Steel and Beyond: New Strategies for Metals in Architecture
By Annette LeCuyer

June 09, 2003 /
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1.jpgPhoto: Lara Swimmer

Metal opens up a vast range of fascinating possibilities in today's building industry.  In "Steel and Beyond" the latest technical processes are presented together with examples from contemporary architecture.

New, extremely light alloys, hybrid constructions, advanced methods in calculating the static's of new load-bearing systems, computer-aided design and fabrication, and the adaptation of techniques from aeroplane design and ship building: these new technical developments in design and production are radically changing the use of metals in building.

Yesterday's standards and processes are rapidly becoming outdated, and it is high time that the most recent advances are documented in a systematic overview.

2.jpgPhoto: Lara Swimmer
Gehry Partners, LLP
EMP, Seattle

The form of the EMP was generated through a series of physical sketch models that were digitized and, using Catia software, translated into surfaces with complex and continuous curvatures. Parameters governing maximum curvature, cladding panel size, and cladding pattern, as established by manually assembled mock-ups, were fed into Catia to rationalize the form into buildable surfaces.

The last period of comparably fundamental change, arguably, occurred in the mid 19th century when mass production for iron, steel and glass were developed.

3.jpgJoseph Paxton
Crystal Palace, London (1851)
Paradigm for mass-produced systems building.

Lightness was a central architectural preoccupation in the 20th century, with the freedom offered by the skeletal frame and the curtain wall being being distilled into a quest for the minimal.  

4.jpgPhoto: Wendell Burnett
Richard Buckminster Fuller
Dymaxion House Prototype (1941-46)

The aluminum-framed and -clad prototype, suspended from a central mast, was never commercially mass-produced.

The Centre Pompidou revived the dormant 19th century craft of metal casting with an infusion of the 20th century science of fracture mechanics, developed in the nuclear and North Sea oil industries.   

5.jpgRenzo Piano and Richard Rogers
Centre Pompidou, Paris (1977)
Cast gerberettes in foundry.

"Steel and Beyond" examines significant recent buildings, both completed and in design, which illustrate groundbreaking concepts. Each project is comprehensively documented in image and text, paying particular attention to the application and processing of metal and steel.

6.jpgPhoto: Nigel Young/Foster and Partners

The Millennium Bridge creates the sensation of being airborne, allowing pedestrians expansive and unobstructed views of the city. Although slender and light its impact is enormous.

Seen in context of nearby road and rail bridges, the minimalism of the structure is striking.

7.jpgPhoto: Buro Happold/Mandy Reynolds Richard Horden Associates
Glasgow Tower (2001)

The Glasgow Tower was engineered to control wind flow to achieve a steady wake. Aerodynamic component design was done with the assistance of computational fluid dynamics software, and of both steady and dynamic wind tunnel testing. The Tower's primary steel structure consists of a stair enclosure and two outriggers that form a tripod. Fully rotating from its base, the Tower is a demonstration of the principles of aerodynamics.

8.jpgPhoto: Nacasa & Partners, Inc.
Toyo Ito and Associates
Mediatheque, Sendai (2001)

The subtle structure of the Mediatheque combines geometric and non-geometric modes of thought to create a public building that is psychologically more accessible.  

9.jpgImage courtesy Toyo Ito and Associates The structural tubes, each differently shaped and irregularly positioned, expand and contract as they descend through the building.

10.jpgPhoto: OMA
Prada Tower, San Francisco (2004)

The facade of the Prada Tower is both the weathertight envelope of the building and a key component of its structural system. To satisfy San Francisco's stringent seismic code, the steel frame is mounted on isolation bearings at foundation level.  But instead of the diagonal bracing that is typically used to stiffen framed structures, OMA opted for a rigid diaphragm. To perform this structural role, the stainless steel facade is 25 mm thick. To minimize weight and open views both into and from the building, it is perforated with circular holes on a 295 mm staggered grid.   

11.jpgPhoto: OMA

The holes cut by water jets at right angles to the plane of the surface, are eleven sizes ranging from 63 to 188 mm in diameter.

The emphatic thickness of the stainless steel envelope moves away from the immateriality of the curtain wall to become a palpable skin.

Annette LeCuyer is an architect and architectural critic. She studied at the Architectural Association, worked in practice in London and has written extensively for architectural publications. She is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan, USA.

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Publisher: Birkhäuser

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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