For hundreds of years, all buildings were constructed primarily of wood and masonry. This began to change dramatically in the 18th century when wrought iron and cast iron were introduced as construction materials. Swiftly, a variety of metals took over as the preferred foundation for construction and architecture, a legacy which continues to this day. Iron initially supplanted both wood and masonry because of its superior strength and fire resistance, especially the latter. Several disastrous fires in the latter part of the 18th century led to the development of less combustible buildings which relied on cast iron as a major element of their construction.
Cast iron was also preferred for large public buildings due to the fact that a huge floor could be built with iron supports that prevented bouncing, or sagging in the middle, which was the case for flooring constructed with wooden supports.
Iron as a primary architectural material was in its turn overridden by the superior attributes of steel, for both sheet metal and supports. Steel is stronger than both cast iron and wrought iron and also has a greater resistance to corrosion.
The advent of the mass production of steel in the 19th century revolutionized architecture, leading to the ability to design and build enormously tall structures such as skyscrapers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, stainless steel was developed. Due to its aesthetic appeal and extremely high corrosion resistance, it became an external feature of much architecture. Buildings in marine environments often choose stainless steel sheeting for their exterior, since the building materials are exposed to corrosive elements. This is not only a concern for the surface area; many structures in such environments also use stainless steel material in their foundations, since the soil will be more corrosive than usual due to salt content.
By far the most well-known use of stainless steel in modern architecture though, is for its luster and visual appeal. The Chrysler Building in New York City is the chief early example of using stainless steel plate for its aesthetic attributes. The Chrysler Building was the first large scale use of stainless steel and was completed in 1930. It proves the superiority of stainless steel material used externally since today, almost one hundred years later, the stainless steel of this world famous building is in near pristine condition.
Another famous modern use of stainless steel material for construction is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. The Arch was designed to last one thousand years, which is one of the primary reasons the architect chose stainless steel. Also, like the Chrysler Building, the steel used in the Arch is to this day still in excellent condition, effortlessly maintaining its striking visual appeal.
Currently, celebrated architect Frank Gehry often chooses stainless steel sheeting to clad his spectacular buildings; the most well known example in the U.S. being the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Truly, steel has revolutionized architecture, from the steel used for interior supports and foundations, enabling buildings to rise toward the sky, to the dramatic use of stainless steel plate on buildings’ exteriors, commanding our attention.