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Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao drew international attention to the physical and rhetorical potential of titanium for use as a building ‘skin.’ Titanium was transformed from a material previously associated with the aerospace, medical and jewellery industries into a signifier of architectural eloquence. Metal and metal-clad buildings have a largely functionalist history in architecture of the past century; some are intentionally severe, while others result from necessity occasioned by poverty. Less commonly, they are the work of architects including Gehry, Kisho Kurakawa and Daniel Libeskind using metals such as titanium for their physical and narrative possibilities. This paper examines the extended possibilities of the metal-clad building through the tectonic and metaphoric use of titanium, set in the context of the historic uses and symbolism of metal in architecture. Titanium is one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust. It is assertively resistant; to heat, to electrical current, to decay, and to the metal working techniques common to most other metals. In architectural application, it is a postindustrial material that challenges the traditional hierarchy of material use. In the hands of architects such as Gehry, Kurakawa and Libeskind, the titanium skin becomes a medium for poetic transformation of architectural form.
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