City colour planning

Cities resonate – mostly accidentally – with flashes of emblematic colour …. the red double decker in London, the yellow cabs of New York. Some cities are even defined by their dominant architectural colour. Jaipur is called the Pink City after repainting all its buildings in warm pink hues in a gesture of welcome to the Prince of Wales in 1876. Jodhpur – by contrast – the Blue City – painted its buildings a cooling blue colour to offset the summer heat.

But colour planning is hardly recognized as an organizational urban design tool today.

My first study in colour was along the riverside in Greenwich, an industrial cacophony of containers, cranes, painted sheds and depots, oil drums, a clash of reds, yellows and blues blazing amidst the grey wilderness of the industrial Thames, Kipling’s “Dark Waters” with it’s grey muddy banks and decaying black timber piers. It was this dramatic contrast of colours – all the way upstream – that first captured my eye. Paradoxically, colour brought some order and rhythm to the scene, and it was here I devised my first urban colour planning scheme, a proposal to co-ordinate the riverside through the repainting of industrial sheds in specific colours.

Soon after, my interest took me to Turin, one of the few living examples of colour planned on an urban scale. In the 1800’s Turin’s Council of Builders devised a co-ordinated chromatic system for the city’s major processional routes, commencing at the natural arrival point of the city – the station – and culminating in the main square – the Piazza Castello. The major routes were interconnected with a network of smaller streets, for which secondary and varied colour sequences were developed, using around 80 different colours. The plan has been re-instated in the last two decades. Warm pink and reddish hues are used in the piazzas, designed to encourage the visitor to linger; whilst cooler blues and yellows are used on interconnecting streets, encouraging the pedestrian to move more quickly through space. You can see the full effect and plans here.

Gaudi believed in the ability of colour to create the “sensation of life”; certainly, it can stimulate our perceptions of a city, make it a brighter more cheerful place to live in and resonate in our imaginations long after we’ve left.