Left: our architectural past was often elaborately painted in bold and
vivid colour. This facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Amiens, France, is
lit to convey a sense of what it might have looked like originally
Rainbow Bridge in O-Daiba, Japan, to Erik Selmer’s
Laerdal Tunnel in Norway. But generally most of us
that practise in that field show restraint: choosing to
work with tonal variations of white and reserving the
use of colour for that big idea.
But however we look at this subject – whether it is
at muted tones or bright and bold hues – what we
must always remember is that light and colour are so
completely unified that they speak with one voice.
In trying to provide some sort of context to the subject
I wanted to go back to the roots of our tradition in
architecture. It is well recorded that in ancient times we
lived in a much more colourful world than we might
imagine from the ruins of history: from the vividly
coloured friezes of the Acropolis in Athens in the fifth
century BC to the gaudily painted saints on the west
front of 12th-century Wells Cathedral in Somerset,
England, the brightest of colours have been an integral
part of high architecture for many thousands of years.
However that story relates to pigment. Much less is
written about colour provided through light.
Certainly, the extensive use of gilt in everything from
Aztec to Byzantine and on to Baroque should not be
overlooked. Reflected light emulating the effulgent
light of the sun must surely be considered as ‘colour’?
But it was certainly not until technology allowed
the production of coloured glass that we began to
experience the magic of coloured light through the
extensive use of stained glass, particularly in the
windows of the great Gothic cathedrals and churches.
To this day the great French chapel of St Denis and its
rival in Westminster Abbey still provide us with the
same experience as those who have witnessed the soft,
dappled, coloured light for nearly 1000 years. Surely
these were the media screens of their day conveying
the stories of Christianity to those whose lives were
otherwise often less colourful.
Of course those windows existed in a time when at night
things were relatively dark by modern standards; where
the colour of light was largely provided by burning oil,
tallow or wax – a warm light that we are still familiar
with today. So during that period and later is there
evidence for the use of artificially created coloured
light at all? We know that the 15th-century Italian
Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi would
employ glowing coloured effects in the mystery plays ▼