Stain­less variety an arty favourite

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Steel Special Report - Steely art: A trib­ute to Vik­ing mariners on the shore­line in Reyk­javik, Ice­land, made of stain­less steel Derek Parker

STAIN­LESS steel is of­ten rel­e­gated to a sta­tus of ju­nior cousin of the steel in­dus­try, but in fact it is a field where a huge amount of in­no­va­tion is be­ing seen. As a ma­te­rial, it is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a pre­ferred op­tion for sculp­ture and art, as it al­lows a blend­ing of en­gi­neer­ing and aes­thet­ics.

Stain­less steel is de­fined as an iron­car­bon al­loy with a chromium con­tent of at least 10.5 per cent. The in­clu­sion of chromium — and some­times other met­als such as nickel or vana­dium — means that stain­less steel does not stain, cor­rode or rust as eas­ily as or­di­nary steel. But, de­pend­ing on the spe­cific grade, it has very high de­grees of strength and ten­sil­ity. The layer of chromium on the sur­face is too thin to be vis­i­ble, so the metal re­mains lus­trous. A cru­cial char­ac­ter­is­tic is that the layer quickly re­forms when the sur­face is scratched, a process called pas­si­va­tion.

For Yackan­dan­dah- based sculp­tor Ben­jamin Gil­bert, the key to stain­less steel is the pos­si­bil­i­ties in­her­ent in the sur­face.

‘‘ I call it the ‘ twinkly’ fac­tor,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s some­thing that is au­to­mat­i­cally ap­peal­ing, a qual­ity that doesn’t need to be ex­plained. There is an em­bod­ied en­ergy in stain­less steel. It is stronger than mild steel while be­ing more re­li­able than alu­minium. It can be a bit hard on tools, and it de­mands some time from the sculp­tor — strong and slow meth­ods of work­ing are the best. But its ten­sile strength makes it good for curves and com­plex forms, which can be dif­fi­cult in other ma­te­ri­als.’’

One of Gil­bert’s pieces that re­veals the sculp­tural po­ten­tial of stain­less steel is a se­ries of sculp­tures done for Melbourne’s Com­mon­wealth Games: three dif­fer­ent stages of a pole- vaulter in ac­tion. Ex­tend­ing 6m in the air and us­ing about 100kg of stain­less steel, the sculp­ture was com­mis­sioned by the City of Wodonga and sited in the mid­dle of Sum­sion Gar­dens Lake, and de­signed to flex in the wind.

On an­other level, stain­less steel is emerg­ing as a pre­ferred ma­te­rial for pedes­trian bridges, judg­ing by the work of lead­ing Aus­tralian ar­chi­tec­tural firm Cox Ar­chi­tects. A par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant project is a 280m bridge across Singa- pore’s Ma­rina Bay, the fore­shore to the Sin­ga­pore CBD. Cox, lead­ing a con­sor­tium, won the ten­der from an in­ter­na­tional field of 36 en­trants.

‘‘ Bridges, es­pe­cially pedes­trian bridges, are mov­ing away from pure func­tion and into the realm of cul­tural sym­bols,’’ say Cox’s Michael Rayner, based in Bris­bane. ‘‘ World­wide, there is a strong fo­cus on con­nec­tions within cities, as well as a de­sire to ex­press tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ment. This project, I think, achieves that.’’

De­signed in con­junc­tion with en­gi­neers ARUP, the Sin­ga­pore bridge is a dou­ble he­lix struc­ture in­volv­ing in­ner and outer spi­rals.

‘‘ In Sin­ga­pore, they call it the DNA Bridge, which is fine,’’ says Rayner. ‘‘ But we like to think of it as a union of art, ar­chi­tec­ture and struc­ture.’’

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