Grey Today, Colourful Tomorrow?
Colours and Socialism

paper presentation

Toward a History of Modern Colour
Faculty of History,
University of Cambridge
(hybrid conference)
9-11 June 2021

This paper explores, through the case study of the Czech Republic and Slovakia (former Czechoslovakia), the role of colour in architectural discourse and interventions around post-war mass housing. Over the past two decades, many socialist-built mass-housing blocks in these countries have been refurbished and repainted in bright pastel hues, thereby breaking the regular grid of their prefabricated facades and making each block distinct from another. I take this process as a vantage point from which to examine the role of the grey/colourful binary in shaping how the past and the future are imagined, focusing on architecture as a discipline, expert discourse and professional community. The argument is in three parts. The first part traces the origins and articulations between the 1970s–90s of a binary that sees “greyness” as a negative attribute of socialist architecture and making that architecture more colourful as a desirable goal. Next, I introduce the socioeconomic aspects of, and various agencies involved in, facade refurbishments as a background against which to understand architects’ backlash against these refurbishments they deemed gaudy. In the third (and tentative) part, I shed light on the phenomenon of architects advocating for greyness as an authentic attribute of socialist mass-housing, to argue that the imaginary of “grey as good” repeats stereotypes about socialism being grey and contributes to foreclosing socialist options in the present. This paper reveals some underexplored aspects to the political and ideological work around colour, approached as a barometer of anxieties experienced by a profession and a community of intellectual producers entangled in, and striving to break free from state, socialism and neoliberal capitalism.