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.