Architecture in monochrome: The complex allure of black buildings

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Editor’s Note: Stella Paul is the author of “Chromaphilia: The Story of Color in Art.” This is an edited extract from her introduction for “Black: Architecture in Monochrome,” published by Phaidon.

CNN  — 

Black monochrome architecture has a long history and a global reach. Its boundless variety of expression is testament to black’s power to convey message and to perform function.

As with the history of art, language, science, or thought, the history of black’s presence in architecture is protean. Black has lured architects for practical, historical, metaphorical, or formal reasons – all of which ask serious questions of us as users and viewers of their buildings.

Black’s fundamentally practical attributes bear focus. From the earliest examples up to the most recent, architects have embraced technologies that happen to be colored black. Black tar, for instance, is both color and protective coating, and has been integral to building since early Viking-era Scandinavia, where there was an elision of shipbuilding techniques and those to construct land-based structures.

But black tar as a major building component is not exclusive to that part of the world, nor to distant history. Many notably modern buildings make use of tars, which weatherproof, repel insects, and provide color. Similarly, the Japanese technique for charring wood to preserve against the elements, “Shou Sugi Ban,” has been in continual use for centuries. Charred black has functionality in addition to style.

Búðakirkja Church (Búðir, Iceland)

A black facade might perform legibly as a nonverbal sign to serve public safety, as with Dutch canal houses originally colored black to communicate that a resident had plague. A tool of warning eventually became a matter of aesthetic taste. Nineteenth-century British architects turned to black as a tool to cope with pervasive soot that sullied everything, by covering the grime with color.

Modernism and metaphor

Among the major historical keystones are mid-20th-century Modernism’s dark structures, which radically reappraised precedent, and which reverberate in thoughtful reconsiderations even now as today’s architects appropriate, respond, and ultimately re-envision the material effects of the past.

The threads of inspiration that architects embrace, reject, and in any case reshape to their own ends in contemporary black building provide for us a stimulating vantage point. There are many examples showing new use of historical techniques such as the charred wood of Shou Sugi Ban, the creative and unexpected use of tarring, hewn lava, specialized bricks (sometimes in patterning evocative of historical sources), the new patinas for black inspired by the darkness of long-weathering in wood, and other traditional materials now wholly reconceived.

There are also metaphorical evocations. The Puritan House of the Seven Gables is the built equivalent to Protestant love of black dress as a symbol of abstemious piety. A Swedish bank embodies black’s value of authority and stolidity. Dynamically positioned exterior black panels and a lustrous black interior in a New York flagship for luxury products signal sophistication and prestige, as does a black shopping mall in Istanbul. (That structure is even called Prestige Mall.)

D'Angelo Law Library at the University of Chicago Law School by Eero Saarinen (Chicago, llinois)

Some of the metaphors are more abstract: from cast shadows meant to reverberate in the viewer’s mind as nuanced dust, to shiny surfaces of a building that literally asks us to reflect, to black gravel walls that envelop a building to conjure memories of gardens.

A matter of context

There are several examples where black explicitly invokes a client’s profession or a company’s product. Housing for miners mimics a (huge) faceted piece of coal; the black American Radiator Building metaphorically resembles its namesake product, its golden accents evoking points of heat on its black expanse.

Sometimes the references are playful; black is not exclusively serious. A black holiday home in Quebec plays on nostalgia for foreboding fairy tales of childhood; hairdressers’ living/working structure in Tokyo features an exuberant linear design in a fantasia blending hair and botanical motifs; a black rubber tufted sound studio playfully makes a visual pun on its material function.

Many use black to assert privacy. Black monoliths batten down into themselves, shutting out the extraneous environment, discouraging interlopers and casual observers. Secure black minimalist boxes serve purpose and convey signals. So do black pyramidal eaves, lattice screens, and protective windowless retaining walls. Many buildings offer variable options for requisite degrees of privacy depending on circumstance, with black panels that open out or close in on themselves in houses, retreats, pavilions, and other public buildings all over the world. Black effectively and authoritatively says, “Keep out.” Equally, it can ask us to “go inside,” metaphorically, for an introspective experience.

Homeless shelter by Larraz Arquitectos (Pamplona, Spain)

The blackness of the buildings that follow might make their structures appear either prominent or invisible in their environments. Some of them purposely vacillate between those two poles depending on weather or time of day, playing on a shifting relationship to the landscape. Surface quality and form either reinforce or erase edges – or both.

Returning to context: black is the great shape-shifter in more ways than can be hinted at in a short introduction. It will always yield interest and insights – whatever questions are posed, whatever the vantage point of its context.

“Black: Architecture in Monochrome,” published by Phaidon, is out now.