31 August 2022

What Can Color Mean?


Color chips of green and yellow at Coloring STL.

What happens when you examine the world through the lens of color instead of form? Is there cultural meaning that adheres to specific colors? Do colors transcend place and time? When you look for yellow, just yellow, and you cast aside what neighborhood you're in, does that change your understanding of the place? Can we go on a treasure hunt for particular colors in our city and appreciate them for their own sake? How do colors change our understanding of architecture and the city?

The diversity of places and structures referenced in the color chips in the Coloring STL exhibition raises questions of this sort for those with a keen sense of aesthetic perception. Colors indeed elicit emotions in us, just as smells do. Can we learn new things about the city by viewing it strictly through the lens of color? The series of grids with color swatches named for specific locales suggests a cross-pollination between our cultural associations with a place that color our understanding.

Photograph of a 2015 bus tour of university students visiting Lewis Place (© copyright 2015 Andrew Raimist).

Some visitors may not be familiar with Lewis Place, but the yellow hue embedded in the triumphal arch marking it contains is striking. You will always realize you're approaching a passing by this monumental feature in the urban landscape, and it becomes a spatial landmark. How many people know the story of the battle over land ownership in Lewis Place and its importance in St. Louis history?

You can get a sense of the story of Lewis Place by reading the article "Opening the Gates: Segregation, Desegregation, and The Story of Lewis Place" by Elizabeth A. Pickard, published in Gateway Magazine, Fall 2005, Vol. 26, No. 2 (© copyright 2005 Missouri Historical Society).

The opening pages of the article on Lewis Place suggest its importance in St. Louis history.

Once we comprehend the significance of the word "color" concerning Lewis Place, can we appreciate the beauty of its yellow separate from the people and the history it embodies?

Note: I will be presenting a concise, entertaining slide talk on Thursday, September 1, 2022 as part of "Mid-Century Mania" festivities including music, art, food, drink, and hands-on experiences. The event takes place from 5:30 to 8 pm.

"Mid-Century Mania."

Coloring STL at the Missouri History Museum

Coloring STL title logo.

The new exhibition at the Missouri History Museum, Coloring STL, is an accessible, entertaining show. A visitor can approach it as a fun romp through blown-up drawings of St. Louis architecture that invite you to contribute your colors, ideas, remarks, and more. There’s even an accompanying coloring book you can take home. The show features a great depth and breadth, covering all eras of architecture, from early structures like August Chouteau’s 1764 Mansion through recent high-rises like 100 Above. The show displays considerable thought in its conception and execution. If you prefer a particular era, style, or construction type, chances are good it’s represented here.

Dinks Parrish Laundry, Yeatman, and McKinley High Schools are starting to be filled in.

Visitors can choose dry-erase markers to color the buildings as they wish. The Pantone-inspired color palette suggests connections across ages, styles, neighborhoods, and materials. These “color chips” surround you on entering. Some details and places will undoubtedly elicit emotional reactions and tactile memories.

Pantone-like color chips offer a panoply of architectural references to spur your creativity.

The show has a decidedly egalitarian air. Elaborate Victorian Renaissance Revival structures are set cheek-by-jowl with gas stations and graffiti walls. The oversized color chips surrounding the entry provide wonderful juxtapositions focused on the quality of the colors rather than the pedigree of its architect or the social context of its historical importance.

By traversing from yellow to orange to red, you are encouraged to travel in time and space.

The clever use of striking photographs of close details emphasizing colors was a great way to reach people where they live. You don’t have to have read any books or watched certain documentaries to recognize and react to these vibrant, abstract details. This approach helps visitors connect with the visible rainbow St. Louis’s environment offers. One hopes that combining these color samples, drawn representations, physical objects, film, and texts will encourage visitors to look again at the buildings surrounding them each day. This exhibit is an excellent antidote to the closed-in lives many of us have lived during the Covid-19 years. At a minimum, the show encourages us to interact with the drawings on the walls and includes actual materials, which you are encouraged to “Please touch!”

In addition to representations of architecture in line drawings on the walls, we have sample reproductions of drawings by architects and artists as varied as Louis Sullivan, Hugh Ferriss, and Emil Frei. Their drawings and reproduction sketchbooks are inspiring indeed.

Door pulls salvaged from Baker's Shoes by Rob Powers.

Mid-century modern architecture and design are given their due without being overly sentimental or fetishizing. These structures are presented as built, referencing the economic and social contexts from which they emerged. Custom-designed homes and presented alongside subdivisions of repeated builder homes. Of particular note are fragments rescued from Northland and River Roads Shopping Centers by Toby Weiss. Aspects of her wisdom are legible in several displays.

An excerpt from Toby Weiss's "Northland Demolition Part 5" sets the mood for readers and thinkers.

Upon entering and reading the exhibition's foundational quotation, I saw had to consider another perspective on architecture culture. Quoting Goethe is de rigeur for architectural exhibitions, making the analogy between architecture and "frozen music." It's a high-minded view of architectural form as akin to the best symphonies humankind has produced. But this quotation was something else, remarking instead on the loss of architectural fabric and the resulting cultural degradation resulting from such wanton destruction. Such structures have defined aspects of our lives as "thawing music" like a "sorrowful, minor key symphony."

Facade fragments of Stix, Baer & Fuller at River Roads Shopping Center collected by Toby Weiss.

I looked for the source of this wry commentary on our throwaway society and realized it was the irrepressible Toby Weiss; I knew right away this exhibit would not be standard-fare. And to my delight, physical remnants of enchanting demolished mid-century structures collected by Weiss feature prominently in the display. Her foresight in collecting and documenting these discarded structures devoted to commerce has resulted in a powerful representation of the optimistic world in which they were imagined and fabricated.

Facade fragments of Stix, Baer & Fuller at River Roads Shopping Center collected by Toby Weiss.

The materials she collected from the Northlands and River Roads Shopping Centers are particularly striking. We're entering an era where decidedly modernist, forward-looking structures are represented in museums by building fragments. Seeing the actual terracotta remnants mounted to the wall expresses the physicality of these structures in ways that bring the photographs to life in terms of color, texture, shade, and shadows. The abstract, geometrical qualities of these fragments lend themselves to this kind of display. The museum is to be commended for the thought and effort invested in presenting these materials. The sculptural forms of these pieces create a vigorous, visceral impact particularly when viewed close up.

You'll want to bring your friends and family to this show. It repays each visit with more delight and satisfaction. I trust some enterprising folks will curate their own online version of the show by using #ColoringSTL.

Note: I will be presenting a concise, entertaining slide talk on Thursday, September 1, 2022 as part of "Mid-Century Mania" festivities including music, art, food, drink, and hands-on experiences.

"Mid-Century Mania"