South Kensington and Chromophobia

South Kensington is white. The district is lined with towering limestone townhouses that encapsulate the material and psychological tone of the area’s past. It’s not a conscious jolt to the pedestrian’s emotions, ​like a targeted Trump ad on Facebook designed to encourage you to press the “angry react button​,” but something quieter and equally unnerving.

Around a quarter to 10am, the stock brick and Italianate stucco are blinding in the morning light. Sometimes, when walking between rows of these houses on my way from South Kensington Station and up Queen’s Gate to the Royal College of Art campus, sunspots cloud my vision from the refraction of the sunlight off this pristine white. This colour, at a material level, while at times of course refreshing and lovely to look at in the midst of a sludgy, cramped city, still exudes certain ideas of purity and strength, both physically and psychologically. Walking along Exhibition Road, I can’t help but think of all this physical whiteness and how it affects or perhaps perpetuates the climate of one of London’s wealthiest boroughs. Here there is no room for, as David Batchelor writes in ​Chromophobia​ ​(2000), “exchanges with the outside world and the doubt and dirt that goes with that; no eating, no drinking, no pissing, no shitting, no sucking, no fucking, no nothing.” Batchelor coined the term “chromophobia” to define “the loathing of colour, this fear of corruption through colour.” This outer-whiteness is intercepted by the businesses, restaurants, museums, and homes within the buildings and their surroundings, which through their material purity discourage these defiling actions . South Kensington’s chromophobia may appear innocuous and “neutral,” but it upholds traditional preferences that perhaps need an update. Here, colour and its ambiguities and multifacetedness are tolerated, at best, rather than embraced as nuances of the human condition. To clarify, colour here is not used as a synonym for race, although it could be used to explore connotations between the two; but rather employed to investigate the preference for clean lines and monotone hues historically favoured by cultures considered to be aesthetically superior (for instance, the formulaic lines of classical orders, or the contemporary art world prominence of white cube gallery spaces) and as such, the perpetuation of class and educational divides. By creating a black and white dichotomy, a rigid material and ideological structure is imposed on these buildings and the people who occupy them.

Buildings, through their design and materials, define and affect an area. Architectural theorist, ​Mark Wigle​y (2015) states that “[f]ar from succumbing to the media, buildings, as one of the oldest forms of communication, have now been joined by so many others that the burden of defining social space is now shared by a wide range of channels, of which the solid object is but one.” Architecture is inherently communicative, illuminated by Wigley’s argument that buildings themselves are a form of media. In this case, it seems inevitable that these white eighteenth-century townhouses leak into present day aesthetics and other forms of media, like online platforms. Our built environment constructs our perception of and interaction with our surroundings, for better or for worse. In nineteenth-century Germany, colour theorist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe declared that “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors.” He also noted that “people of refinement avoid vivid colors in their dress and the objects that are about them.” In 2019 Britain, Zarina Muhammad, one half of the critical art publication ​The White Pube,​ states that “[t]his persistent lie that the classical statues had always been (or would remain in our collective imaginary as) white is tied up in race, aesthetics, our conception of the West as a thing that exists as a factual construction rather than a social one.” Stuccoed white terrace houses continue to uphold the dominance of social, cultural, and economic whiteness in South Kensington — as do the pastel, white-diluted colours of Notting Hill’s townhouses — by expelling the unpredictability or superficiality associated by some with colour.

An 1879 pamphlet titled ​Notes on Building Construction for the Council of Education in South Kensington outlines in detail the building standards and materials for construction projects in nineteenth-century London. In its notes on the appearance of limestone for building purposes, colour is described as symptomatic of an unbalance in the chemical composition and durability of the stone materials being used. These anomalies registered in colour became standards by which to paint the facades of houses white, disguising impurities at the structural and social level. Discolourations are transformed from the physical to the ideological, upholding the frightening idea that colour is indicative of something unbalanced in all situations, rather than just at the practical level of chemistry. When mentioning white bricks, the text notes that “[t]he bricks made from this clay are of very good quality; extremely hard throughout, very durable, but difficult to cut. They are generally white, but the lower qualities have a pink tinge caused by irregularities in burning.” Whereas whiteness is a sign of durability, the excess of iron in the product causes it to turn pink; a sign of weakness. This scientific reasoning that impure colour underpins these houses and institutions in South Kensington seeps from the material to the ideological, the physical to the social, influencing the built environment of the district. And this isn’t exclusive to South Kensington. This text notes that “Portland stone [a type of limestone] was used for all buildings of importance erected in London from 1600 to 1800.” Buildings listed include Somerset House, the General Post Office, the India House and Foreign Offices in Downing Street, “and many other important buildings.” White, therefore, was a construction choice for the physical makeup of these “important” buildings from, in some cases, four hundred years ago. However, their whiteness today, similar to the whitewashed ancient statues of Greece and Rome idealised in museums, creates an atmosphere in which white is tied to aesthetics and institutions of power. The white glazed Italianate stucco of the townhouses that compose South Kensington demarcate this area, and the arts and science institutions within it, as outwardly white in colour, and therefore the opposite of the “savage nations, uneducated people, and children” Goethe listed — they are instead sophisticated perpetrators of culture and business.

