Ancients Were Colorful

December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

I began this post many months ago when two articles (here and here)on the same day hatched one of those “huh…..” moments.  One article was about the death of Boston City Hall’s architect,Gerhard Kallman, and another about discovering Rome’s Arch of Titus was a colorfully painted monument for one of Roman’s great leaders. These two articles, a Brutalist monocrom masterpiece and an ancient classical arch led me to believe that maybe we modern men have the whole color prism flipped. I had believed that the cultures of the past lived in the world I see uncovered today – gray stones and weathered rock.  But maybe this is not only false but incredibly wrong. And if it is wrong, how has architecture been affected by this perception?

Color in the ancient world was definitely far from absent, and notions that the archeaological remnants show us an accurate portrait may only touch the surface of how our ancient cities, monuments, temples, and baths actually looked. Color in antiquity was not only gray, it was likely varied and vibrant.  Examples abound, the Chinese terra cotta warriors were brightly painted. The Minoans painted their palaces in bright colored frescoes. Roman baths have been uncovered showing an amazing pallete of color.  But what the modern world has seen for hundreds of years are these examples void of their finish. The great paint stipper, time, has left only the bleached bones of buildings. Did this lack of color influence those architects who have and are designing in a neo-classical, or even brutalist, style.

Did Inigo Jones imagine color in his studies of Rome and Greece?  What were the ancient cultures views on color? It is not difficult to say color was more important to them than form, even by the set limits they had of creating complex curves and span.

Beyond materials use there is no wonder we get museums and libraries, state capitals and banks looking like the color of the Pantheon. Not then, but now. Has this pallette of white, black, gray been so ingrained in architecture that even our incredible feats of material and engineering still can create buildings that are unfinished in white, black, gray?


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