From coast to coast spanning across the globe, we find colorful beach houses. People have been metaphorically painting their towns red for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years. Brightly painted coastal homes can be found from South America to Europe and everywhere in between. But, with the vast distance and culture between these various countries, there must be some common denominator, other than the ocean, that drives the people of coastal cities to paint their houses in alignment with rainbows.
There are various theories based on the history of seaside villages which may account for these vibrant abodes, but it is a very modern reason why these gorgeous towns keep these traditions of color alive.
Beach houses were likely originally painted in bright colors to deflect heat in warm climates, allowing interiors to remain cool. Most seaside towns were initially established on fishing and colorful houses may have assisted fishermen in finding the coastline on their return home.
Many beach houses and coastal villages still sport a cacophony of colorful buildings, but modern technology like fans and air conditioners have long made the color of a building the most effective method of temperature control. Likewise, the fishing industry has been declining in small ports since the 1960s, moving instead to larger harbors with more extensive operations to meet demand. Why then do we still see these colorful houses in coastal areas the world over?
Why Are Beach Houses Bright Colours?
One of the main theories as to why so many coastal towns have bright, colorful housing is to do with science and climate. Historians believe that people in seaside settings traditionally would choose bright colors for the façade of their homes to reflect heat. Bright colors are far more effective in refracting the rays of the sun than darker colors. If you think about how hot you get wearing a black t-shirt on a sunny day versus a brightly colored one, then it’s an easy concept to understand.
Many beach houses are in parts of the world where the climate is sweltering. It’s not surprising then that the ancestors of these areas would look for ways to keep their homes cool. While they wouldn’t have had the technology to do so, they could still turn to science and use brightly colored paint to reflect the sun.
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, dark and dull colors on the exterior of a building absorb anywhere between 70-90% of the sun’s energy, most of which is then passed through to the interior via conduction. On the other hand, lighter and brighter colors will reflect this heat away from the building, keeping the interiors of homes much cooler.
This scientific concept explains the iconic Greek isles with their white walls and bright blue roofs. White is the best color to keep buildings cool as it reflects the most amount of light and therefore, heat. The bright blue will also reflect heat away from the roofs, keeping the interiors of Greek homes nice and cool on those scorching hot Mediterranean days. However, the question that then arises is why not paint all beach houses white instead of bright colors if it is only as a means to manage interior temperatures?
Why Are Coastal Houses Painted Different Colours?
Another popular theory, alongside painting beach houses bright for temperature control, is based on the history of most coastal towns. The majority of seaside towns developed around fishing. Some, therefore, theorize that houses were painted in bright colors so that fishermen could recognize their homes from the sea. The bright-colored dwellings would have been highly visible against the natural landscape and hugely beneficial to guiding boats back to land. In those times, the populated area of brightly colored buildings would have had a similar effect to a lighthouse.
This theory is probably the best to explain why colorful beach houses are found across the world, from the tropics to the poles. Despite different cultures, histories, climates, and building materials, the one aspect all these coastal areas had in common is that they began as fishing villages. Historically communities would take action based on necessity, not luxury or beauty. It’s, therefore, possible to speculate that the painting of houses in different colors correlated directly with the primary source of income at the time, namely fishing.
Looking once more at the Greek islands such as Mykonos, with their white and blue color scheme, it would be easy to reason that the bright blue roofs were painted to stand out against the land and assist the fishermen in locating the village on their return. Otherwise, why not merely keep the entire building a neutral white or beige color scheme if it were only temperature-related.
Guiding fishermen home would also explain why coastal villages in much colder climates appear in various colors even though keeping warmth out would not have been an issue for them. In places such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, where temperatures rarely stretch above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, towns are littered with colorful buildings. With fog sometimes plaguing the area, it is believed the bright homes may have stood out better and been easier to spot for fishermen trying to locate the land.
In Burano, Italy, the same theory of guiding fishermen home in the thick winter fog also exists, but added to this are rumors of guiding them home in the thick fog of drink. The different color homes would work as a map and in their drunken stupor, the color of their house would act as a homing beacon. There are even fishwife tales that the women would tie fabric to their husbands in the color of their home so that strangers could assist them to the correlating house.
In various coastal towns in Wales, another cold coastal area, their buildings are painted in pastel hues. While the theory of these being colorful for the fishermen also exists in these parts, historians believe the pastel color buildings may have originated due to available building materials in the area. The stones used to build the walls were of a poor quality and in order to both hide the stones and make the structures more watertight, lime washes were used. People could then add natural earth color pigments to the lime wash to create colorful houses. Perhaps people did it for variety, to brighten their streets against the dreary Welsh climate, but just as likely it was done to guide their seafarers safely home.
The colorful houses found in the Bo Kaap, a suburb of the coastal city of Cape Town in South Africa, also have various tales about why the homes are painted in a multitude of bright colors. Some say it was a way to define the occupation of the inhabitants after their emancipation from slavery. Malay slaves were brought to South Africa to work for the Dutch East India Company and were settled in this area of the Cape.
