#094 Energizing Towns with the Power of Color

Associate Professor YAMAMOTO Sari, Faculty of Art and Design

Our impressions of a person often change due to the color of their clothing or belongings. In the same way, the use of color in buildings, signs, and other structures is a key point for establishing the unique character of a town. To protect the townscape, it is important to place limitations on the appearance of buildings, but if mediocre, uniform standards are used, this may lead to the loss of local character. Professor Yamamoto is searching for the best approaches to colors in a community, so that local character can assert itself without disturbing the harmony with its surroundings.

When one looks around at a town, it is brimming with various colors. Buildings, guide signs, advertisements, and other elements each use color in their own way, but it is not enough to simply be pretty or conspicuous. It is important to achieve an overall balance that does not give people a sense of discomfort. This is environmental color. Harmonious colors vary depending on the character of a locality: a city lined with high-rise buildings, or an ancient capital with many historic buildings. Prof. Yamamoto is researching colors that energize communities, and the environmental colors of towns.

One example is student housing on the University of Tsukuba campus, where outer walls were painted as part of a renovation in 2011. Originally, these were typical, white concrete walls, but Prof. Yamamoto, working under the supervision of Kiyoshi Nishikawa (Vice President for Student Affairs at that time) proposed changing the color of some parts to orange, yellow, and other colors. As building colors, these were a little unconventional, and it was troublesome to paint in multiple colors. Even so, when the approach was actually tried, these accent colors instantly brightened the atmosphere of the housing. Methods like this can also be applied in cases such as the renewal of deteriorated housing complexes. Large-scale construction is needed to rebuild an entire building, but if the change only involves outer walls and equipment such as piping, it is possible to get by with a shorter work period and lower costs. Simply changing the color of walls brightens the mood of the people living there, and assuming that this energizes the community, the result will be welcome cost-performance in terms of community development. This design for student housing was a new attempt at building renewal. It was rated highly for providing an attractive view and acting as a stimulus for students, and in 2011 received the Prize for Color in Public Places sponsored by The Study Group for Color in Public Places.

Hints for this idea came from the city of Girona in Spain. Girona is famous for its colorful buildings facing the river, and many tourists come to see its townscape. However, this was formerly a run-down area with a concentration of people with low incomes. When the local government repaired damaged buildings and repainted walls in bright colors, the image of the town changed completely. Commercial facilities on the opposite bank then changed their colors to match, and the area grew in popularity. Thanks to color, the town underwent an unexpected revitalization.

Environmental colors provided by Prof. Yamamoto and Nishikawa can also be seen in the city of Tsukuba, where a pedestrian walkway passes through the city center on a north-south axis. Many citizens use this promenade for walking, jogging, and other activities. Along this walkway, approximately thirty signs providing information on the surrounding area were installed over a 6-km range around Tsukuba Station. With a gray and black motif, these signs provide clear indication of the current location, distance to the station, and other information. Although they seem to be placed in a nonchalant way, various clever techniques are used. Even for the single color of gray, the design uses a tone that is both easy to see in areas surrounded by buildings, and areas grown thick with trees. The size, amount of information, installation location, and direction of each sign were carefully designed by building models, as well as actually walking around the site. The aim was an elegant design, providing information appropriate for users, and harmonized with the atmosphere of the town. Although we may not be aware, we are all living in the midst of carefully thought-out environmental colors.

Prof. Yamamoto's interest in environmental colors was sparked by the beautiful streets of Europe. Where does that beauty come from? The sense of oppression or openness of a space differs depending on factors such as ceiling height and window size. Even the same color gives different impressions depending on its relationship with surrounding colors. After learning the psychological effects that environments and colors exert, her interests broadened to towns and colors. Appropriately applying environmental colors can be complex, however. Repainting the walls of large buildings, for example, is no easy task, and in some cases, the overall atmosphere of a townscape is undone by easily-adopted corporate colors. Fashions, product packaging, and similar items frequently change their designs, so they can be adventurous with bold colors. But when it comes to the buildings that shape a town, colors must be viewed from a perspective a few decades into the future.

For that reason, it is important to find colors that characterize the locality. It is traditionally common for natural pigments, plant-derived dyes, and other colorings produced in the local area to be used in buildings and furniture. In Girona, mentioned above, the color scheme was based on the traditional natural pigments found in the region. That is why the local people felt a sense of attachment, and why the colors brought out the strength of the town. As artificial pigments become more commonplace, natural pigments have become more expensive, but they express the wisdom and story of daily life unique to a specific region. Prof. Yamamoto is trying to rediscover the colors and vitality of each area by unearthing such materials.

Student housing with renovated outer walls. Received the 2011 Prize for Color in Public Places

Signs installed on the pedestrian walkway in the city of Tsukuba (guide signs)

Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations