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Boston Society of Architects

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True colors

Pops of color energize our public realm

Greenway Public Art 2019 Resonance

Resonance, Super A. The Greenway, Boston 2019.

Commissioned by The Greenway Conservancy. Photo by Richard T. Hawke

There is nothing more majestic than watching a New England winter melt into a vibrant spring landscape. Seemingly overnight, our landscape transitions into a new vibrancy, a phenomenon not unique to our particular region. We notice even the subtlest changes in, say, a desert. Our internal clock associates changes of tonality in the natural world with the environment’s temporal cycle, and with every season, we await that colorful fluctuation.

As early as 40,000 years ago, humans started trying to replicate the colors they experienced within the landscape as a means to evoke celebration and mark points in time. “Earth tones” conveyed a grounding in place, a sense of permanence. Each color had meaning, based on what it represented in the natural world. Over time our associations with those colors have become ingrained into our culture; deep down, they still tie us to the ephemerality of our natural world.

Not all of us have the luxury of “forest bathing” or tending a field waiting for the first signs of a new season, but we do have an urban version of that experience: a pop of color in our public realm. This expression—be it a mural, a field of flowers, or some architectural intervention—highlights a moment in time and a specific series of emotions that tie us specifically to place. It is the job of designers to provide the canvas for this cultural expression, yet it is not always part of the early stages of project conception. We don’t need to paint the side of every building pink or every bridge yellow to embrace color. All it takes is an acknowledgment that sometimes the best designs are left slightly unfinished to allow for the temporal and cultural expressions of color to take shape.

Why are we so timid with color in our public realm? Let us be bold, or better yet, let’s let others be bold by providing a canvas for them on which to work.

Color in the public realm

Colors across the spectrum give us a different emotion derived from both a psychological reaction as well as the entrenched historical context. The latter often comes from the initial uses of the pigments and their relative ease or challenges in reproduction. For example, blues and purples have often been seen as an indicator of wealth because they were hard to reproduce. Every color can be traced back to a specific origin, but when seen together, this rich history reveals one main point— expression. Color always has a purpose and always evokes emotion. As humans, that registration is as natural as breathing.

The visual public realm—the façades of buildings, streets, parks, and plazas—represents a perfect opportunity for this collective expression. Murals celebrate current social movements and important community figures, while colorful crosswalks call attention to dangerous intersections, and large-scale perennial gardens provide a moment to slow down and breathe in the fresh floral air. Color should not be seen as something permanent or simply an accent in an otherwise gray world; rather, color is an opportunity for generational markings, seasonal displays, and specific opportunities to evoke a tapestry of culture, such as the horticultural excellence of New York’s High Line or Montreal’s Pink Balls canopy. The public-realm designer needs to provide a canvas for the expression of others that can change seasonally with varying artistic displays. Ultimately, this canvas transforms and gives Boston a voice.

This introduction of color goes far beyond, say, simply placing colored glass-fiber reinforced concrete panels onto a building surface. The process of integrating color should mimic and celebrate the natural cadence of life or the expression of ideals or history. A great example of this is the integration of pastel movable chairs within Harvard Yard, which simulate the experience of spring among the subtle colors of the surrounding buildings. This temporality and seasonality can also be achieved through embracing large-scale sculptures, murals, supergraphics, and lighting. Just think about Time Square’s ever-changing tapestry of pop culture. This helps bring whimsy into the historic urban halls that are our streets.

Another critical aspect of color in our urban landscape is plant material, which can both integrate natural processes into our daily lives but also bring a tremendous amount of brightness into our gray urban setting. We are not talking about a couple of flowerpots here and there. We are talking about Los Angeles’ miles of Jacaranda street trees that bring an almost hallucinogenic purple tone to many of the city’s neighborhoods for several weeks of the year or the cherry blossom festivals in Washington DC, or the Lurie Garden in Chicago, which evokes botanical wonderment through ribbons of salvia right into the heart of the city. These uses of color are not simply beautification, they are emotional expressions that reach deep down to our core.

Doing it right

One city district that has fully embraced color as a primary driver of its public realm experience is Denver’s River North (RiNo) district. Officials there work to ensure that the new public realm being crafted from the area’s industrial past intentionally integrates moments of colorful expressions that mark the seasons and particular moments in time.

“Sight is one of our five basic senses, and color is a critical component in understanding and interpreting the world around us,” says Tracy Weil, executive director of the RiNo Art District. “A beautiful patina on weathered materials gives us an insight into a building’s or product’s life story; vibrant planting provides an indication of the richness of the soil beneath; colorful street murals interpret moments in history—and then become moments themselves. Using color isn’t about being exuberant and attention seeking; it’s about being honest and humane and should be the foundation of design, in all its forms, in the built environment.”

This philosophy brings moments of seasonal expression, such as temporary murals on the walls and streets, more permanent installations by local prominent artists, and pop-up installations that use bright colors to signify the coming of the seasons. When done wrong, this use of color is sometimes forced onto the fenestrations or is built permanently into the landscape, which immediately dates a project and reduces the importance of the color in our experience. The application of color should be about experimentation and being willing to step outside the norm and throw a little “paint” on the world.

Call to action, Boston

So why are we so timid with color in our public realm? Boston has several exceptional examples to point to, such as the seasonal giant mural at Dewey Square, the previously mentioned chairs at Harvard Square, or the horticultural displays on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. All of these are successful examples of pops of color, but in a city filled with creatives, these moments are too few and much too far between.

We can honor the rich historical context of our public realm while still thinking of it as a canvas for modern expression. Kassia St. Clair, author of The Secret Lives of Color (Penguin Books, 2017), states, “Colors, therefore, should be understood as subjective cultural creations: you could no more meaningfully secure a precise universal definition for all the known shades than you could plot the coordinates of a dream.”

Let’s be intentional about how we think of color. Let’s embrace places of cultural expression that use ephemeral drifts of hues to mark the passing of the seasons and the passing of the time. Next time we find ourselves crafting places for people, let’s purposefully design a canvas for others; more important, let’s look for moments in our existing public realm to show our true colors.

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