The Nuance of Color in Architecture (Vendula Hnídková)

Cccompanying text to the exhibition A Colony of Freedom (Possibilities of the New National Style) 

Colors utilized on and within architecture automatically incite emotion, create an atmosphere. They are unavoidable, impressive, even if we perceive structures as colorless.

Every epoch in the dynamic evolution of style the architecture of the 20th century had undergone showed a different relation to the color schemes of buildings and their significance. The “white” functionalism or the “grey” panel social housing can emerge in a direct association. Other less commonly known styles too, however, had an intense affinity for color, which remained one of the basic means of expression architects can work with and one that is easily accessible for the clients to comment on.

The National Style (otherwise known as Rondo-Cubism), connected by birth to the inception of Czechoslovakia in 1918, is represented by the two founding architects, Pavel Janák and Josef Gočár. The in no manner narrow handling of color in folk culture became a major source of inspiration, not only for these pioneers of new directions, but in many respects for the whole of Czech postwar art scene. It was also no coincidence that the same aesthetic precursor reappeared after World War II, when the mandatory Social Realism dominated local circles, itself perforce drawing on vernacular national traditions.

The inspiration found in folk motives, together with gaiety of color, was not, however, random. Partly, it arouse from a widespread interest in topical traditions and the affiliated collecting of folk art and craft products and artifacts, popular during the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, this phenomenon is best documented in the Slovak (Embroidery) Salon in the presidential apartment in Prague Castle, designed for Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk by Josip Plečnik, where a collection of needlework mounted on the walls constituted the main decorative component. At the same time, the Czech national trauma of the lost battle at White Mountain manifested itself in the orientation towards vernacular culture, with a reserved perception of high culture, represented especially by the aristocracy and the town patriciate as an alien invasion of our Slavic territory.

Meanwhile, the lively, nearly elemental palette of the National Style strived to respond to the Grey Historicism of the 19th century, as was the previous epoch was called by the protagonists of the postwar decorative expression. For after the saturated colors scheme of the Baroque and the more subtle variety of Rococo came the restraint, subdued colors of Neoclassicism and Biedermeier. The archeologists’ discovery of traces of the original polychromy on antique edifices, made through a rigorous study of a number of monuments, had given rise to an international sensation. Staggering many, the myth about the Greek and Roman structures being built strictly in natural stone tonality was debunked. This resulted in an intense application of color, most importantly in public buildings of the second half of the 19th century, with the best examples found on Ringstrasse in Vienna.

The society-wide euphoria from the foundation of the sovereign Czechoslovakia constituted another reason for the unprecedented use of colors and an abundance of decorative elements on buildings in the National Style as well. In the pair of the national colors, red and white, the architects resolved to manifest national values. What is not very apparent on the weather-worn facades today, made up a literal invasion of colors in the 1920s, often continuing to the interiors of mainly public edifices. Visitors can still observe this inside the Bank of the Czechoslovak Legion on Na Poříčí, Prague, or in the more intimate quarters of the Bartoň of Dobenín family’s castle in Nové Město nad Metují, which despite of all the political transformations has survived in an incomparable state of authenticity.

A color-rich period of Sorela, a Czech version of Social Realism at the turn of the late 1940s and early 1950s, was superseded by a mass social housing developments, accompanied by the grey panel house phenomenon. Readily targeted, the disconsolate reality of these estates and the uneasy life in the many incomplete provisoria were criticised by both the public and the expert and political circles. Yet the stereotypical reception of the panel houses as a grey mass contradicts the diverse truth.

Although architects went on to design panel houses, the dictate of the centralized construction firms and the local concrete plants supplying a limited number of prefabricated components severely impeded them professionally. Regardless of the difficult conditions, the public space in the estates was being enriched by artworks, while rhythms of window openings, balcony and loggia alternations, wooden veneers or large-scale graphical navigation systems variegated the panel houses themselves. Even the concrete panels occasionally acquired a particular hue, albeit in a tempered intensity. Tinting the walls between windows, color accentuating the loggias and painting the gable walls in contrasting tones was quite popular. On closer inspection we discover that some habitation units were in fact colorful well before the insulation frenzy.

In the day of toppling all conventions, boundaries and taboos in culture or fashion, the medium of architecture also becomes more frequently a vehicle of individual expression. With regard to current availability of houses, older and brand new, owners often assert their wishes in a more radical, straightforward manner than they come out in the visions of professional architects. A “personal taste” thus doubtless manifests most markedly in color, particularly on a facade.

If one can understand the visual pomp of the 1990s in accord with the fading Postmodernism as a pure effluence of dazzle and joy of life after years of directive constraint and material deprivation, the contemporary state of affairs testifies only a general absence of taste.