You may have noticed a trend in architectural design over recent years: black buildings. I have observed this trend in a variety of types of structures, from houses to offices to outbuildings, and from large to small in size. As architects in Michigan, we are always trying to stay ahead of trends in architecture and design, so we are going to explore this trend in color saturation.

Black buildings can be found just about everywhere. Small residences are being found in high dense city landscapes, sandwiched between traditional rowhouses. Others may be large apartment buildings, joining other typical skyscrapers. Architects in Michigan read an article about a couple who designed their home to span a small gap between buildings in an urban context. They incorporated a simple facade made of black brick. A few windows were concealed with a brick screen while others were large picture bay windows. The facade, while simple, left quite an impression, because of the dark black color with no accents. The house itself stands out amongst its neighbors because of its modern design, but the fact that it is painted black further accentuates the contrast. And yet, it also has a sense that it is trying to hide, trying to sink back, away from the street, as if it does not wish to be noticed, but can not help but be.

The implications of black structures in rural areas is quite different from those in urban contexts. While an urban home might appear to stand out like a sore thumb in comparison to its neighbors, a black home might succeed more in disappearing when submerged in a deep forest or on a cliff overlooking the sea. This can happen because its ‘neighbor’ is nature, and one building among thousands of trees can more easily get lost, overlooked, or better yet, camouflaged. The effect of the color of a black structure in a natural landscape is a retreating of that structure; it is simple science: white is a lack of color, and therefore reflects all light, which creates the illusion that whatever is white is closer to you, or larger than it really is; while black is the presence of all color, and absorbs all light, creating the opposite illusion, that whatever is black is further away from you, or smaller than it really is. For example, think about fashion in a similar way: in general, when you wear black, you create the illusion of depth because the black absorbs light, making you look ‘further away’, thereby making you appear slimmer than you really are! Perhaps this is why so many architects in Michigan wear black so often! In addition, think about nighttime. When it is dark outside, everything fades into the darkness. A black building as the sun sets is much less visible than a bright white building would be in the same light. Architects in Michigan need to consider not just a design in a vacuum; we also need to take into account how the building will respond to its surroundings, at all times of the day. Some people might not think architects think about those things, but we really do. Architects in Michigan want to design buildings for people who live in them throughout the day, year round, and try to create spaces that perform well and look good in every context.

You might be asking why more and more buildings are being made with black materials or painted black. What you might not know is the history of black buildings. Around one hundred years ago, buildings were heated with coal. This was an unrefined process which created a lot of soot, which then covered everything, including buildings. Since buildings were being coated with black soot anyway, people began to paint them to match, so that they did not look so dirty all the time. Over the years, however, as pollution concerns rose around the middle of the 20th century and energy technology evolved, we switched to the use of oil and gas, and the processes we used to heat our buildings became cleaner. This development left no residue on our buildings, so we did not have to paint them black to hide the mess. We had the freedom to use color wherever we wanted, and for decades we did just that. Perhaps even if architects in Michigan wanted to use black on buildings, we resisted, because of the negative connotations black architecture had, being connected to filthiness. Today, we are far enough removed from those days that black can now return to our buildings.

Another reason for an influx in black colored buildings is the growing popularity in some processes that create a black look naturally, such as Shou sugi ban, which is a Japanese method of preserving cedar, in which a layer of charred wood is created on the outside by burning the wood. This process not only preserves the wood, but makes it a more fire and insect resistant, low-maintenance exterior material. This process can also be thought of as a more sustainable and natural way to create a black look. A downside of black buildings, however, needs to be stated. Even though one would assume it would be better to have a black building in some cooler climates, in fact most habitable areas still struggle more with cooling their buildings than heating. Because a dark color absorbs more heat than a light color, it will require more energy to cool a black colored building than a white one.

Black architecture can take on many forms. Many newly constructed modern houses are being built by architects in Michigan with black materials or painted black. This is probably the context where I see the most black architecture. But what if you already have a house that you want to paint black? I have also seen many older, more traditionally styled houses being painted black as a modern update. I personally have been tempted to paint my 1940s Colonial house black to give it a modern twist. There is something interesting in applying a new trend to an old form–it can give life to that form while still appreciating what it was made to be and when it was made.