One of the most dramatic cultural offerings at this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea is a pavilion commissioned by Hyundai and designed by the English architect Asif Khan. The structure is 10 meters (33 ft.) high and 35 meters (115 ft.) long. Its walls form gentle parabolic curves sloping in toward the center from each corner.
The structure is all black on the outside and has dozens of thin rods projecting out from its walls. On the end of each rod is a small light.
The black exterior is special because it is the first time a large scale piece of architecture has been coated with the hi-tech substance Vantablack VBx 2, one of the darkest materials in existence. Regular readers of this blog will remember our post last year about the development of the original Vantablack and its connection to the artist Anish Kapoor.
The original Vantablack is without question the darkest material ever developed. It captures 99.96% of all the visible, infrared and ultraviolet light that shines on it. That’s pretty much all the light we can and cannot see. As a result it is impossible to perceive any surface variations on an object coated with the substance. Viewers can only determine the object’s outside shape.
The original version of Vantablack is made from millions of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that are 3,500 times thinner than a human hair. Coating an object with this version of Vantablack requires a painstaking chemical process and is currently limited to relatively small objects and surfaces.
Recently Surrey NanoSystems, the company that makes Vantablack, developed a new version of the product that captures 99% of only the light that is visible to human eyes. Instead of a chemical process and carbon nanotubes this new product uses a sponge-like micro base and can be applied by spraying it on an object or surface.
It’s this second generation Vantablack that covers the Hyundai pavilion.
As visitors approach the pavilion they see dots of light from the projecting rods floating in front of a field of impenetrable blackness. Asif Khan says, “From a distance the structure has the appearance of a window looking into the depths of space. As you approach it, this impression grows to fill your entire field of view. So on entering the building, it feels as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness.”
Once viewers are inside the pavilion everything changes. All the interior surfaces are made of white Corian, a synthetic stone-like product manufactured by DuPont and usually used for table and counter tops. The floor of the pavilion gently slopes to the middle of the room and is engraved with a complex network of narrow, shallow channels all leading to that central point.
25,000 individual droplets of water are released into these channels every minute from tiny, computer controlled spigots located around the room. The droplets of water are released in response to haptic sensors that monitor the movement of visitors walking through the space. As the droplets navigate their way to the lake at the center of the floor their journey looks surprisingly like an aerial view of an urban landscape with the channels acting as streets and the water drops serving as automobiles and buses.
Khan says of the pavilion’s interior, “The water installation visitors discover inside is brightly lit in white. As your eyes adjust, you feel for a moment that the tiny water drops are at the scale of the stars. A water droplet is a size every visitor is familiar with. In the project I wanted to move from the scale of the cosmos to the scale of water droplets in a few steps.”
In addition to the visual poetry of this architectural installation Asif Khan has created a subliminal message that gently celebrates Hyundai’s research efforts to develop a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The black facade and star-like lights suggest the universe – the source of all hydrogen. And, as Khan says, “The droplets contain the same hydrogen from the beginning of the universe as the stars.”
Here is a short video tour of the pavilion created by the folks at the online architecture and design magazine www.dezeen.com.
For those of you reading this in e-mail you can see the video here.