Sunday, October 11, 2009

AE18: Urban Rust

Walking around the Lower East Side last week, this Orchard Street residential development designed by Ogawa/Depardon Architects struck my fancy, mainly for its bold use of Cor-ten steel on the party wall facades.

[Orchard Street project by Ogawa/Depardon | photo by archidose]

Thinking of the use of Cor-ten steel -- weathered steel alloy with a protective layer of rust -- in architecture, what comes to mind more often than not are single-family houses and other buildings in desert and other rural locations. (This excellent post by BUILD attests to these qualities.) What does not come to mind are urban structures like the Orchard Street project or Matthew Baird's Town House (part of the BUILD post), though there are examples to be found.

[Orchard Street project by Ogawa/Depardon | photo by archidose | inset rendering by architects]

Ogawa/Depardon's design is an excellent place to start some sort of investigation on "urban rust." Here its use in the nearly completed building is relegated to the primarily solid sides that follow the property lines, shared with the neighbors to the north and south. It's interesting to note how the initial design (inset) not only featured openings projecting over the adjacent building (via air rights, I'm guessing) but also covered more faces with the Cor-ten steel. An almost homogenous wrapper became two parallel planes that strongly demarcate the zoning profile. Nevertheless this material is a big improvement over similarly scaled "pencil" buildings in the area that use less inspiring materials.

[Kavel 37 by Heren 5 architecten, 2000 | screenshot from architect's web page]

Heren 5's Kavel 37 (Plot 37, above) in Borneo, Amsterdam is an infill building that composes the whole front face in Cor-ten steel. But where the Orchard Street project is less than subtle, the perforated sheets here give a lightness to a material that typically feels heavy, especially when one thinks of Richard Serra's thick-walled sculptures. These sheets allow light to filter inside, and the operable facade allows the material do disappear in some areas.

[CaixaForum by Herzog & de Meuron, 2008 | photo by m_granados]

Herzog & de Meuron's design for CaixaForum in Madrid, Spain can be seen as a melding of the above two projects. The use of Cor-ten steel is both monumental and perforated, heavy and light, wrapping multiple sides to become a counter-intuitive gesture: a steel box (apparently solid the way it is carved) sitting on an existing building that appears to float above the ground. Its contrast with the Patric Blanc wall is also worth noting, given that most photos present this plaza view as the image of the building. Where the first two pieces of architecture are buildings, this design comes across as monumental sculpture, though I'd be surprised if Serra appreciated it.

To find urban buildings clad in Cor-ten steel, not surprisingly one of the best sources is flickr, particularly COR-TEN Steel pool. Many artworks populate the now 1,700 photos, and a few buildings are featured repeatedly, such as CaixaForum and Steven Holl's 2006 School of Art & Art History at the University of Iowa. Many new-found gems are to be found, like CUBO's extension of Odense Universitet beautifully shot by cphark. The buildings that follow were discovered via the COR-TEN Steel pool.

[Gazzano House by Amin Taha Architects | image source]

Amin Taha -- who apparently really likes Cor-ten, according to recent news -- designed the award-winning Gazzano House for a Conservation Area with warehouses and offices in London's Farringdon area. The six-story building takes advantage of its corner location, wrapping these two faces in a Cor-ten rainscreen facade that is punctuated by random vertical and horizontal openings.

[Parkway Gate by Ian Simpson Architects, 2008 | image source]

Also in England, in Manchester, is Parkway Gate by Ian Simpson Architects. Three towers for student housing exhibit similar forms and facade patterns, but each uses different materials in the solid areas to create a unique identity for each and for variety on the skyline. Not surprisingly the Cor-ten-clad tower exudes a particularly strong presence, especially when it is reflected in the glass of the other towers.

[Performers House Folk High School by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, 2007 | photo by martin8th | image source]

Finally, the Performers House Folk High School in Silkeborg, Denmark by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects benefits from an urban site open on all sides. Located in the town's historic and revitalized Paper Mill industrial area, allusions to warehouses, single-room schoolhouses and other typological buildings abound in the gable form rendered in perforated Cor-ten panels. At night, light ekes out through the holes in panels covering windows as well as, of course, any open windows.

Examining the buildings above, a few qualities about the use of Cor-ten steel in urban settings come to the fore: the material does not influence the form of the architecture; treatment of the material is limited to the orthogonal, sometimes cut for access of light and air; monolithic appearances prevail; the material is popular with the trend of random opening compositions; and the consistent finish is what binds these otherwise dissimilar buildings. Ultimately, I think the use of Cor-ten -- popular for a little while in corporate architecture in the late 1960s -- is seeing a resurgence because of Richard Serra sculptures (and maybe other artists producing works in Cor-ten, none I know about) and the desire of architects to align themselves with art, if unspoken or unconscious. I'm drawn to these buildings because they allude to an insusceptibility to the urban condition, to the dirt, wear and violence of the city that is more extreme than weather, to which the material is already protected from.


  1. I really agree with you about the Serra motivation behind architects using Cor- ten steel.

    Even in Serra's work, the use of rusted patina has become more, and more self conscious; more reflective of the values of traditional art.

    But its use in urban architecture; isn't it like acid wash jeans; romanticizing of "urban" life?

  2. Eero Saarinen's 1961 John Deere HQ in Moline, Ill., has to be as big an influence as Serra.

  3. Now, that's an incentive to attempt to use corten on my home extensions! Seriously: I've got the problem of a 1950s cottage, and try to add on?? Tricky stuff.

  4. On the connection between art and architecture, a classic Cor-ten project not mentioned here is Massimiliano Fuksas' entrance to the caves at Niaux. The form is pre-historic in inspiration, and the red rust of Cor-ten hits the tone of sculptural modern ruin dead-on. As for the qualities mentioned by John, the form seems light [like a skeleton: & from a distance:], but it is at once massive and monolithic to the visitor: []

  5. jcc - You've basically pointed out why Cor-ten is suitable for rural locations outside cities. My post looked at the other side of the coin, if you will, of how the materials fits into urban situations.

  6. John, I didn't mean the comment as a criticism of your awesome post. I definitely appreciate the urban focus of your piece. I was just wanted to add this great project to the art-architecture theme in the discussion. I'm not sure about the rural implications of my comment, as I was relating the Niaux project to some of the same qualities that you highlighted in the original post.

  7. jcc - I understand, but I think you nevertheless pick up on some of the qualities that make Cor-ten appealing in remote setting, namely how it relates to natural forms. After all it is steel coated in rust, a skin that is like a growth. Fuksas exploits the relationship with the form, almost like a creation of early humans, pre-technological, unself-conscious. I like that project a lot. It makes me wonder if two-sided Cor-ten is possible in urban settings, using it in a way that's not only applied to a facade.

  8. This is no longer self serving as I don't work for them now, but at alchemy we used the look all the time:

    It was a weeHouse staple, but it was just steel painted on.

  9. urban design is so inspiring, nice article


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