Welds apart

Fay Sweet looks at the way different artists and designers respond to the challenge of working with metal, and how their bond with the material was formed

From the dark days of prehistory when the beauty and strength of metals were first coaxed from their base origins, our fascination with this most versatile and varied of materials refuses to be diminished.

While the methods employed to shape primitive tools and weapons have evolved to the deliciously sophisticated heights of creating Posh Spice’s crazy coronet, the materials have continued to remain close to the creative pulse both in war and in peace.

Who could fail to be awestruck in the presence of Tutankhamen’s elaborate and intricate jewellery and sculpture wrought at the peak of Ancient Egyptian civilisation? Or the exquisite armour of Shogun warriors, Ghiberti’s wondrous, muscular cast-bronze doors for the Florentine Baptistry and the massive black cannon which were the main product of the 16th century English iron industry until the government decreed that timber should be used to make ships to conquer the world instead of stoke furnace fires?

To continue this expansive vision comes the brilliance of engineers like Brunel, who persuaded the difficult material into performing the most staggering feats of spanning yawning gorges, making great lacy-structured sheds, a network of railway lines and luxury ships. And metals continue to delight whether used as the tiniest piece of body piercing jewellery or on a monumental scale in sculptures such as Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and the full metal jacket crafted in titanium for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.

Architect Richard MacCormac, of MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard believes much of the excitement in using metals is in the contrasts they provide. The practice’s Southwark Tube Station in London project uses a variety of metals in different ways. “I’m most intrigued when metal is used sparingly and in contrast to the fundamental structure. There is something captivating about the rawness of brick or concrete seen alongside the fine engineering of metal detailing,” says MacCormac.

He is also experimenting with metals in the Science Museum extension project. “Here steel is used in a monumental way in the engineering of the structure and in the most delicate way for the walls, which are finished in metal grilles which hang like a very fine veil,” he says.

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