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The World’s “Blackest Black” Makes Its Debut–On A Building

Six years ago, Surrey Nanosystems debuted Vantablack, a paint that absorbs 99.9% of light. Today, we know what it looks like as architecture.

The architect Asif Khan’s latest project feels extremely, for lack of a better way to put it, of its time. It’s a sponsored pavilion, at the Olympics, for the car company Hyundai’s “global mobility initiative.” It’s a cerebral aesthetic experiment nodding to the Light and Space movement. It’s also a technical demonstration done in collaboration with a nanoscale material engineering company. Khan, for his part, has called it “a window looking into the depths of outer space.”

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[Photo: Luke Hayes/courtesy Asif Khan]
The building, which at 13,000 square feet and 33 feet tall is really more of a warehouse, is part of an unglamorous but critical aspect of the Olympics: sponsored experiences. (Khan also designed a pavilion for Coke at the 2012 Olympics in London, and another pavilion for the Russian telecom giant MegaFon at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.) The architect’s latest pavilion, which will open tomorrow in Pyeongchang’s Olympic Park, is sponsored by Hyundai. The company says the structure is meant to represent its hydrogen fuel cells; a statement elaborates that the black facade “represents the Universe–the origin of Hydrogen–and the interactive water droplets inside the building are inspired by individual Hydrogen molecules and the technology behind Hyundai’s new Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle.”

Putting the business of sponsorship aside, Khan’s building is notable for another reason: It’s the first-ever architectural application of a new material from the startup Surrey Nanosystems. Surrey is the creator of Vantablack, a widely publicized material originally designed for satellites in 2012. Vantablack isn’t quite a paint; it’s a dense coating, made up of carbon nanotubes, that absorb 99.9% of all light. The thing it’s most often compared to is a black hole.

[Photo: Luke Hayes/courtesy Asif Khan]
When it debuted, Vantablack’s unsettling optical effects immediately piqued the interest of artists and the internet when it launched–the artist Anish Kapoor famously secured exclusive rights to use the stuff in art–and while Surrey had originally developed the coating for technical uses, the attention from the art world and other industries has pushed the company to develop a whole line of “super-black” coatings based on Vantablack. That includes the paint used to coat Khan’s building in South Korea: Vantablack VBx 2, which Surrey Nanonsystems developed over the past few years for “aesthetic” purposes in design, art, and other industries.

Khan’s building is the first time the stuff has been used in architecture. “I am pretty sure it’s the largest continuous open nanostructure absorber ever created,” Surrey’s chief technical officer Ben Jensen says over email.

You can’t just buy Vantablack and paint it on. SNS has to be involved with the application process of the highly flammable liquid, which has to be applied in a sprayed method overseen by the company. The building was coated in VBx 2 by a team of British and Korean painters that had to be trained by SNS directly, and,  according to Jensen, Pyeongchang’s extreme wind, snow, and temperatures–which often dip into the negatives in the winter–required some adaptation (imagine spray-painting nanotubes onto a 30-foot-high wall in a howling snowstorm).

We’ll have to see if Vantablack makes its way into architecture within the next few years–for now, if you want to see it in action, just head on over to Anish Kapoor’s Instagram.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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