The heart of whiteness: The discussion of color and material qualities in American architectural journals around 1930
During the intense period from 1928 to 1938, color had a persistent, though unstable, role among the competing claims for the architectural modern. The vigorous propagation of color theories and practices is symptomatic of larger dilemmas in aesthetic theory, which reach a crisis in the whiteness of the historical avant-garde and the corollary use of "natural" finishes. Those practices are examined in American architectural journals of the period, particularly The Architectural Record, its sister publication, Sweets Catalog, and its radical counterpart, Shelter. The early discussion by Claude Bragdon and Leon V. Solon was developed and transformed in the display projects of Frederick Kiesler and the AUDAC, the work of the radical technicians, Knud Lonberg-Holm and the Structural Study Associates, and the color merchants, Albert Munsell and Wilhelm Ostwald.
The Heart of Whiteness is the awareness of perceptual subjectivity, which appears as a distrust of material qualities. The efforts to objectify and discipline those qualities through various sciences and, conversely, to exploit them in marketing, are traced to their origin in the early 19th century and the debate on ancient polychromy. Those uncertainties are, nevertheless, negotiated in related practices and bind color equally to therapeutic aspirations and to the exercise of taste. Architecture is situated with medicine and advertising as an interpretative science of habit. This involves a "weak" reasoning of attraction that also observes social, technical, political, and conventional boundaries. That imaginative reasoning is further examined according to the deeply gendered distinction between form and material, which suggests an alchemical, architectural ethic--a lithomanie--in concord with the passions that materials evoke.