Aspiring to the condition of sculpture: recent stainless steel trends in architecture and construction

The industries collectively known as ABC – Architecture, Building & Construction – are taking a bit of a breather after the post-Covid rebound. But many megaprojects are in the pipeline, as well as several prestige projects designed to beautify public or urban spaces. Recent trends include greater attention to ecological considerations and sustainability and the adoption of AI and “smart” manufacturing, especially 3D printing. Aesthetically, there is an increasing tendency to blur the distinction between architecture and sculpture. In all these developments, stainless steel plays an important role.

By James Chater

Outlook

The ABC industry is both cyclic and capital-intensive. Rising interest rates have put a dent in both investment and financing, and the industry is also facing a labour shortage that will increase costs. For these reasons, following a post-Covid uptick in activity, the sector has been slowing of late. This is especially the case in Europe, above all with the faltering of the German economy.

Another significant factor, given that ABC is a huge consumer of energy, is rising energy costs. This, together with the impact on the environment (box), provides a great incentive for the ABC industry to consume less energy and use more sustainable materials (such as stainless steel, which is 100% recyclable). Greater efficiency can also come about through smart technologies such as AI, 3D-printing (box), drones and other automation. The transition towards greener energy is driving activities such as insulation, solar panels and heat pumps. More efficient water management will require stainless steel for pipes and tanks.

Regions where the most growth is expected are the Asia Pacific (especially China) and the Middle East. Several megaprojects are taking shape in these parts of the world – though many that were announced a long time ago have yet to materialise. Among those that are imminent is Saudi Arabia’s megacity NEOM (designed to be a smart and sustainable metropolis and having at its centre a belt-shaped series of skyscrapers called the Line), the Red Sea projects, and the Amaala tourism development. Work is underway on several resorts, and the one on Sheybarah Island consists of 38 prefabricated overwater villas with stainless steel orbs that float over the water, reflecting the sea, sky, and reef below. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Dubai has added an impressive landmark, its Museum of the Future, in which stainless steel cladding is used to form a torus-shaped shell perforated with Arabic script. Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, yet another museum designed by Frank Gehry is taking shape, with its characteristically outlandish shapes recalling other buildings by the same architect. Nothing has yet been announced about the materials to be used, but Gehry is well known for his predilection for titanium and stainless steel.

Despite recent problems in its housing market, China too is forging ahead with ambitious projects ranging from the massive Belt and Road Initiative to smart cities such as Xiong’an and Shenzhen. India currently has even more infrastructure projects than China and seems determined to reduce its carbon emissions. It is also a large consumer of stainless steel both in absolute terms and per capita. This is likely to continue, as New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) and the Indian Stainless Steel Development Association (ISSDA) are collaborating to promote knowledge about the use of stainless steel in the field of architecture. Although the USA is undergoing a slump in domestic building, its crumbling infrastructure is undergoing a massive overhaul, with new bridges, roads, and transportation. Non-residential construction has been booming for 17 months. In the construction of bridges, grade 410 (martensitic-ferritic dual-phase) has been preferred in the past, but no doubt inspired by recent examples in Europe, duplex grades are now being reassessed, with recent examples including the Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge (duplex grade 2205 and super duplex 2507).

The Museum of the future, Dubai designed by the local architectural firm Killa Design. Its façade is clad in stainless steel and is perforated to show Arabic calligraphy forming poems that describe the vision for Dubai’s future.
The Museum of the future, Dubai designed by the local architectural firm Killa Design. Its façade is clad in stainless steel and is perforated to show Arabic calligraphy forming poems that describe the vision for Dubai’s future.

Stainless use

Stainless steel has become fashionable because it combines beauty with practicality. Among the practical considerations are life-cycle costs, ease of maintenance, and sustainability. Corrosion resistance is also important in coastal and marine environments. In weight-sensitive structures such as bridges, duplex stainless steel, which is strong in relation to its weight, is becoming more widely used. Because of its relative lightness, duplex is easier to transport and install, thereby saving fuel costs.

The forms in which stainless steel is applied are well-established, including rebar, cladding (of roofs or walls), and mesh for architecture and railing and bollards in street furniture. Mirror polishing is a feature found in both buildings and sculpture, and it often seems that modern architecture is aspiring to the condition of sculpture. The innovative, playful and daring shapes that allow this are often facilitated by the application of stainless steel.

Did you know

  • The IEA (International Energy Agency) estimates that the building and construction sector accounts for 36% of worldwide energy use and 40% of CO2 emissions.
  • In planning to rebuild America, President Joe Biden seems to have taken a leaf from the fictional US president Tom Kirkman in the Netflix TV series Designated Survivor. A former architect, Kirkman’s flagship policy is to rebuild the USA’s infrastructure. After failing to get his bill passed by Congress, he resorts to private finance to get the job done.
The Malinka Gallery in BC, Canada, built into a rocky hillside, has three façades and a roof all made of stainless-steel panels.
The Malinka Gallery in BC, Canada, built into a rocky hillside, has three façades and a roof all made of stainless-steel panels.
The +010 Building is located in the heart of Hakata ward in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: GION.
The +010 Building is located in the heart of Hakata ward in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: GION.

Rebar

As stainless steel reinforcement bar (rebar) is embedded in concrete and therefore invisible, its use is purely functional, having no aesthetic benefits. Yet its use on bridges and overpasses often underpins beautiful structures that also make visible use of stainless steel. This is the case in many recently constructed bridges in Europe and North America. Stainless (and increasingly nowadays, duplex stainless) rebar is resistant to de-icing salts and so finds favour in regions with severe winters1.

