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Heavy Grey, Light Grey

Hannah Daly

Grey tends to be a heavy colour for people because of its associations with negative emotions such as depression, loneliness and boredom. In this article I will be discussing how seemingly minimal decisions can change how we see two buildings – The Galway Cathedral and An Garda Siochana’s Western Region Headquarters, also in Galway.  

Interestingly, the Galway Cathedral was only built in 1965, making it one of the newest cathedrals in Europe. The influences of Gothic and Roman architecture make it look much older. Many find the cathedral to be a very large, almost intrusive grey establishment on the Galway skyline, and I think if not for its oxidised copper roof, it would be much more unwelcoming than it already is. One of the reasons for the haggard and enormous appearance of the building is due to the exclusion of steel in its construction, which would have made the walls stronger. This decision was not made lightly as steel framing would have made the construction less expensive and it means that the walls of the structure have been made wider to support its own weight. The walls are instead constructed from limestone, which ages very well. At the same time, unlike older Irish buildings made of the same stone, it is made of cut bricks as opposed to the naturally occurring counterpart which would be taken straight from the landscape and made to fit the walls in a polygonal formation. In my opinion, the most substantial reason for the seemingly mammoth size of the building, is the terrible use of windows.

Fig.1 Romanesque windows of Galway Cathedral.

The architect decided to use Romanesque rounded arched windows, which are terribly load bearing, meaning that the windows are very small and narrow. It has meant that very few windows have been constructed, allowing for only slight, minimal, interruptions in the exterior walls, so it seems to just look like this giant slab of monotone greyness.


In contrast with its exterior, the interior of the church seems to be the highlight of its structure. The neutrality of the grey lends itself to being popular among contemporary designers because it is one of the easiest colours to combine with other colours and patterns. This is something that can easily be seen on the inside of the cathedral, which is heavily decorated with religious motifs on the ceiling in combination with its rose windows. The inside of the dome is often lit using a very bright artificial light, which is something that many might think looks ridiculous, but in my opinion, I think that it highlights the shapes of the upper windows and the texture of the bricks.

Fig.2 Interior of the Cathedral.

The Garda Headquarters in Galway has the complete opposite appearance to the cathedral. Although it is also made from limestone, it has been constructed in combination with the more expensive granite stone. One of the key factors that make this building feel lighter in appearance is its location near the sea, with no other large buildings to interfere with the view, as opposed to the cathedral which is in the city centre and constantly fighting with its surroundings.  

Fig.3  Exterior of the Cathedral and surroundings.

Fig.4  Exterior of Garda Headquarters and surroundings.

The faces of the building sometimes look white in colour, depending on the weather, but the structure often blends into the sky above, adding a weightlessness to the premises. The architecture and interior design are truly contemporary, with the very angular sides and a seemingly flat roof. The architect seems to use the windows to break the solidified coldness in the grey, allowing colours from the landscape to bounce back at the viewer. Windows are being used more often to add a lightness to buildings because while the add structure to the building, the transparency of the glass, allows the viewer to see what is happening behind closed doors.

Fig.5 Windows of the Headquarters. 

It is the space surrounding a structure and the considerations of the materials which will determine if the grey colour becomes dark and heavy, creating associations with dread, or becoming light and weightless. The use of windows to counteract the weight of the grey is something that is being used widely in contemporary practices and it is constantly being developed so that whole walls can become transparent. We often pass by structures which are grey, and we should take a moment to consider if grey is heavy or light. 

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