As photos depict the houses as white during the Apartheid era, it’s unlikely this is the truth behind the colors. It was only after the end of Apartheid in 1994 that photos show the houses appearing in bright colors. Therefore, another story told is that with the start of democracy in South Africa, the oppressed Malay communities chose to paint their houses in happy colors as an expression of freedom and a symbol of joy. Somewhere in amongst all the tales is the truth, but the tradition is still upheld today and the spectrum of colors are as diverse and vibrant as the people who live there.
Why Are Caribbean Houses So Colorful?
The Caribbean is made up of over 7000 islands divided into 13 sovereign states and 17 dependent territories. The architecture of the Caribbean is as diverse as the countries that have colonized it; Spanish, French, British, and Dutch. With all those islands and distance and outsider influence, the result is a melting pot of culture, history, people, and politics. Therefore, there may be various reasons for the colors of the different islands, from temperature control to fishermen beacons to the colorful personalities of the islanders that live there. It would be tricky to place a blanket reason over the region.
While Aruba does play host to some beautiful houses painted in pastel hues of pink, lemon yellow, and sky blue, it is the vibrant colors of Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, which is most famous for its colorful display of waterfront buildings.
Legend has it that in the 1800s, the then governor of the island, General Albert Kikkert, claimed that all the white buildings and the reflection they generated were responsible for his migraines and mandated that they be painted in any color other than white. At the time, most of the buildings were white from the thick coat of lime and crushed seashells used to plaster them.
The citizens complied and Willemstad became the glorious amalgamation of colors it still is today. It was later discovered that Kikkert had shares in the only paint store in town, but by this point, the buildings were all already wearing their new color scheme. Although at the time the people of Willemstad may have felt deceived, Kikkert did the city a massive favor for future generations making the area a popular tourist destination and an acclaimed UNESCO World Heritage site.
Why Are Beach Houses Still Colourful Today?
Already with the advent of rail, vacationing by the coast became a possibility. Seaside towns started to see an influx of tourists and a need to preserve their villages’ quaint and unique aspects. Then in the 1960s, with the improvement in cameras and their ability to take images in color, the world saw a rise in photography-based tourism. With this came a new need to keep the colorful and charming facades of coastal villages.
Of course, nowadays, with social media, traveling exists almost entirely to be able to boast to others of the places we have seen. No longer are the photos of our vacations shown only to family and a few friends one evening on a projector, but are plastered across our feeds for all to see.
Tourism brings money and coastal areas where buildings have traditionally been painted in a multitude of colors have capitalized on attracting tourists with their Instagramable backdrops. They now maintain these bright and colorful facades to stand out visually for tourism. Just as their original purpose was to support the fishermen who were the main source of income for these communities, they now work to promote tourism which has taken over the economic activity for most beach towns.
Today many governments are involved in maintaining the aesthetics and heritage of these coastal cities. Mykonos remains in its traditional blue and white, now dictated by Greece’s Department of Culture. The colorful beach houses of coastal cities add massive value and economic injection for countries with tourists flocking to see them and it’s in the best interest of everybody for them to be maintained.
Where Are The Best Places To Visit To See Colorful Beach Houses?
We’ve already mentioned some of the most beautiful and colorful coastal locations; Mykonos, Greece, Burano, Italy, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Curacao and Aruba, and Bo Kaap, South Africa, but there are a few other noteworthy gems.
#1 Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre is made up of a string of five, centuries-old fishing villages set against the craggy cliffs of the Northern Italian coastline. If the setting were not breath-taking enough, all the towns are dotted with colorful buildings that only make their positioning on the steep cliffs bolder.
#2 Cape May, USA
It turns out Jersey Shore is not only known for the controversial reality show. The dream-like town of Cape May is home to over 600 Victorian buildings; all painted in luxurious shades. Their delicate perfection is reminiscent of life-size dollhouses.
#3 Key West, USA
Key West Florida offers up a real smorgasbord of fluorescent colors. The locals take their bright colors seriously and the wackiness extends from exteriors to interiors and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a pet that has received the same colorful treatment.
#4 Valparaiso, Chile
Probably one of the most colorful cities around, Valparaiso well deserves its nickname, “Jewel of the Pacific”. Known for its hills and cliff-top homes rising from the ocean, the famous poet Pablo Neruda selected to have a home in this rainbow city.
#5 Collioure, France
Sitting close to the border with Spain, Collioure displays the architecture of both French and Spanish origin. Various gorgeous colors make themselves at home on the facades of these buildings. So picturesque, its shoreline looks more like a movie set than an actual inhabited town.
Although there doesn’t appear to be any documented accounts as to why various coastal towns choose to paint their homes in bright and varied colors, it would appear that the thread that ties them all together is the ocean and the life that it provided for the people. The most popular theory is that the people who once lived in these regions painted their homes in bright colors for both the heat-resistant qualities and to assist in guiding their fishermen safely back home.
Today the traditions are upheld thanks to the popularity of beach towns for tourism and the need to document our travels. Social media has made many of these gems discoverable to the masses and has given seaside villages a reason to preserve the heritage of their buildings.
No matter what the original intent was for painting beach houses in a multitude of colors, it is a look that has become synonymous with coastal life. It’s a tradition we hope will continue to be maintained for future generations, so they too can enjoy the spectacle of rainbow color coasts.