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Bright ideas

The AJ's 'True Colours' conference at the RIBA last month looked into the use of colour in architecture and how, if used intelligently, it can be more than just a lick of paint

The notion that colour can generate certain emotional responses has been mulled over for years and while there has been only an intermittent level of enquiry into the subject by academics, it has tended to be accepted, almost as common sense, that different colours can conjure different reactions in different situations for different people at different times. Little wonder, I suppose, that scientists have not really laboured over so many variables.

Even so, the proposition that some colours are calming, others provocative, has led many - especially in the advertising industry, in their attempt to influence our behaviour as consumers - to accept that colours, hues and shades evoke instinctive, subconscious, spontaneous or even feral responses in us. Look no further than the ubiquitous makeover programme to learn that your personal choice of a puce living room, which may be personally charming to you, could actually upset prospective buyers. In Location, Location, Location, it is white, white, white that is recommended as a neutral statement about the seller and a blank canvas for the prospective purchaser.

But white in this scenario is often simply a coded statement for 'cleanliness' and, if it inspires a response at all, it might well range from the relief of a prospective buyer who can't be bothered to repaint to the disgust of someone who easily notices the dust.

There is no defined communality of experience.

Furthermore, many studies have documented the apparent cultural responses to colour. For example, it seems that many Chinese associate the colour green with death, whereas in European countries it is black. White in certain African states is the colour of mourning. In Sweden red represents enjoyment, while in a number of occidental countries it connotes happiness, and in Western countries it carries the connotation of danger. Maybe given colour psychology's transience, no great store should be vested in those who tell you that colour is a significant factor in design. Or is that going too far?

Speak and sell The recent rise in so-called 'research projects' that aim to prove a scientific, cause and effect response to colour has caused even the Guardian to empathise with one un-named psychologist who described research into colour conditioning as 'one of those areas of psychology that is best described as flaky and crap'.

Unfortunately, the Guardian article cited Hilary Dalke, now director of the Colour Design Research Group at Kingston University, as a leading culprit. It was she who advocated painting Newcastle Police cells pink to see if the inmates cheered up, and it was she who kicked off the 'True Colours' conference at the RIBA, sponsored by Dulux and The Architects' Journal, last month. As it happens, this conference turned out to promote - in general - an eminently sensible take on the subject, and Dalke herself was reasonably circumspect, even though she seemed to want to believe the hype.

She cited one survey that had taken soundings from just six children;

another argued that 'pink reduced muscle strength in adults'. Clearly, some of this is not convincing except to those that want to be convinced.

Willing scientific results to confirm our prejudices - none of which Dalke did - means that misrepresentation or madness might lie herein. Usefully, in passing, Dalke flagged up the issue of 'colour constancy' - the observation that even if you have a response to a sudden change in environmental conditions (colour), after a month or so, no discernible change is detected if all other variables remain the same.

Several years ago, the MetroCentre in Gateshead experimented by broadcasting Rolf Harris songs over the PA to discourage youngsters from loitering. After a while - and this is the frightening part - everyone got used to them. Thereafter, there was no discernible change in behaviour.

Dalke's practical advice on the use of colour to create a better internal environment for the visually disabled was an interesting conclusion, showing bad examples of signage that blended into the background, surface reflectance that visually destroyed the demarcation of walls and floors, and clear colourcoded wayfinding techniques.

Red letter days I tend to make my excuses and leave when an academic gets up to speak at a conference like this, but Professor Byron Mikellides was a breath of fresh air. Presenting a proper critical enquiry, as should be expected in his position in academia (but which seldom happens), Mikellides, has been researching this subject for 35 years, still began by saying that if the conference was looking for an answer to explain why sometimes colours make you feel good or bad, 'I haven't found it yet'.

There is, he said, 'very little research on the subject' (Swedish researchers are in the forefront), but he stated that because of the lack of formal education in the use of colour 'it is not surprising to see? the adherence of so many schools of architecture to the monochromatic excellence of black and white'.

