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Paint it black

It’s official: when it comes to cutting-edge architectural design, black is apparently the new – well – black. A structure that’s been described as the ‘darkest on Earth’ has been attracting plenty of media attention at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in South Korea.

The Hyundai-sponsored pavilion is probably the closest most humans will get to peering into a black hole: its surface absorbs more than 99% of light and is so black that it baffles the human eye. It’s not so much a colour as a complete absence of colour. The pavilion is the work of a British architect, Asif Khan, who has covered its curvilinear walls with Vantablack VBx2, a version of revolutionary Vantablack nanotechnology but suspended in a liquid form to allow it to be more easily applied to large area. The walls are peppered with thousands of lights that gleam like stars in the night sky.

Khan has said he hopes that the contrast of the ultra-black pavilion against the dazzling white of the snowy setting will offer visitors the opportunity to enjoy a philosophical as well as physical experience by presenting them with a ‘void of infinite depth and possibility’.

There’s no question that the pavilion pushes the boundaries of what is architecturally possible. It’s a bold and challenging experiment that explores the relationship between dark and light, as well as playing with our sense of perception. Because it renders 3D into 2D by absorbing instead of reflecting light, Khan believes its effect is like ‘switching off gravity’.

I appreciate that the Hyundai pavilion is to architecture what the catwalk is to fashion. But I can’t help feeling that if pursued to its logical conclusion, this kind of experimentation could make architecture a joyless thing – something that manages to sideline the human in favour of the bleakly scientific.

We architects spend much of our time playing with form and light, while Vantablack reduces everything to a formless void. Let’s hope the future of buildings offers us a more optimistic vision.

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