Colour chaos pollutes the high streets

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The Independent Online
Many of Britain's high streets are a visual mess inflicting "colour pollution" on those who live and work there, according to the author of a new book on colour and the environment.

Michael Lancaster, a landscape architect and colour consultant, urges planning authorities to set up colour advisory groups to help set guidelines for the appearance of towns and cities.

If they do not, he warns, the current decline into visual chaos will prevail. "Most of the high streets in Britain are a mess. Commercial interests have gained the upper hand and this has been without reference to colour ."

He says that while the use of various lurid shades all in the same area may have a role - for example in a fairground - it also has its limitations. "At some point you reach saturation. People also need a restful environment."

Mr Lancaster's new book, Colourscape, is an attempt to explain the importance of colour to the environment and in particular to architecture. In his introduction he points out that while many people may look at colours, they often fail to absorb their full impact.

"This would provide an explanation for the fact that so much of what might be regarded as visual pollution - in the form of industrial dereliction, massed advertisement hoardings and simply litter - often goes unnoticed."

Yesterday, Mr Lancaster put some of the blame on schools which do not teach enough awareness of architecture and the impact of colour in modern environment. He says the role of colour is largely ignored by most architects and architectural schools.

In the countryside, the use of conservation areas has sometimes helped control colour pollution, but urban areas are largely uncontrolled. "I do not think the British really know how to live in cities yet."

Describing himself as "rather a modernist", Mr Lancaster is a champion of many new buildings, and warns that merely preserving the past ignores the need to be flexible in use of colours as areas change.

However, these need to be co-ordinated - hence the need for his colour advisory groups. A mixture of modernists and historians would help produce guidelines for an area and its streets. These would not be rigidly enforced, but would give planners an "evolving" colour context in which to work.

To illustrate the problem, he cites an example in Putney High Street, south-west London. The use of four bold colours in four neighbouring shops to emphasise their differences has produced a "garish" effect. He is also critical of how colour planning is ignored along stretches of the Thames in London - an example being the new painting of Hammersmith Bridge green, which he says "ties" the structure too closely with only one bank, causing an "imbalance".

Mr Lancaster also attacks the indiscriminate use of white in many buildings. "It is very intrusive - but people think it's innocuous," he says.

However, there are some encouraging signs. He describes how hamburger chain McDonald's won an award for its outlet at Richmond, Surrey, by deciding to tone down its "strong colour impact" to fit in with the area.

Some other buildings worthy of praise, he says, are the West London Waste Transfer Station, at Brentford - with yellows and reds giving a "distinguished" look - the former nuclear research centre now Winfrith Technology Centre in Dorset, parts of Warwick University, and the Clore Gallery - the extension to the Tate, where the architects "have been careful ... to echo the materials and colours of the adjoining buildings".