Aluminum has been fashioned into everything from jewelry to dresses, airships to architecture. Raul A. Barreneche reviews related exhibitions that explore this once precious, now common metal.

Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire made him one of the world’s richest men, and Pittsburgh, his adopted hometown, one of the most polluted cities on the globe. Aluminum production joined steel manufacturing as Pittsburgh’s top industries during World War II, just a decade before the city abdicated industrial brawn for cleaner pursuits, like finance, high-tech, and culture. Fifty years later, the legacy of metal is being remembered–appropriately, by one of the institutions that emerged as a result of local robber barons’ far-reaching philanthropy.

The Carnegie Museum of Art has produced three related exhibitions devoted to objects made from the once precious, now common metal: Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets is a sweeping survey supplemented by Alumi-Nuts: Collectors’ Confessions, which showcases aluminum decorative objects from the private collections of local aficionados. And, the Carnegie Museum’s Heinz Architectural Center has organized Aluminum in Contemporary Architecture, a small exhibit of aluminum’s architectural applications in the last decade.

Aluminum by Design traces the soft alloy’s evolution from a decorative precious metal in the mid-1800s to the cheap, recyclable container of soft drinks today. Austrian architect Otto Wagner pioneered aluminum’s architectural use in his gilded fin-de-siecle facades, including the Postal Savings Bank in Vienna (1906), in which bolts capped with aluminum heads were both a constructional device and a decorative motif.

Inexpensive, readily available, easy to manipulate, strong, and lightweight, aluminum was a crucial commodity during World War II. After the war, however, manufacturers had to push designers to find new uses for the metal, to keep their idle plants going. Designers from Isamu Noguchi to Charles and Ray Eames began looking to this polished metal, and along the way, aluminum came to symbolize the very essence of modernity. Aluminum by Design charts its evolution and symbolism up to the present, from Pace Rabanne’s iconic aluminum-disc dress of 1969 to the innovative recent furniture of Ron Arad and Marc Newson.

Aluminum in Contemporary Architecture focuses on nine recent buildings which demonstrate different aspects of the material’s suitability to architecture. For Norman Foster’s Scottish Exhibition and Conference Center in Glasgow (1998), huge rolls of aluminum are draped on an armadillo-like steel structure. Future Systems’ NatWest Media Center at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London (1994) is a semi-monocoque aluminum pod, in which the shell is both skin and structure.

In tracing aluminum’s overlooked history, Carnegie’s three exhibitions demonstrate that its economy, performance, and seemingly limitless aesthetic possibilities still draw designers to this malleable metal, over a hundred years after its discovery.

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