Cladding

With cladding we come to the most frequently applied way of using stainless steel to achieve an aesthetic effect or make a statement. Cladding can take various forms, some of them ironic. For instance, the Tower in Arles, southern France, is clad in a manner that subverts the normally two-dimensional nature of surface by introducing a third dimension, in the form of 11,000 stainless-steel bricks. Cladding can assume interesting shapes, for instance the Salmon Eye on the Hardangerfjord, Norway, which takes its name from its round shape and is covered with 9,500 stainless steel plates evoking a fish’s scaly skin. Especially complex is the 010 Building, a theatre in Fukuoka, Japan, wrapped in spiralling stainless-steel panels that subvert the traditional idea of façade and blur the distinction between back and front in a way that resembles sculpture.

Cladding can also be applied to roofs, and Nippon Steel has invented a special titanium-composite material called ALPOLIC/fr TCM for this purpose. It contains TranTixxii titanium and NSSC220M, a ferritic stainless-steel sheet. The material has been applied twice in Jiangsu, China, at the Centre for Performing Arts and the International Conference Centre.

The aptly named Balancing Barn, from Mole Architects, is clad in Ugi Bright stainless steel (type 316) from Arcelor Mittal. It is located by a small lake in the English countryside. Photo: © Edmund Sumner. Courtesy of MVRDV and Living Architecture.
The aptly named Balancing Barn, from Mole Architects, is clad in Ugi Bright stainless steel (type 316) from Arcelor Mittal. It is located by a small lake in the English countryside. Photo: © Edmund Sumner. Courtesy of MVRDV and Living Architecture.

Mirror finish

Mirror finishes are a special form of surface designed to reflect the surroundings in a literal sense. Recent examples include a pipe-shaped cabin in Russia’s Nikola-Lenivets Art Park, whose outer surface reflects the surrounding forest. Similar is the Malinka Gallery in BC, Canada, in which a pre-existing house was extended with a space enclosed by stainless-steel mirror-polished panels reflecting the surroundings, in such a way that it is difficult to tell what is reflection and what is direct view.

Mirror finish also plays an important role in sculpture. In this respect, the Cloud Gate in Chicago (nicknamed The Bean), with its distorted reflection of the surrounding park and buildings, was epoch-making, inspiring many imitations. For example, Lincoln Raikes supplies stainless-steel spheres for use in industry and sculpture. Rob Mulholland makes mirror-polish statues, including the Vestige project, in which ghost-like figures were placed on a wooded hillside in Scotland to evoke the crofters who used to live there.

Rob Mullholland’s Vestige project consists of sculptures of human figures in mirror-finish 316L stainless steel located on a Scottish hillside. The figures represent a vestige, a faint trace of the past people and communities that once occupied and lived in this space. The figures absorb their environment, reflecting on their surface the daily changes of life in the forest. Images: Rob Mulholland.
Rob Mullholland’s Vestige project consists of sculptures of human figures in mirror-finish 316L stainless steel located on a Scottish hillside. The figures represent a vestige, a faint trace of the past people and communities that once occupied and lived in this space. The figures absorb their environment, reflecting on their surface the daily changes of life in the forest. Images: Rob Mulholland.

Mesh

TENSIOMESH® from GKD is used to adjust and control the pretension of GKD fabric façades. It is permanently installed in the façade system and placed between the substructure and the lower attachment.
TENSIOMESH® from GKD is used to adjust and control the pretension of GKD fabric façades. It is permanently installed in the façade system and placed between the substructure and the lower attachment.

Meshing and screens are an important function often fulfilled by stainless steel. Their use tends to give a hazy, bluish-chrome nuance to exteriors, and can also help to protect against solar glare, heat, wind, or rain while still letting enough light in. This is the case in a new campus of Harvard University that features the world’s first hydroformed stainless-steel screen. (Hydroforming is a type of die moulding in which metal is formed using highly pressurised fluid.) Mesh has recently been applied in two sports venues. GKD is supplying its proprietary TENSIOMESH® system for the roof of the Roland Garros tennis stadium in Paris, France, which will open for the 2024 Olympics. The same company is supplying the Perth Rectangular Stadium in Australia with 32 panels with a total of 2,000 square metres of Omega 1520 stainless-steel mesh with bronze weft. In short, mesh is an excellent way of combining the elegant and the practical.

The Centre for Performing Arts and International Conference Centre in Jiangsu, China, is clad in the titanium composite material ALPOLIC/fr TCM. Photo Nippon Steel.
The Centre for Performing Arts and International Conference Centre in Jiangsu, China, is clad in the titanium composite material ALPOLIC/fr TCM. Photo Nippon Steel.

Conclusion

Stainless steel and (more rarely) titanium are ideal materials for fulfilling the aesthetic aspirations and practical considerations required in postmodern architecture. The playful, subversive, and ironical or paradoxical forms and techniques used can be especially well expressed by stainless steel, with its easy formability and practical advantages. The rise of smart technologies such as WAAM and AI suggests that this trend is by no means over.

References

(1) For more details, see my survey on bridges in Stainless Steel World, December issue, 2023.

About this Featured Story

This Featured Story appeared in Stainless Steel World January 2024 magazine. To read many more articles like these on an (almost) monthly basis, subscribe to our magazine (available in print and digital format) – SUBSCRIPTIONS TO OUR DIGITAL VERSION ARE NOW FREE.

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