Colours In Architectural Spaces

Last December, Richard Rogers who was one of the most innovative architects of the century, pioneering exoskeleton buildings such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Lloyd’s of London passed away. I remember looking at photos of his buildings and thinking ‘wow it’s such a daring move to use such bold colours’ and also in challenging the norm to highlight the mechanical and services of a building, rather than hiding them which is the most commonly adopted method. Those non-conventional approaches are the details that make his building instantly recognisable to architecture enthusiasts; a wide array of colours are commonly used in interior spaces, but on buildings, colours are typically used in a subtle manner. And it is not just his buildings that are given the colour treatment, I once had a birthday celebration at the River Cafe in Hammersmith, London by his partner Ruth Rogers, and he was unmistakably present in his signature bright green shirt and sky blue trousers.


Centre Pompidou in Paris by the late Richard Rogers. Image by Yann Arthus-Bertrand from Arquitectura Viva.

Looking at colours in architectural spaces, the term ‘colour psychology’ often appears as it stretches beyond the realms of selecting a colour for the sake of aesthetic. Colour psychology is the study of how certain colours impact human behaviour. In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published the Theory of Colors, which examined the psychological effects of colours and their impact on human emotions. Colour has the power to create specific atmospheres. Within each colour, the lightness and darkness of each colour also set a different tone. For each space, the colour choice is therefore important to suit the space’s purpose. For example, in areas for relaxation, a neutral colour like beige tones will set a relaxed atmosphere. If we’re trying to exude reliability at a bank or a medical clinic, shades of blue and even green may be a recommended colour palette to work with. As colour seems to have a direct link to psychological stimuli, it can also be intelligently used to complement the architectural language and volume for a project. In trying to understand the role colour plays in architectural spaces, one has the opportunity to make a better decision to deliver a fitting space to serve the purpose that each client desires to build.

Whether the colour is naturally present or artificially present, a selected colour can completely change the mood of a space. For example:

  • White gives the impression of cleanliness and purity
  • Red gives off a striking and stimulating effect
  • Blue exudes reliability
  • Green offers a sense of calm
  • Yellow portrays optimism and curiosity

Naturally occurring colours in plaster, such as Moroccan tadelakt plaster finish or plaster from Kyoto that reveals its coloured clays has a local charm because they are usually derived from local materials. The range of colours that can be obtained from a single material cannot be underestimated. I believe it is one of the many reasons that make seeing a space in the flesh reveals so much more than photographs.

One of the architectural projects that challenge architects even by today’s standards might be the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland. Paimio Sanatorium, a hospital project by Alvar Aalto that was completed in 1932, was thoughtfully designed with facilities such as having patient beds that utilises the rehabilitative effects of exposure to sunlight and air, but also in its careful selection of colours from the coloured metalworks to ceiling colours within the building. Alvar Aalto boldly utilised colours such as green, blue and yellow. Why green? It is said to encourage rest in a calm environment. Aalto’s extensive use of colours in Paimio Sanitorium was meticulously recorded by Eino Kauria, a Finnish decorative artist who produced a colour board in 1933, a year after the completion of the building. Hence, it is a built reference of the Paimio Sanatorium according to Aalto’s designs. This is useful to see Aalto’s original design intent, as the building has been renovated throughout the years, changing the original colour schemes selected by Aalto and his team.


Eino Kauria’s colour board of Paimio Sanatorium. Image by Maija Holma, Alvar Aalto Museum, 2016.

Through studying Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium which was introduced to me in 2014, I began to challenge the seemingly clear roles of walls, floors and ceilings of a building. If we think beyond the standard application of specifying the same colour for all walls, floors and ceilings, we may start to explore what might truly offer the best architectural experience for its users. If a dark colour is applied on the ceiling, in relation to the walls and floors, the space is perceived as a lower ceiling height space, which may be desired for a spa treatment room for example. In understanding what the client wants to achieve, coupled with a little bit of understanding of colour and how it affects our emotions when we are within a space, we can hopefully deliver architectural solutions that can be enjoyed by its users.

If you have any questions or would like to share any research materials relevant to colours in architectural spaces, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at