Monday, November 5, 2007

How Corrugated Iron created the Modern World

Sounds like an interesting book;

The history of corrugated iron is the history of the modern world. That might sound pompous but, from its invention in 1829 by Henry Palmer (who also went on to invent the monorail and the strangely contemporary sounding wind-powered railway) to its adoption as the default building material for the world’s slums, it has cropped up everywhere and, in its extraordinary ubiquity, become virtually invisible.

Adam Mornement’s book, Corrugated Iron, which is oddly presented as a colourful coffee-table number, is actually an enthralling piece of social and global history told through the biography of this seemingly mundane material.

Corrugated iron was developed to provide a rigid sheet material which could be used as both structure and cladding – a one-stop shop for industrial building. It was used in building London’s St Katherine Docks, as well as for the ships which berthed there. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an early adopter, using it for the great spans of Paddington Station, but it was the US gold rush of 1849 and the subsequent Australian rush that filled the coffers of the still almost exclusively British manufacturers.

In those harsh, dry environments, rigid metal sheet proved ideal for temporary construction and was recycled ad infinitum as settlements grew. Corrugated sheet was used for buildings as diverse as the Brompton Boilers (the forerunner of London’s V&A) and a weird ballroom for Balmoral. It appeared in colonial churches and chapels around the world and at home. Mornement points out that these churches formed the spiritual home of the Labour party as those tin tabernacles housed audiences for Keir Hardie’s preaching.

The debate still rages on the suitability of such a quotidian material for sacred spaces, just as it did for the Victorians. Ultimately, because of their obsession with propriety and a Ruskinian/Morrisian loathing of industry, corrugated iron fell out of favour as a building material in Britain but was adopted wholeheartedly by the army and the territories they “visited”. The wrinkly tin, used to hold up the sides of trenches and mines, to build latrines and chapels, became a kind of local currency, especially in Africa, where colonial-era sheets can still be seen on ingeniously built shacks.

Come back to the fold
Corrugated sheeting has a reputation as utilitarian, but originally it was an experimental material for building wide-span, self-supporting roofs, write Adam Mornement and Pedro Guedes.

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