Imagine having a light but strong metal, resistant to corrosion, non-toxic and durable, which can be shaped into virtually any desired form. In short, you’re thinking of building with aluminium.
Aluminium and architecture: a century-long history
The history of architectural aluminium is relatively recent. Actually, the finished material dates back to the late 19th century, but until the 1920s, it was not widely used, due to high production costs. From the 30s onward, the use of aluminium in construction and architecture gradually set in. However, for extensive use of aluminium in construction, we have to get to the mid-20th century. One of the earliest examples of architectural aluminium is the Empire State Building, one of the Art Déco worldwide icons.
Unveiled in 1931, the New York skyscraper is one of the first buildings featuring aluminium both as an element of the load-bearing structure, and with a decorative function in the interior design. Originally, cast aluminium was used for the exterior banisters, featuring a decorative surface pattern. The balustrades construction required three hundred tons of aluminium. Much more recently, in the 1990s, aluminium was used to replace all of the skyscraper’s windows frames, damaged by time and weather. Aluminium is also widely used inside the Empire State Building, as decoration, on the walls and ceiling of the Grand Lobby.
But let’s take a step back to 1923. In this year, oxidation was discovered – a process that is able to dramatically increase the corrosion resistance of aluminium and also prevents its colour from changing. Oxidation allowed the exterior windows and doors of the New York skyscraper to last for over sixty years. Therefore, it can easily be said that the Empire State Building is one of the best examples of corrosion-resistant anodised aluminium.
Similarly, the Milanese Montecatini office buildings, designed by worldwide famous architect Gio Ponti in the 1930s, is another example of corrosion-resistant anodised aluminium, which was used for the window frames, coplanar to the façade and finishes and furnishings. A glance at the dome of the Church of San Gioacchino in Rome’s Prati district, on the other hand, shows that aluminium was already in use as an architectural element at the end of the 19th century, and at the same time, the current colouring of the dome is a clear example of how an aluminium surface changes without anodisation.
Overall, starting in the 1930s, there were several experiments with architectural aluminium in the United States and also in Europe. Buckminster Fuller designed an experimental all-aluminium house, the Dymaxion House. The project aimed to prove aluminium’s efficiency in building structures to be easily assembled and disassembled for more efficient and cost-effective logistics.
Aluminium: lightweight and resistance for the architecture of the future
Today, aluminium is even more performing and, therefore, even more used, both in architecture and design. Its properties make it highly versatile, and very interesting for many different types of projects. Lightweight is undoubtedly one of the requirements that makes it more attractive: aluminium has a specific weight of about one-third of steel or copper. Not only that, aluminium is not prone to corrosion, thanks to a thin layer of oxidation, which prevents it. Finally, aluminium is highly malleable and ductile, so it is effortless to work with.
Architectural aluminium: key for sustainable design
For the past few decades, the focus on sustainability has been alive more than ever, which is one of the reasons why aluminium is increasingly popular. Here are three key elements that make aluminium stand above other materials when designing sustainable.
First of all, aluminium has a natural origin, and it is one of the most abundant resources on Earth. It comes mainly from bauxite, through a process that used to be very energy-intensive. However, in recent times, increasingly advanced technologies made it possible to reduce energy consumption more and more, reaching a carbon footprint of 4 kg of CO2 per kg of aluminium from over 8 kg a century ago.
One of aluminium’s most important assets is its recyclability. Aluminium, in fact, can be recycled virtually indefinitely, with no loss of quality. And that’s why it is even more sought after. Since it has been used in architecture and interior design for about a century, today, there is plenty of material for recycling. Sequentially, architectural aluminium becomes one of the main resources for the abundance of primary material and a large amount of material suitable for recycling.
To sum it up – architectural aluminium is a tool of infinite creativity in the hands of the architect, making it possible to create many structures while keeping an eye on sustainability.
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