Back to black



Black counts for architects. We could almost talk about fascination. It is not a question of starting a debate on black in the history of architecture, but just of evoking black materials and their contemporary use in building envelopes.

Black is timeless

Black is the best means of highlighting the other attributes of luxury, of gilding and silverware, of placing the product in a showcase that aptly highlights it. From formula 1 in the 1970s (the famous Lotus John Player Special) to the Guerlain perfume “La petite robe noire”, a positive ideology developed around black, which could be interpreted as a means to anesthetise the deathly reference historically attached to this colour. Black is not in fashion, it has not come back into fashion. It is timeless.

Black zinc: from a simple accessory to an architectural material

The history of black zinc is recent. Developed at the start of the 1980s, according to a priciple of phosphating the surface (acceleration and amplification using an industrial procedure on the natural patina), it was supposed to enable the visual integration of traditional flashings and ventilations on slate roofs. These natural zinc flashings, considered to be too light in colour, were thereby subtly integrated into the overall colour of the roof.

This is exactly what happened in regions of France where slate roofs are widespread, such as the Pays de Loire/Grand Ouest region, where it is now the metal used for seaming. Initially called “preweathered zinc”, then “ANTHRA-ZINC” (to distinguish from “QUARTZ-ZINC”, the preweathered light grey zinc which succeeded it), this shade of black zinc was quickly adopted by architects. It is no longer used simply as a roofing accessory, but to cover the entire roof surface.

In retrospect, one could say that this surface aspect made it possible, in the 1980s and 1990s, to reposition zinc as an architectural material*. It is the surface aspect that changed points of view. Zinc is no longer just utilitarian. It is no longer just a reliable solution for managing Parisian pitched terraces, the solution for low slopes, the discreet product that only roofers get to use. It is now possible to show it off. To use it on facades as well as on roofs.

Casa M-Lidia by RCR architects (2017 Pritzker prize)

ANTHRA-ZINC: intense, non-uniform, and hugely popular with architects

Totally different from lacquered products, coated galvanised products, or all-over sterile sheet metal. Its black colour is intense yet non-uniform, it evolves over time. It plays with the sky and harsh weather. It is worked on in the same way as natural zinc but now it is not at all natural zinc.

A huge trend. In 1986, Claude Vasconi chose it for his 57 Métal in Boulogne-Billancourt During his press conference on the day of the launch, he repeated his conviction that “we can construct industrial buildings with sustainable material such as glass, bricks or zinc” and that there was no obligation to build rectangular boxes when the client (in this case Renault) opts to be daring and choose quality.

57 Métal Boulogne-Billancourt

Thirty years later, preweathered zinc is still here. It has got brighter. Its bays have been assaulted by pollution from the roadway along the banks of the Seine. That natural patina has returned. The plant became a cultural centre and perhaps soon it will become a suburban train station. Métal 57 is listed as a historic building.

For us the building remains a major feat. How to extrapolate the discreet roll cap of the Parisian pitched terrace into a vigorous rib capable of giving its full strength to the gigantic roof of an industrial building. It’s all about scale. Vasconi had us do it! The lines of these ribs, which begin almost at ground level and rise upwards to form an immense cascade of sheds, create a play of shadows that makes this envelope a work of art whose mass is attenuated by the black colour of the zinc.

In architecture, black is multifaceted

On roofs, it can take the form of photovoltaic cells with silicon, it can spread out in large strips of bitumen or in thousands of slightly bluish natural slates. At the moment burnt-effect products are popular. Some architects had tried to burn wood manually with a flame. Now it can be chosen from a catalogue!

Designers are also becoming interested in the rubber of EPDM membranes. From roof terraces, it sometimes ventures onto facades and resembles a dark veil cladding insulation like a quilt! The copper in its trajectory, which sees it evolve from orange to green, transits via an intense black.

But black is also a colour obtained through contrast. Perforated facades become lamps at night-time, illuminating the street and projecting, a shadow puppet of the envelope like a perfect black veil.

Ronchamp chapel by Le Corbusier

Beyond black

Fantasy. We would have loved to entrust our black zinc, produced in the Aveyron region in the south-west of France, to a famous native of Aveyron, the painter Pierre Soulages. Perhaps he could have produced a canvas with a patchwork of ANTHRA-ZINC panels. But at his age (98), Soulages, as he says himself, is done with darkness, and is now working with other colours!

Shadows and light

Regardless of trends such as the current trend of flashy colours, regardless of deeper trends such as our trend for natural and pastel colours reflecting the patina of materials, regardless of current injunctions (greenery flowing from roofs and facades), black will remain a fundamental ally for architects.


(*) Created in 1978, ANTHRA-ZINC is the most widely sold black zinc in the world. Its silky, matte texture is really unique. Its industrial production is the most delicate that exists. To date, VMZINC is the only industrial capable of providing a constant, regular quality of aspect, which is a guarantee of quality and homogeneity when zinc (especially on facades) is visible on large surfaces.

1st picture: 2011 Soulages acquisitions - Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon

  Roger Baltus column