In its 100-year history, aluminium has had an unparalleled impact on the built environment. Since the sheathing of the cupola of the San Gioacchino Church in Rome in 1897, aluminium has risen to prominence among specifiers through landmark projects, such as the curtain walling on Shreve, Lamb & Harmon’s iconoclastic Empire State Building in 1929.
In 1945, Pietro Belushi created the first large structure totally sheathed in aluminium and glass – the Equitable Building in Portland, Oregon; followed by SOM’s Lever Building; Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson’s Seagram Building; and the UN Secretariat in New York.
But even in those pioneering years, the use of aluminium was not confined to modernist landmarks. Indeed, aluminium window frames were installed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford University in 1939, and have since provided eloquent testament to the material’s durability. So what has drawn successive generations of architects to aluminium?
In one word – versatility. More than any other material, aluminium has the capability of being extruded into complex shapes to exact tolerances. Other metals, such as steel, can be extruded but they require enormous pressure to pass through the die, rendering all but a few simple extrusions uneconomic.
Aluminium, on the other hand, has been successfully formed into literally thousands of unique profiles, each one able to meet a number of specific structural and aesthetic requirements. It is this capability to provide simple elegant solutions to extremely complex design problems that has led to aluminium’s enduring appeal.