional bolder color choice—when the history of the area supports it. On that note, Stiff + Trevillion’s new design for Beak Street in Soho will be covered in green glazed brick. “Soho is a very tight piece of the city, the streets are very narrow,” says Stiff. You do get these opportunities [in places like Soho] to do something a bit more interesting. There’s a precedent of glazed ceramic brick in that area.” While green isn’t a big color in London architecture, it is arguably an unofficial city color: London is 47 percent green space. As much as any other color, London is defined by the green of its parks, garden squares, and tree-lined avenues.

Color is a significant element in a city’s spirit. Yellow taxis add bright streaks to the corners of New York; buses and post boxes give London a spirited red kick. Pittsburgh has its proud yellow bridges and Toronto loves its blue. In his 2016 New Yorker story “Patina,” Ian Frazier writes about how once he started looking, he realized the green copper color of the Statue of Liberty is repeated all over the city: on fire escapes, facades, and roofs. “New York City’s official colors are orange, blue, and white, but its secret, sustaining color is Statue of Liberty green,” writes Frazier. “Think of all the ideas that have been in people’s heads when they looked at the Statue of Liberty. What color could stand for those ideas? What color is freedom?”

Color is rarely a neutral choice. Revolutions arrive in color: saffron in Myanmar, carnation in Portugal, green in Ireland, red for the October Revolution in Russia; when artists protested Bolshevik rule by painting Moscow’s trees scarlet and violet, Lenin called it “mockery and distortion.” Color affects us mentally and physically in ways that remain surprisingly consistent across borders and social groups. It appears to be a universal language: like the sun, yellow is friendly and stimulating; like nature, green is calm and secure; like fire, red is arousing and aggressive. When a city is dominated by a color, does that mean the people who live there are influenced by its particular energy?

If, like with New York’s brownstones and London’s yellowbrick, the color of the city is decided by nature, we may not have a choice in these subtle influences. But equally often the color is determined by culture: when the Maharaja Ram Singh decided to paint the city of Jaipur pink in 1876, it was to welcome the prince who would become the future king of England—pink was for boys back then. After the American Civil War, a brand-new color was born as a protest: When the North sent black paint to be used in the reconstruction of Charleston, the locals mixed in a little yellow and blue and created Charleston Green.

Sometimes the color doesn’t even have to be repeated through the urban landscape to be part of its spirit—sometimes using it just once is enough to permeate an entire city. Think of the colors of San Francisco and one of them will undoubtedly be that burnt orange—you know the one. But this too was a happy accident, as the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t meant to be red (gray, black, and silver were all hot contenders). But when the bridge was first being built in 1933, the steel arrived already coated in a red lead primer. Consulting architect Irving Morrow traveled to the site by ferry from the East Bay, meaning that every day he watched as the red steel went up against the green hills and hazy blue sky. This sight was what eventually convinced him that international orange was the right choice. “The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the greatest monuments of all time,” Morrow wrote. “Its unprecedented size and scale, along with its grace of form and independence of conception, all call for unique and unconventional treatment from every point of view. What has been thus played up in form should not be let down in color.”

On a practical level, the color palette of San Francisco is somewhat trickier to pin down. The city is a rainbow, from the murals of the Mission to the endless rows of Painted Ladies. These Victorian houses were chosen as canvases by the Colorist movement in the 1960s, covering the buildings in vivid pastel combinations that emphasize their intricate patterns and textures. One of the people responsible for the way San Francisco looks today is Bob Buckter, the architectural colorist who calls himself Dr. Color. I catch Buckter on the phone one morning as he’s traveling to do a color consultation. But when I suggest the colors of San Francisco are pastels, he calls me out: “Pastel simply means light!” He laughs, apologizing for quashing my theory. “A pastel can be any hue: light gray, pink, peach, green. In San Francisco, the colors are all over the board. Everybody does their own thing.” In fact, Buckter makes sure people do their own thing: his color palettes are custom made for each customer based on her or his tastes. “I think it's the best thing,” he says. “Individuality is what makes the character of the city.”

Because paint and building materials are only half the story about a city’s color. When asked about the color of San Francisco, Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, starts talking about light: “Most people think of the San Francisco fog as a tone of gray. Then at the same time, as you walk through the neighborhoods and look at the Painted Ladies and that expansive use of color, that’s what seeps into the human consciousness. In a gray atmosphere, those brighter colors will really stand out.”

Some people will be more aware than others of the colors around them, says Eiseman, who’s one of the world’s foremost experts on color. “But even if you’re less aware, you’re bound to be sensitive to it,” she says. “Being in a certain atmosphere encourages and empowers people to use color in a certain way.” The Los Angeles sunshine is so bright it kind of sucks the color out, says Eiseman, freeing you to use bold colors that would look jarring and out of place in a more gloomy place like London. “But you have that great golden color permeation in the atmosphere in London—it keeps the city from getting too somber,” says Eiseman, referring to the yellowbrick. “It provides a sort of light, and in the human psyche it’s viewed as color. You get that sense of warmth.”

In this way, the city’s colors become a vital component of its atmosphere. “People are often drawn to an area because there’s something magical, exciting, comforting—whatever it is that they’re looking for when they choose a city to live in,” says Eiseman. She describes her own move to Seattle: “There was something calming here, an air of serenity in the colors that surround the city that we saw when we moved here; the colors of the downtown area, of the docks where the ferries left, and the water. All of this enters into your consciousness, so when you visit an area it may have an instant appeal, or it turns you off. Sometimes, it just makes you feel very much at home.”

Does the color shape the city, or does the city shape the color? It took me a decade of living in London before the gold at the heart of all that black and white became obvious to me. At the beginning it was just overwhelming monochrome, knockbacks, and exhaustion, because a city as vast as London isn’t something you can wrap your head around in a day or even a year. Few places in the world have the gravitas of London: nearly 2,000 years old, home to almost 9 million people, and a seat of cultural, economic, and political power. Gold is a demanding color, crass and sublime at the same time. It’s in constant opposition with itself, just like London is.

Even if they don’t realize it, the golden light lives in the imagination of Londoners, adding to whatever else they may be feeling about their home and their lives. Even though the golden color of London was a fluke of nature, it continues to influence the city as we’re building it today. We’re carrying on the color traditions of the past, but with a twist, because the city is never finished.

Editor: Sara Polsky


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform