The Landscape Guide

10.5 Colour and Context

Contents list

Colour is a fundamental characteristic of the environment. Every site has a unique character, and every development decision will have a colour impact. If designs are produced without regard to colour harmony, there will be a loss of regional character and a move towards a supermarket-style jumble of bright competing colours. Mass-produced building materials accentuate the problem. As with other aspects of contextual policy, the objectives can be Identity, Similarity or Difference. Michael Lancaster has written about these alternatives with regard to the colour of buildings ( Lancaster, 1984). He describes them as follows:

  • Integration. The whole of a building complex can be integrated with its surroundings, by using colours and materials which have an affinity with their surroundings.
  • Distraction. Colour can be used to distract attention away from some part of a development.
  • Creative Expression. Colour can be used as a design element to attract attention.

As designers get work by becoming famous, there is a tendency for them to favour the Creative Expression policy on every occasion. From an environmental impact point of view, this policy should be the exception. Where every building competes for attention, as a target, there can be no harmony and no order. Lancaster proposes a number of questions that designers and planners should ask about colour, including the following:

Questions about the context:

What is the predominant colour of the area, and what are its constituents in terms of rocks, soils, vegetation, traditional buildings and other structures?

  • What is the quality of the light? Is the atmosphere polluted, damp, clear, changeable?
  • Would the context be spoilt or improved by the addition of a new focus?
  • What colours could appropriately be added?
  • Questions about the proposed development:
  • From where will the development be seen?
  • What materials, textures and colours are proposed, and what are the alternatives?
  • Do the proposed colours respond to any significant local or regional colour traditions?
  • Are the proposed colours fast, or will they develop a patina?

Judgements on the above matters can be assisted by colour measurements and other environmental surveys. Viewpoints can be plotted by intervisibility analysis. Value, which is a measure of lightness or darkness, can be measured with the type of light meter used by cameras. Hue is a measure of intensity or saturation, described as chroma in the Munsell system. It is measured by direct comparisons with colour cards. When an initial site inspection is made, it is very good practice to collect samples of rock, earth, building materials and vegetation, for colour analysis and planning. It is desirable for planning authorities to carry out general colour surveys and record the information in a geographical information system, as a strategic aspect of environmental assessment (Figure 10.9a). This would enable the colour impact of development proposals to be checked and monitored.

Fig 10.9 Land can be zoned for Colour (A), Historic Character (B), Materials (C), Ecology (D), Hydrology (E), Culture and Ethnicity (F). This makes for Plural Zoning (E), but each project team need only take account of the zones which affect their project (F).

Samples of rock, earth, building materials