Empiricism & Abstraction:
A Brief History of
Metals in Architecture

"Empiricism and Abstraction: A Brief History of Metals in Architecture," is an essay in the edited volume Post Ductility by Michael Bell and Craig Buckley.The third book in the series from Columbia University is focused on metals. Metals, as surface or structure as the generators of space play a role in nearly every strain of modernization in architecture. They define complete geographies of work, production, and political life. Non-architectural metals delivered in automobiles, and hard goods in the United States and worldwide have all been sourced as the engines of the sprawling late twentieth-century city in all of its forms. But in the received aspects of architectural history, metals, and in particular steel, remain less diluted; they are presented as intrinsic to the profession as material precedes concepts they are carriers of architectural meaning.


Post Ductility


At the twilight of the Age of Enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting Iron Forge from Without (1773) is last of the blacksmith series of works that anticipated the waves of industrialization about to inundate English society. From within the iron forge, the viewer witnesses the process of smelting as the smithy heats pig iron over coal-based coke and then pounds its formless mass into the productive tools of the emerging commercial age. The employment of a water-powered tilt hammer, a common technology, mechanized one phase of the ironsmith’s procedures. These discrete techniques would eventually be rationalized into large-scale industrial processes, wherein labor and material could be correlated according to efficiencies of time and cost. Here, already depicted by Wright, is the division of labor under industrial capitalism: the worker manning the forge, the manager overseeing his charge, and the owner surveying his enterprise. Joining the manager in watching this spectacle of production are his wife and child, who don trappings of their middle class status, exhibiting their new social role as the purchasers of the commodities being manufactured from the nation’s lucrative cotton industries. [1]


Iron Forge from Without, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1773



[1] David H. Solkin, “Joseph Wright of Derby and the Sublime Art of Labor,” Representations, no. 83 (Summer 2003), 167–94.