Stainless variety an arty favourite
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.’’