Cue Spencer de Grey, who gave a creditable romp through some of his latest schemes. By presenting his designs intelligently and explaining the design process in terms of form, light, colour, drama, visual style and excitement, he forced the audience to respond intellectually and instinctively to his proposals. In this presentation - not for him the artifice of claiming a 'connection' with some material benefit - he simply explained the rational, and sometimes purely subjective, factors that drive his architectural vision and implicitly the colour choices in his buildings. At least he didn't claim that the colour of the new Imperial College, London, scheme improved examination performance, or that the sombre tones of the Greater London Authority created better democratic decisionmaking. However, behind the scenes and away from this conference, those claims, I'm sure, are being made.

Stats your lot The notion of disability has changed so much in recent years that the numbers claiming disabled status have now reached epidemic proportions.

Eight and a half million people, said Geoff Cook, director of the Research Group for Inclusive Environments at the University of Reading, are now deaf or hard of hearing. Eh? Eight and a half million? What did he say? One seventh of the population? Sometimes overclaiming disability statistics (it is generally understood that there are 8.5 million disabled people) results in inflated concerns - demeaning those with real disability and calling into question other statistical figures.

However, interestingly, he pointed out that 9 per cent of the registered blind population cannot see light or dark, but the remaining 91 per cent can discern some degree of movement to a greater or lesser degree, and he went through a slide catalogue of design do's and don'ts to make these peoples' lives better. Don't use striped carpets that looks like stair treads, do avoid glare from shiny floor surfaces and do not use white ceramic urinals and white pipework on a shiny white wall. It certainly looks sleek? if you can see it.

However, 'sleek' didn't feature in the opening slides of Sarah Waller's presentation. As programme director of the Enhancing the Healing Environment programme at the King's Fund, she showed a litany of catastrophic conditions that prevail in most hospitals today - from broken WCs to damaged electrics; the dirt, grime and general unhygienic and unsanitary conditions in many of our Dickensian hospitals.

Her project was to improve standards. Speaking of 'uninspiring corridors' ('inspiring corridors' were never defined), she finished by pointing to one refurbished corridor that was now officially part of a heritage trail. Not realising the irony of an upgraded building still standing out as a realistically Victorian curio, at least she acknowledged that the problems in the health service were systemic and not necessarily prone to solution by dint of a Changing Rooms makeover.

However, she then proceeded to show a range of delightfully well-executed but £30,000 projects, which in no way addressed the systemic catalogue of disasters shown originally. Sticking plasters for the NHS sprang to mind.

Jonathan Speirs, principal director of lighting designer Speirs and Major Associates, trotted out scheme slides that did not live up to the challenging standards laid down by the previous speakers. I could only think about how similar Rab Bennetts' BT centre in Edinburgh was to Foster's British Gas headquarters and to de Grey's Winspear Opera House, Dallas. In the end, I realised that I should have simply been impressed by looking at the slides of well-lit buildings and not spotting any intrusive lamps.

Towards the end, Celia Taylor, who revels in the title 'International Tinting Technical Manager, Breakthrough Innovations' for ICI Paint, examined the almost infinite range of colour choices available to us today and recommended that designers examine three factors to narrow down the bewildering range on offer: unity, contrast and context.

Playing around with each variable is important. By doing so she returned us to Mikellides' question of whether 'red is more exciting than blue, or is it the chromatic strength that is important?' You need, he concluded, to 'make up your own mind in different contexts'.

Tools of the trade The beauty of Mikellides' presentation was that he pretended no instrumental claims for colour, but pleaded that architects awake from their philistine approach to the subject. Effectively, the use of colour does not have some magical effect on performance, it does not lead to the creation of social harmony nor increase productivity but, as far as he was concerned, that does not excuse the lack of interest shown by architects in colour and its role in enhancing the built environment.

Colour is just one more tool in the architects' armoury with which to build impressive, humane buildings. Regardless of any cod-psychological claims of the effect that it has on people's psyche, behaviour or physical prowess - architects should be taught about it, and learn about it, in its own terms.

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