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  • Writer's pictureJill Pilaroscia, IACC - NA, ISCC

Color in a Multicultural City

Does red mean strength, power, love? Prosperity, rage, death? Influences like politics, religion, myth, and language contribute to how cultural colors are perceived. No universal roadmap for color symbology is viable. This fact makes color associations in each culture distinct, thus posing complex considerations when selecting color in a vibrantly diverse city like San Francisco.

If you’re joining in the Chinese New Year festivities starting on February 1, 2022, you’ll have an opportunity to explore how cultural associations with color define a sense of place, and how each new layer must walk a line between rootedness and mimicry. Red dominates the streetscape and architecture of Chinatown. Lanterns, banners, and strings of red lights cast a distinctive warm glow symbolizing luck, fertility and prosperity. Yet, the color landscape of this historic neighborhood is much richer and more nuanced.

A few years ago, Colour Studio Inc. was asked to update a significant Chinatown landmark at the intersection of Grant and California Street, a building we previously colored in 2001. In the intervening years, as Chinatown has experienced a renaissance as a cultural destination thanks to neighborhood activists. While the building’s classical Chinese details call for celebration and acknowledgement of its roots, new establishments, like the Michelin-starred Mr. Jiu’s, Empress by Boon, and China Live with their restaurants, bars, and curated markets introduced a modern air.

As with our original palette, we studied expressions of Chinese color associations creating a color palette that engages the neighborhood’s past and present. This research informed a new updated palette of eight colors plus gold leaf grounded in positive color traditions, yet brighter and more urbane.

Unique to the building is the gold brick façade which distinguishes the building from its traditional red brick neighbors.

Painting part of the gold brick in a complementary and contrasting teal hue breaks down the massing of the brick, creates surface texture at indentations, emphasizes the soffited underceilings and frames the distinctive architectural motifs.

The eight colors and gold leaf accentuates the tiled pagoda roofs, curved fascias, the I Ching Bagua, and the six pairs of powerful dragons.

Placing gold paint on the large curved brackets draws the eye toward the sky accentuating the buildings prominence in the streetscape.

Next time you're visiting Chinatown, stop and see this landmark building at 601 Grant Avenue.

Photo credit: Michael Capulong

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