How aluminium changed architecture

How aluminium changed architecture

Strong, lightweight, durable, resistant to corrosion, endlessly recyclable, and with the capacity to be formed into nearly any shape, aluminum can realize in architecture what other common building materials such as brick or wood cannot. Since its widespread emergence at the beginning of the 20th century, it has been a driver in revolutionizing modern architecture.

The Emergence of Aluminium

At the beginning of the 20th century, aluminium was not widely used in architecture and engineering applications due to cost. But at the beginning of the 1920’s, thanks to innovations in the production process, the cost of aluminum was reduced by 80%. As a result, the metal became popular for structural applications, as well as for use in numerous building components: including doors, windows, siding, roofing, curtain walls, sun shading, flashings, balustrades, and in decorative applications - to name just a few.

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
© Benoy Architects

Landmark Architectural Applications

Aluminium was notably first widely used in the construction of New York’s Empire State Building. Completed in 1931, it remained the world’s tallest building until 1970. The building’s basic structure and components were completed in aluminum, with the interior and lobby also finished with the material.

 

Throughout the mid-20th century, iconic architects experimented widely with aluminium. One of the most interesting early examples of modernist architecture employing the material was the Aluminaire House, the first all-metal house in the United States, designed by Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house is another example, notable for its experimentation with lightweight aluminum alloys that demonstrate high strength to weight ratios.

Four Seasons Hotel - Bahrain
© Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Photo: Waleed Alabbas

Aluminum in the 21st Century

Aluminum has continued to push boundaries into the 21st century. Modern aluminum alloys for example are easily able to support the weight of heavy glass spans, thus maximizing the amount of natural light into buildings. Skyscrapers, with a combination of glass and aluminum frames, also push boundaries worldwide. In addition to achieving gravity-defying forms, aluminum frames allow for buildings that are ever taller, more energy-efficient, and with significantly reduced C02 emissions. 

The Green Building Revolution

Today, with an increasing emphasis on green building, aluminium is known as one of the most energy-efficient and sustainable construction materials. With its extreme durability, aluminum can be used in any climatic condition, ranging from –80 °C to +300 °C. The insulation technology used for the aluminum fenestration applications is answering to the low energy requirements of current and future regulations.

Furthermore, at the end of the life cycle, the aluminum is remelted to new aluminum without loss of quality, ensuring infinite recyclability. 

Thanks to these characteristics, aluminum-intensive buildings have won numerous sustainable building awards, including LEED Platinum and Gold, ensuring the material continues to be positioned as an industry changer in the world of architecture.