Asif Khan Designs World’s Darkest Building for the Winter Olympics

“I could, and did, stare at the facade for hours,” says the British architect of the temporary pavilion, painted in Vantablack.

Asif Khan Vantablack Olympics
Courtesy Kyung-sub Shin

Vantablack, the darkest chemical substance on earth, inspires a rare kind of primal fascination. When applied to physical objects, the material renders them intangible, turning solid bodies into glitches in reality, or black holes in space. The darkness of Vantablack is best experienced in person, akin to old-world curiosities such as a wunderkammer or Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It’s appropriate, then, that its first architectural outing is at this month’s Winter Olympic games, the contemporary circus par excellence, in PyeongChang, South Korea.

“I could, and did, stare at the facade for hours,” explains Asif Khan, the British architect who worked with Korean automobile giant Hyundai to build a 375-square-foot temporary pavilion sprayed with Vantablack in Olympic Park.

At first glance, when the darkness catches your eye from across the corporate hellscape of the park, the structure appears as a simple cuboid with embedded LEDs. In fact, the exterior walls are concave parabolas—the appearance of flatness is one of the visual effects caused by the material.

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Technically speaking, Khan and Hyundai Creative Works, the company’s in-house design arm, have used Vantablack VBx2, which only absorbs 99 percent of visible light, as opposed to Vantablack, which exceeds this absorption capability (99.965 percent). The latter, darker variant was infamously licensed by Anish Kapoor last year, much to the opprobrium of the art world. It is also more expensive than diamonds and is perhaps not suitable for spraying on a pavilion in the harsh climate of PyeongChang. Instead, VBx2 is used here symbolically and only approximates the darkness of the universe. The pavilion’s 2,000 LED pinpricks, meanwhile, match the location of the stars seen from Olympic Park.

The pavilion, which can be entered, is intended to promote Hyundai’s foray into hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles or, as Ian Lim of Hyundai Creative Works explains, introducing this energy source “in a friendly way to allow people to understand the technology.”

Asif Khan Vantablack Olympics
The pavilion represents hydrogen through the chrome-plated bubbles protruding from mirrored side walls. Courtesy Kyung-sub Shin

The first room inside centers around water—the start and end point of the hydrogen cycle. In a large white-cube gallery space, the pavilion staff encourages visitors to fill a container with water and pour it atop a low, sloped platform. The hydrophobic, faux-marble surface allows water droplets (representing cars) to run seamlessly along a network of narrow grooves down to a pool (representing a future eco-city).

Next are four rooms representing the production of the hydrogen fuel cell. The first, a warmly-lit narrow box with a pitched ceiling, denotes the solar energy used to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. Visitors pass into a subsequent room that visualizes hydrogen through the chrome-plated bubbles protruding from mirrored side walls, before continuing on to a similarly mirrored space, only this one is covered in tendril-like fiber optic threads representing a fuel cell stack. In the final room, it’s back to water as spotlights cast ripples down plain walls and a silky curtain.

More an exercise in set design than spatial practice, there is little architecture here to speak of. The pavilion is nonetheless a welcome escape from the rest of Olympic Park, which is littered with temporary tents and container structures from other Olympic sponsors. While the connection between the pavilion and the science it aims to communicate is fairly stilted, the ensemble of rooms is a sensory treat. As for the exterior, Vantablack is worth the hype. Be ready when the next circus comes to town.

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