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San Miguel de Allende, a charming hill-town in Mexico, is an example of the fullness of color that can be employed in exteriors of buildings. The geometry of the houses is accentuated by strong sunlight and shadows; the colors are bold. The local palette includes white, yellow, ochre, a brilliant variety of reds and greens, sharp blues and purples in unending combinations.
One gold ochre townhouse is next to a pure white one, followed by an orange. On one side the ochre structure faces a wall of deep red and on the courtyard side a wall of muted green.
When it comes to color, Evanston, by comparison, and the Midwest in general, look very monotonous. Everywhere are shades of brick and dirty gray limestone, when in fact under our cloudy skies we surely could use some color. Midwesterners seem very conservative, preferring brick or stone, permanent building materials that need no paint. But even when we use exterior materials that need treatment, such as wood or metal siding, we prefer to paint them white, gray or beige. If a color such as blue or green is used, it is muted to “blend in.”
This architectural anemia was further reinforced by Modernism, by the Bauhaus or the monochromatic buildings of Mies van der Rohe. Interestingly the few architects who rebelled in the Chicago area were previous Mies followers. The building downtown at the corner of Wabash and Van Buren was painted red by James Faro, a Miesian. A former Mies student, David Hovey, used green siding on his townhouses (Main and Michigan), and shocked many Evanstonians with the orange balconies on his high-rise.
Such rebellion was rare; as daring an architect as Andy Spatz (1216 Main St.) has used color sparingly, and while there is an increasing number of colorists among young architects (Ralph Johnson, Carol Ross Barney, John Ronan), any work here in Evanston blends in with the neighboring drab.
We tolerate color, even bright color, in small quantities only, more like accents, on commercial facades and on awnings such as those of Sherman Plaza. We seem to prefer the practically monochromatic exterior of our streets that soothes, rather than excites. We prefer colors that, unlike those in Mexico, blend in.
I believe this has less to do with climate than with some inner aesthetic need. Turn-of-the-century architecture in Helsinki, not a bright sunny climate, was extremely colorful. Aversion to bright colors may have to do with a preference to the middle-of-the-road, with a centrist dislike of the extreme, to melt in instead of to stand out. Or maybe that is only what those who build think we prefer. It would certainly lift winter drab to see color around us when our sun is in hiding and our snow turns gray.