Monday, April 6, 2009

Village-Appropriate Color

Admittedly, there are exceptions to most rules, especially when it comes to architecture. It is impossible to regulate design too much without ending up with total homogeneity. That being said, aesthetic guidelines are still extremely necessary in preventing inappropriate design within a historical context and should include guidelines regarding color to safeguard us against those who might choose paint colors based on which are on sale. So far in Southampton Village I haven’t seen too many structures whose colors make me cringe ……. except for one: yes, the one at 70 Moses Lane. So I did some research: I dug into the architecture books I’ve acquired over the years and read a variety of literature published by more serious architectural commissions in order to present you with a more educated opinion on the issue.

Paint colors here in Southampton Village seem to be chosen using three different thought processes: arbitrary, historical, and modern. There are photos of houses with color scattered around the village shown in this post to demonstrate each of these thought processes. At the top of this post is 70 Moses Lane (rear view), an example of the arbitrary approach (drive by and see the orange front door and two-tone blue porch). This is obviously the most egregious use of color when it seems they were chosen based on personal taste or whim. “When an architect wishes to introduce color effect in his design for a building, without acquaintance with the laws which govern its architectural use, his natural inclination will lead him to simulate the painter's sensibility towards color, in order that he may establish scenic value. Considered from that point of view, his design becomes a "subject," upon which color interest must be developed as a separate artistic activity from his initial impulses, which were purely architectonic. Owing to the great dissimilarity which exists between the major aesthetic aspirations identified with pictorial and architectural effect, the realization will soon be forced upon him that progress in the direction of the painter's ideals entails the jeopardy of vital architectonic values.” (1) Just as I was taught that greenery/plantings cannot be architectural crutches, the same is true of color. The architecture must be successful on its own before one can consider using color to embellish. And then that consideration must be educated. “If it pleases, it’s allowed. But should that which pleases be allowed? This awful bromide, as an excuse for anything and everything, also deserves a question mark in matters of architecture and paint. At what point does beautification becomes perfidious deception with the help of paint?” (2) In the case of 70 Moses Lane, the architecture alone is unsuccessful. When the arbitrary color scheme is added, it only makes the design as a whole worse.
Historical color application is apparent all over Southampton Village. I could show numerous examples but have chosen to show the little yellow house next to the catholic school on North Main Street as well as the former library, now a part of the Parrish Art Museum, on the corner of Jobs and Main. There are many references available that describe what colors were prevalent during any given time period which would explain why these two structures have ‘appropriate’ paint colors, and which homeowners can refer to when contemplating colors for their own structures. However, if their house is of an unknown date, of many time periods, or not of an architecturally identifiable style, color should be kept neutral and in keeping with the neighborhood. “There are many instances in which the straightforward rules about paint colors become less clear. Dealing with altered buildings, in which the characteristics of more than one style are evident, can be problematic…..In such instances, a neutral approach to paint color selection is best…….Strong colors or strongly contrasting combinations …..will generally serve only to highlight the stylistic disparities of such a building.” (3)

Successful contemporary and/or modern color application is hard to find in general but I managed to find one in the village: the former Sherry Dairy Barn at 128 West Prospect Street. This structure is an earthy grey/brown with blue/grey trim. It actually blends in with its context with the help of landscaping and its sun exposures. It helps that it’s a one-story building; if it were two-story, the color scheme would not work because it would be too much in contrast with and too noticeably different from its neighbors. While one can find loads of “color consultants” via the internet, modern architectural color is usually only written about theoretically and discussed in terms of emotion and psychology or with reference to larger scale commercial/public projects (think Mondrian, or Zaha Hadid) rather than as design guidelines for lay people. Even the most noteworthy color applications in architecture are through the lighting of the building (like the Empire State Building, or the 42nd Street Studios building between 7th & 8th). Most contemporary houses (i.e. the houses at Sagaponack) stick to contextual colors (white, grey, beige) and small doses of color as accents of minor elements if at all. Occasionally one can find a modern house with a lot of strong color, but it’s usually on a larger lot so it can have a more sculptural character and not necessarily need to take the architectural context into consideration.
I do not believe white is the best color for a house in Southampton. Nor would I suggest that natural cedar shingles are always the way to go; there are plenty of boring houses with white trim and natural cedar shingles around here to fuel that argument. I believe one should choose colors and materials for their house (or business) in Southampton Village by considering first what style their building is, then what the prevailing colors in their neighborhood are (and NOT just within a 200 foot radius), then what the prevailing colors in the village as a whole are, and all the while by consulting written resources. It should be a thoughtful process - not whimsical - respectful to its context and the personal taste of the owners. Both are always possible. “……Whenever you are filled with the desire to beautify these ... forms and structures, succumb to the urge for refinement inspired by your aesthetic sensibility of your taste for ornamentation, whatever type it may be, only to the extent that you can respect and maintain the rightness and the essential appearance of these forms and structures!” (4)
Our ARB only regulates color within the historic district, not throughout the entire district, even though their codes allow them to. Even in their "Architectural Design Guidelines for Historic Districts and Landmarks," (a spiral bound black and white booklet that costs $20, that is not a technical supplement to the building codes, and that hardly anyone seems to know about) color is referred to so sparingly one wonders if they purposely avoided the subject. Many other more serious architectural commissions govern color, and many of those are listed as references in their "guidelines." As our community has become more densely built, and as our property values seem ever more important, why can't our architectural review board and their guidelines become more serious also?

1. “In the Cause of Architecture,” Leon V. Solon, 1922, Architectural Record
2. Daidalos, Ulrich Conrads, March 1994
3. Painting Historic Exteriors, Cambridge Historical Commission
4. On the New Style, Henry van de Velde, 1907