The chromophobia of the monumental white houses is paralleled not only in the dark, monotone garments typically worn or at least favoured by the upper classes of the Victorian era, but also in London’s current financial and business sectors through “business casual” apparel. This is not the opposite of chromophobia, but instead an extension of it in a different, flattened hue. ​Carl Jennings​ writes that colour was feared and marginalised by the West because “it appealed to the emotions rather than reason,” noting that “Aristotle referred to color as a drug and a poison (pharmakon​).” This duality behind the Greek philosopher’s definition of colour reveals the slippery tension generated by aesthetic whiteness, which simultaneously remedies through smooth, clarified appearances, and poisons through stifling suffocation and limitation. Aristotle continues, noting that colour is “about adorning, deceit, and pretending,” something added on superficially, rather than a true essence. Jennings concludes that for these two reasons, with “its aversion to all the superficiality and primitiveness associated with color, black became the uniform of power and control.” In Victorian England, bankers and members of high society adopted black garments to reflect the seriousness of their business ventures; followed by Chanel’s staple, in the early twentieth century, of the little black dress, which further marked dark attire as a symbol of sophisticated culture. This eschewing of the colours between black and white is reflected in a statement by Charles Blanc, a mid-nineteenth-century French Minister of Culture, in which he wrote about the general preference at the time for black and white drawings over coloured illustrations. In 1848, he stated that “colour is the peculiar characteristic of the lower forms of nature, while drawing becomes the medium of expression, more and more dominant, the higher we rise in the scale of being.” This distinction between colour and line drawing in the arts is especially pertinent to South Kensington, which was constructed as a central space for Museums of the Arts and Sciences, a status that remains today. The V&A, initially a design institution that formed the basis of the Royal College of Art, would have likely been filled with graphic designers and architects upholding these tenets of black and white drawing. These binaries, circulating and held by most art historians of the nineteenth-century, are imprinted in the layout of South Kensington — also called Albertopolis — demonstrating the link between colour preferences in object or architectural materiality and social ideologies.

Minimalism is a predictable offset of South Kensington’s tendency toward chromophobia, symptomatic of an attempt to signal uniqueness in any cosmopolitan area across the globe; but also, perhaps, in line with George Ritzer’s (1998) “McDonaldization thesis.” Ritzer states that this thesis “leads to a view that people often travel to other locales in order to experience much of what they experience in their day-to-day lives [...] many [tourists] want few, if any surprises.”

Minimalism — chromophobia disguised in grey accents and wrought iron decorations — seeps into the milieu of coffee shops and boutiques scattered across the borough. The flat, monotone decoration visually polarizes the area; the only middle ground isn’t grey at all, it’s amber-tinted, pulsating from those “antique” looking exposed lightbulbs that don’t do anything but expose the lack of natural ambiance. These decorations are comforting; perhaps because they’re everywhere, not only in London, but around the world. They’re what the average coffee consumer expects a coffee shop to look like. This expectation perpetuates this type of “AirSpace” into existence, erasing and smoothing over anything unpredictable or unexpected, synchronising individualities and discouraging interaction “with the outside world and the doubt and dirt that goes with that,” as Batchelor wrote. While this deep-seated distrust of colour will probably never be erased entirely, given its integral relationship to the construction of the West, it’s still important to reveal these concealed, cemented tones of an area and expose them with prismatic light. Colour was, and still is, considered frivolous.

Emma O'Regan-Reidy is currently studying toward an MA in History of Design at the Royal College of Art and V&A Museum, with a research focus on contemporary fashion history.