Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards: Showing their metal

Last night's Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards were a celebration of ingenuity and versatility. Nonie Niesewand assesses the winning designs

The launch of the Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards in 1990 coincided with architects taking an interest in boat building and the aircraft industry. Boat builders and plane designers know how to get the best out of aluminium: streamlining takes on a new meaning when it is to do with the hull of an America's Cup-winning yacht. Aluminium's strength-to-weight ratio results in an efficient aerodynamic structure, which is why aeroplane designers use it in designs that need lift off.

For most of this century aluminium was mainly used by the construction industry in a supporting role, as the frames for modern windows. All this is changed as younger architects emerged from behind the closed doors where they spent most of the Eighties doing interior design, and started to build new houses and office blocks. Instead of cubes supporting roofs on beams and columns in the traditional method of construction, this younger generation saw the potential for shaping pods, or shells, in the same way that Future Systems did for their NatWest Media Centre at Lord's cricket ground.

However, not everything has been designed as an egg - or a Teletubby. Allies & Morrison put the fun back into functional with their use of fins that extrude from the glass facade of an extension at Goldsmiths' College: these make for a dramatic entrance, and one which shelters the computer screens within from too much daylight.

Roofs that unfurl like waves are used in very different ways by Chris Wilkinson at the Stratford Regional Station, and by Sir Norman Foster at the bus terminus in Greenwich, while Penoyre and Prasad made a decorative feature of the properties of unadorned aluminium in their timbered visitors centre at Dagenham, contrasting the materials to dramatic effect.

As the century draws to a close there has been a lot of speculation about houses of the future. Will they have plasma walls that beam out works of art at the flick of a mouse? Or will they sport straw-baled walls, as sustainable architects would have us believe?

"If you want to find out the building material of the future you had better go to the fairground," says the French architect, Jean Nouvel. His Arab Institute in Paris has an ingenious facade, with light controlled by aluminium screens that operate like camera lenses: a hidden mechanism widens the aperture when the light is dim and narrows it at noon on a sunny day, controlling the intensity of light within.

But Future Systems, which won the top award in the 1999 Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards with a unanimous vote from the judges for their NatWest Media Centre at Lord's, was not shy about predictions for aluminium as the building material of the future. It placed a piece of rolled aluminium on a stand at Interbuild in 1997 to make the point.

Naturally, in the competitive world of architecture, there are vociferous detractors who point out that aluminium takes much more energy to smelt - producing powerful global warming gases - than steel. However, Friends of the Earth give it the green light because of its recyclable qualities.

Aluminium is one metal which is recyclable without diminishing the strength of the product. So if you melt down all those aluminium frames from windows to make another batch in a different shape, they will be just as strong as the originals. And the UK aluminium industry has invested in new technology to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and per-fluoro carbons (PFCs) in the production of primary aluminium.

Aluminium is light but strong and can be cast, rolled and extruded into complex shapes, so it is hardly surprising that, year on year, submissions to the Aluminium Imagination Architectural Awards have grown. This year Paul Finch, the editor of the Architects' Journal and a regular judge at the awards, observed that competition entries were the highest standard yet seen.

Impressed by the versatility and ingenuity of the contestants, judges' chairman Richard Hordern said he was pleased that younger, less well-established teams, as well as the big names, had submitted designs. This year a new award was introduced by Architects' Journal for the most innovative use of aluminium in a European building outside the UK by a British practice. The awards were presented at a Gala dinner at the Dorchester Hotel, London, last night. Michael Portillo was the principal guest speaker.

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