“I have seen things that were transformed into black, that took on
greatness. I don’t want to use a lesser word.”
Louise Nevelson, 1976
Quotes such as the one above, all paying testament and tribute to the colour black, pepper the pages of Black Architecture in Monochrome, released this month by Phaidon. The book examines the power of black in particular reference to buildings, taking a broad selection, from ancient to very modern, of the best examples of black architecture. Dramatic, symbolic, but also hugely practical, painting a building black can have a variety of purposes and meanings, all explored in this fascinating book. Here we offer an exclusive extract from the book’s introductory essay, written by Stella Paul, which investigates the history, beauty and adaptability of black used to cloak a building.
“As this book shows, 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—which happen to be colored black. Black tar 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 in the book 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.
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 like-color. Dickens described the London of his time: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”
Black has also been exploited as a practical tool for energy efficiencies. Whether as a high-rise’s dark curtain wall designed to maintain constant temperatures and reduce a frame’s degree of expansion and contraction, or a mountain cabin’s black paint with goals to capture and retain heat, black surfaces absorb sun, affect temperature, and impact energy consumption. Other functionalities of black include black rubber’s sound-muffling capabilities, exploited in more than one building illustrated in this book.
The book includes significant historical landmarks that have shaped the record of building in black, from the eleventh-century, tar-treated building on the Faroe Islands; to the twelfth-century Fantoft Stave Church that’s black due to its age; to sixteenth-century Hastings fishing huts; to weathered, painted, and variously black-clad vernacular barns, churches, and cabins all over the world reflecting long-standing traditions. Among the major historical keystones are mid-twentieth-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.”
Black: Architecture in Monochrome by Phaidon Editors, with an introduction by Stella Paul, is published by Phaidon on 9 October 2017