In Praise of Color

Without light we would be unable to see color. We see color because our eyes have light and color receptors that enable us to see the wavelengths of light that are reflected from an object. For instance, we see that the sky is blue because the water molecules reflect blue light. Therefore when a discussion is made on light, a discussion on color can be made as well.

The dispersion of color from white light

Because my previous post was on traditional Japanese architecture and its handling of light, this post will examine traditional Korean architecture and its own handling of light.

In very much the same way, Koreans have dealt with light like the Japanese and Chinese. Because of the form of most buildings in East Asia, with their extended eaves and conglomeration of rooms, very little light would be able to penetrate the whole structure. Yet, where the Japanese chose to embrace the shadows and create generally monochromatic spaces, the Koreans introduced splashes of color in order to animate and add richness to the spaces. This rigorous system of color is called dancheong (literally meaning “cinnabar and blue-green”).

Dancheong ceiling pattern

It is based on the colors of blue, red, yellow, white, and black and is applied to the eaves, brackets, and ceilings of the structure. Although dancheong was reserved for major public buildings such as temples and palaces, it still illustrates the unique manner in which Korea manipulated the use of light through color. The Japanese added gold in the same programmatic spaces in order to create moments of richness; the Koreans added exuberant amounts of color in order to enrich the entire space.

Dancheong applie to Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul

The science of manipulating light is important, but the art of manipulating light is just as important as well. We learned about precedents such as Steven Holl’s St. Ignatius Chapel  in Seattle and the work of James Turrell, and how both create cohesive systems in order to successfully create color. Dangcheong is an artform, but it is just as cohesive a system as well that, while not manipulating light directly like Holl or Turrell, creates just as layered and poetic a space.


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