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COLORS AND LIGHTS
In 1933, the first year of the fair, large expanses of bold bright colors covered the entire Century of Progress Exposition in what was probably the first attempt at using color as an architectural medium on a large scale. There were three reasons for this broad use of color: to coordinate the varied building types, to give interest to plain building materials, and to create a gay atmosphere. Color was an integral part of the architectural scheme, not just a decorative trimming. Color was treated as a medium having its own laws of balance and power, just as form and proportion have theirs. The color palette was based on the main color accents, which themselves were based on the characters of the buildings.
The designs of the buildings included recesses in which concealed lighting could be placed. Exposed lights were not permitted. Color not only unified the structures but also served as a backdrop for lighting effects, both exterior and interior. Inside the buildings, colors on plain walls were used expressively in relation to the objects on exhibit.
At night the main lighting effect was that of large expanses of color resulting from bathing the buildings in static white or colored light. Unusual effects were created by projecting colored light on colored surfaces. Previously this type of combination was used almost exclusively on the stage, while colored light was used to light white or neutral colored buildings.
The most spectacular light effect came from a color scintillator composed of twenty-four and thirty-six inch arc searchlights arranged in two banks of twelve each. Scintillator operators changed color filters and the positions of the searchlight beams according to a prearranged schedule to create a shifting multicolored panorama. The interaction of the scintillator with steam clouds, smoke clouds, and fireworks produced even more striking displays. The scintillator was located on the shore of Lake Michigan just south of the Travel and Transport Building at the southern extremity of the grounds and threw colored beams similar to an aurora borealis over the city and out into the lake. Another spectacular night effect was a huge white fan of crossing incandescent searchlight beams thrown from the roof of the Electrical Building.
The 1933 paint color palette consisted of twenty-five exterior colors and thirty-six interior colors. (The Official Guide listed only 24—one green, two blue greens, six blues, two yellows, three reds, four oranges, two greys, white, black, silver, and gold). Blue, orange, white, and black were most prevalent. Nearly all of the paints used on the major buildings were oil paints from the American Asphalt Paint Company or casein paints from its subsidiary, Laketine Corporation. More than 25,000 gallons of Valdura Aluminum and Colors were used. An advertising booklet, "Color and Protection" illustrated and described their Valdura products paints (http://century.lib.uchicago.edu/images/century0091.pdf). Similar pictures appeared on some advertising postcards.
The color scheme created by Joseph Urban in 1933 considered buildings as units of a group rather than in isolation. Urban was quoted as saying: "It's the greatest canvas for color ever offered a theater artist. Colors on large surfaces viewed from a distance behave strangely. They may be handled to pull out or to repress constructional features—to build! And the effects of colors in paint may be varied amazingly by concealed and projected lighting."
According to Otto Teegan, Urban's assistant, Urban "tried to tie together and harmonize the buildings…by means of color…and above all, to make everything gay." He had a definite intention to "knock people in the eye," and "selected his colors for the effect they would produce with people moving about the masses of color."
The Official World's Fair Weekly described visitor reactions as follows: "Some are shocked, others are overwhelmed, but all leave with a definite reaction to the color and lights." The 1933 Official Guide Book of the Fair speculated that the colors were suggestive of a future American color harmony that "could change neutral sections of cities and town, bring cheer and liveliness to workers in factories, perhaps revolutionize in time the conception of color effects in homes." By the next year, however, most people were ready for quieter colors.
Shepard Vogelgesang, in charge of the color scheme for the 1934 fair, described Urban's 1933 scheme as "broken color and accent" or "accented planes of color." The scheme followed basic decorative design principles and was not mere whimsy as seen by many people. The scheme had elements of continuity and movement, with "running motifs of building mass and plane, and full stops of tower and court."
In 1934 Shepard Vogelgesang planned a more subdued color scheme. Many of the buildings were painted white, as can be seen in the 1934 postcards below. However, an all white scheme was considered too cold. Ten new colors were used, colors which were not comparable to those used in 1933. Due to the chemicals and pigments used, many of the colors appeared entirely different under night lighting. Some of the paints had a florescence or "weird glow." The percentages of colors in the new scheme were as follows: white, thirty per cent; green, fourteen per cent; blue-red, eleven per cent; turquoise, eleven per cent; and other colors thirty per cent.
Vogelgesang used an acting analogy to explain his color scheme. Just as each actor must have his character, each building group had a character. Colors were used to set moods varying from building group to building group, and, like in the theater, the Fair could not make a play from characters all the same.
In an article entitled "The Plan Behind the Paint Brush" Vogelgesang wrote:
After some comments on the interaction of colors with black and white, and associations with colors, Vogelgesang ended by saying:
Vogelgesang collaborated with J. L. McConnell, the director of electrical effects, to get an idea of how to effectively merge color and light at night. Illumination in 1934 was reported to be about fifty per cent greater than in 1933. Two scintillators shot variegated patterns of colored light into the sky. The most spectacular new feature of the 1934 fair was the huge new fountain which was illuminated and colored by submarine flood lights extending the length of the fountain. the ever changing lights could be controlled either automatically or by hand. Giant searchlights played about the sky over the fountain, making a medley of color.
The electrical building was "a riot of illumination and color." The new Ford Motor Company building had several important light effects including exterior panels and a great central torch of light created by twenty-four thirty-six inch projectors.
In 1934, the landscape expert H.W. Schmitt also worked with Vogelgesang to coordinate the flower beds and other landscape features with the coloring of the buildings and lighting.
Official Guide Book of the Fair,1933.
Design. Periodical published by Keramic Studio Publishing Co., special issues for October 1933 and Summer (June) 1934 devoted to art features of the Century of Progress.
"A Story of Light and Color," Official World's Fair Weekly, Week Ending September 23, Vol. 1 No. 3, p. 5.
Forrest Crissey, "Why the Century of Progress Architecture?" Saturday Evening Post, June 10, 1933, p. 16.
Forrest Crissey, "Chicago's Encore," Saturday Evening Post, July 14, 1934, p. 30.
Shepard Vogelgesang, "The Plan Behind the Paint Brush," The Store and A Century of Progress, 1934, Marshall Field & Company, p. 5.