Everyday Aluminum: Europe Edition

Guest Blog by Frank Weaver


It is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust—and, as it happens, one of the most useful to humans in our industrial age. I am referring, or course, to aluminum. Most people in the United States come in contact with aluminum every day, in one form or another, most typically in the kitchen. But beyond cooking utensils and aluminum foil, this metal has been put to use in myriad applications outside the home. Indeed, it is estimated that each year every single person in the U.S. uses more than 3,600 pounds of bauxite ore (from which aluminum is extracted) in their daily lives.

Aluminum is everywhere. Of course, we at FramingTech deal with it all the time, in the form of our T-slot aluminum extrusions and related structural framing productsAnd yet ironically, because it has become so commonplace, many of us tend to take it for granted. Nevertheless, the more you learn about this ubiquitous and versatile metal, the more you will notice and be fascinated by it.

On a recent trip to Europe, I made a conscious effort to “notice” and document the many ways that aluminum is put to use, often in ways we are not even aware of.

I did not have to travel far to start hitting paydirt: it was right there in the airports I passed through. In Brussels, I just had to look up. The ceiling of the terminal is made entirely of the stuff. And in Zagreb, the façade of the airport is constructed with flat aluminum curtains and structural glazing, while the futuristic roof is covered by a state-of-the-art aluminum shield. (The undulating shape of the roof was designed by the architects to mimic the profile of the surrounding mountains.)

Once on the ground in Milan, I discovered that the centuries-old city where Leonardo da Vinci made his home for most of his working life is today very much a modern, vibrant city. It is also chock full of that most modern of metals, aluminum. Not surprisingly, because it has become such a key component in construction, the metal was prominent in a number of buildings. The panels of solar control glass on the façade of Amazon’s headquarters in Milan are held in place by strips of anodized aluminum; and the front of the Siemens building is graced by a giant brushed aluminum sculpture, titled “Wings,” designed by renowned architect and urban planner Daniel Libeskind.

Nowhere is the contrast between new and old more apparent in Milan than in two of its most iconic buildings: the modernist Pirelli Tower and the medieval Duomo Cathedral. The panes of the tower’s glass façade are held together by anodized aluminum mullions located outside the slabs to create a seamless curtain wall. As for the cathedral—well, aluminum had not yet been discovered when construction began in 1386; yet in contemporary times aluminum plays an important role in ensuring such ancient shrines can keep on standing and inspiring the faithful.

And what role does aluminum play in this regard? No matter where you go in Europe, you’ll often discover many of these old cathedrals, palaces, and other antique buildings adorned with intricate scaffolding structures, which give maintenance workers access to every interior and exterior corner of the buildings for purposes of repair and restoration. Old, meet New:

Sometimes the scaffolding is made with aluminum. But because of its bindability, that metal is not always suitable for larger, heavier scaffolds. In that case, extruded steel pipes are used. Even then, however, the platforms, walkways, and other coverings are made of lighter aluminum. In a certain way, these modern, airy-looking structures, beside the beautiful, ancient behemoths, possess an aesthetic beauty of their own.

Transportation too is another area where aluminum plays a role. For over a century aircraft have been built with ultra-light aluminum. Nowadays, aluminum is the dominant material (along with steel) in the construction of train car bodies, including the sideboards, roof, floor panels, and cant rails. And on the high seas, corrosion-resistant, marine-grade aluminum is an ideal construction material for components in vessels of all types and sizes, from small leisure boats to large car/passenger ferries.

The suitability of aluminum for marine applications was brought home to me on the fresh- and salt-water coastlines of Italy and Croatia. Amid the veritable forest of masts assembled in the harbors, some were old-school wooden masts, some were more modern steel and carbon-fibre—but most were made of extruded aluminum, which is not just stronger than wood and lighter than steel, but also impervious to rot and rust.

At this point, no matter where I looked, it was impossible for me not to notice the numerous objects around me made of aluminum. It truly was everywhere:

  • in the poles of the beach umbrellas lining the sandy shore of Monterosso al Mare;
  • in the ladder bolted to a seaside rock, allowing swimmers to easily enter and exit the  crystal-clear waters of Cinque Terre’s village of Manarola; and
  • in the walkways guiding visitors through the archaeological excavations at the Villa Romana in Portovenere.
Detail of Hercules and Cacus sculpture, Florence, Italy
Hercules and Cacus (detail)

Last but not least, I found aluminum in the art I saw on my travels—and not all of it in museums. One surprising find was Baccio Bandinelli’s statue of Hercules and Cacus, standing to the right of the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. It was sculpted of white marble in the 16th century (remember, this was long before artists even knew of the existence of aluminum). When the statue underwent restoration in 1994, however, the restorers discovered that someone had stolen the original bronze club in Hercules’ hand and replaced it with an aluminum imposter. How and when this theft occurred remains a mystery to this day.

Fast-forward to the present day. Hiking up to Strossmayer Promenade in the upper town of Zagreb, foot-sore tourists can soak in the view and rest their weary bones beside the figure of Antun Gustav Matoš (1873–1914), the beloved Croatian poet, short story writer, journalist, essayist, and champion of Croatian modernist literature. This charming and whimsical statue, Matoš on the Bench, was created by the Croatian artist Ivan Kožarić and placed on the promenade in 1972—and is cast entirely from aluminum!

So next time you’re out and about, whether at home or abroad, take notice of all the aluminum that surrounds you. You’ll be amazed at how much of it you can find!

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