White

The Rolex Learning Center by SANAA is a building (like many of SANAA’s buildings) that embraces the use of the color white. White not only pervades the exterior and interior skin and columns, but also all furniture and railings contained within the building. The only relief is the light grey carpet of the floor. There is an assumption made by SANAA that the color white will dissolve all associations to materiality and allow form to dominate. Here, white is celebrated for its neutral character.


Due to the nature of our surroundings, that assumption can be made. The cultural significance of the color white as something other than neutral has been nullified by its persistent use in our everyday lives. It is the color that apartment walls are painted, with the hope that it will not offend any future renter’s senses. Gallery walls are traditionally painted white so as to not to somehow influence the art hanging on them. Anything advertised as plain or unscented is also usually white. White has come to be defined as lacking character.

This has not always been true. Historically the color white has held great significance. In India it was the color worn by holy men and women. In the Chinese culture, it is the color of mourning. White materials have been used to face important buildings of state or religion to communicate power and purity. Alabaster, marble, and ivory were highly valued for their coloring in a time when white pigments were rare.

The pervasive use of white became possible with the invention of the mass production of Titanium White at beginning in the 20th century. Before this time, white pigment was primarily made of lead or zinc.

There is something disturbing about the attitude SANAA takes towards the color white. The building reduces the color to a state where its purpose and significance is characterized by its ability to say nothing and fade into the background. What about the current state of materiality and space has allowed this reading of the color? How does their use of the color subvert white as a significant color of the past?

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