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Brutal Color: The Human Experience

THURSDAY, MAY 14, 2015

By Jill Pilaroscia

More items for Color + Design

As architectural colorists, we are interested in the role that color can play in creating human spaces within our constructed environments.

One example of architecture enhancing the relationship between color and the user is Brutalism.  

Bucolic Brutalism
Bucolic Brutalism by David Evers; photos courtesy Jill Pilaroscia

While Brutalist architecture is often perceived as unemotional, it offers a neutral backdrop for color to shape human response.

Brutalist architecture is often perceived as austere and unemotional. Its name comes from the French "béton brut" (raw concrete). Born as a response to post-World War II ideals of strength, functionality, and social homogeneity, Brutalism is characterized by an aesthetic of form following function with a purist sense of materiality.  

Designs typically use formidable monolithic masses of concrete, glass and steel that dwarf the human scale. The materials provide a neutral backdrop that can serve as a canvas for color to shape human response. 

Color Fuses by Milton Glaser (Indianapolis)

Milton Glaser's mural, Color Fuses, wraps the ground floor of the Minton Capehart Federal Building and is a spectacular example of how color can transform a cold and bare space into one that is both stimulating and inviting. 

brutal color

Milton Glaser's mural, Color Fuses, wraps the ground floor of the Minton Capehart Federal Building in Indianapolis.

Completed in 1975 and restored in 2002, the piece celebrates the interplay of color and light.

Glaser programmed the exterior perimeter lighting to illuminate his mural with a slow rise-and-fall sequence. This rhythm alludes to the gradual rising and setting of the sun and the timeless wonder associated with the qualities of light as it shifts and reveals itself on the horizon.

Glaser mural

The space glows with warm color, creating a dynamic pedestrian experience.

The otherwise-barren space glows with warm color, creating a dynamic pedestrian experience. 

Albert Einstein High School by NJB Architects and Francois Privat Architects (Languedoc-Roussillon, France)

Albert Einstein High School is an example of color as a tool for creating human-scale dimensions within large-scale environments. 

brutal color

Built in the 1960s, the Albert Einstein High School, in Languedoc-Roussillon, France, is made up of large linear buildings.

Built in the 1960s, the complex is made up of large linear buildings. Concrete framed volumes with three- to four-story curtain walls organize the regimented site in a strict grid with indifference to the human condition.

NJB Architects with Francois Privat Architects have redesigned this lifeless campus with an energetic color palette that breaks the regularity of the organization, creating a stimulating visual quality to the otherwise-mundane environment. 

brutal color

NJB Architects with Francois Privat Architects have redesigned the campus with an energetic color palette that breaks the regularity of the organization.

The monolithic structures are softened by bright colored stripes that both reference and break the defining regularity of the project.

Unite d'Habitation by Le Corbusier (Marseille, France)

Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation is arguably one of the most widely recognized Brutalist buildings. Designed as a "machine for living," the 18-story concrete block was completed in 1952.

The massive concrete structure allows for high-density occupation, while a strict grid divides the building into human-scale modules. 


Designed as a "machine for living," the 18-story Unite d'Habitation was completed in 1952.

Color introduces a layer of individuality between the units, enforcing the human dimension within the project.The palette includes 16 different tones, which yield a large number of color combinations that individualize the 336 apartments.

Different from Le Corbusier’s purist buildings, where he used color mostly as a tool to articulate and modify space, the Unite d’Habitation marks a shift toward the independence of color from form, and the social dimension of color.

Brutal Color

Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation is one of the most widely recognized Brutalist buildings.

The Brutalist structures that dominate their surroundings provide exemplary models for the role that color plays in creating environments.

The architectural composition of these projects are sometimes perceived as severe and foreboding. However, when paired with a rich color program, the buildings come to life, illustrating the relationship of color and its ability to inform human experience.


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architects; Architectural history; Architecture; Artists; Building design; Building facades; Color; Color selection; Color trends; Decorative painting; Design; Murals

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