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Architecture goes over to the dark side

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Stephen Cousins

In contrast to the ice and snow of the winter Olympics, one pavilion in PyeongChang pushes the growing trend for black facades to new depths

Credit: Luke Hayes

Blackness – the void of space, the ink on a calligrapher’s brush, the colour of Cure fans’ makeup – whatever their inspiration a growing number of architects are embracing the darkness as a key form of expression.

Vantablack VBx2, the blackest material known to man, coats the facades of the Hyundai Motor pavilion at PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, unveiled last week.

A spray-on derivative of the original Vantablack, the matt material is made from vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, and able to absorb 99% of light that hits its surface. This gives the impression that the building’s walls do not exist in three dimensions and creates the illusion of a black void witnessed in broad daylight.

Thousands of tiny white lights punctuate the 10m-high parabolic elevations to simulate the view into space from that point on earth.

London-based architect of the building Asif Khan commented: ‘From a distance the structure has the appearance of a window looking into the depths of outer space. As you approach it, this impression grows to fill your entire field of view. So on entering the building, it feels as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness.’

  • Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Credit: Luke Hayes

Khan has no immediate plans to work with the material again, but he points to other potential uses: ‘It’s a remarkable material, but now it’s up to other designers and architects out there to show us new applications. We should really think of this as the tip of the iceberg in terms of nano-materials in architecture and construction.’

Over in China, the melting black towers of Chaoyang Park Plaza, opened in December, add a sense of dark mystery to the Beijing skyline.

Designed by MAD architects, the Chinese firm led by Ma Yansong, the two asymmetrical skyscrapers – the tallest rises to 120m – stand on the edge of a lake in the largest park in the central business district.

The glinting obsidian glass facade is divided into a series of vertical ridges separated by curved valleys, as if the forces of nature have eroded them into stratified layers. The panels run up and over the top of the roof in an apparently seamless curve.

The thermal break unitized system on the vertical elevations and a prefabricated semi-unitized system on the rooftop include a total 7,000 façade panels, many of which were cold-bent the create a smooth, seamless appearance.

In an interview with RIBAJ, Ma said: ‘The finished result gives the impression the building does not look as if it has been built, but that it is naturally growing out of the ground.’

  • Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Credit: Luke Hayes

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier is known for pristine white geometric buildings, but his latest project, a 42-story residential tower at 685 First Avenue in New York, will be clad entirely in black glass.

Curtain walls made from black glass and aluminium will cover all four sides of the monolithic 42-storey structure, Meier’s tallest in his home city, which is due to complete later this year.

In a statement on the firm’s website, he explains the principle behind this inverted approach: ‘We asked ourselves, can formal ideas and the philosophy of lightness and transparency, the interplay of natural light and shadow with forms and spaces, be reinterpreted in the precise opposite – white being all colours and black the absence of colour?"

Or in the words of Mick Jagger: ‘No colours anymore, I want it painted black.’



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