1. Column index

Steel Sheet Structures2003.09

Nikolaus Pevsner began his exposition on the rise of modern architecture by introducing structures created by engineers, not architects: the Crystal Palace, built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Eiffel Tower, and the Forth Bridge. The beauty of the structures that he describes is tied to one of the fundamental ideas of modern architecture, revealing functional beauty. The revolution architecture was then undergoing went beyond mere changes in structures. It was a transformation of the meaning of architectural space: no longer would spaces be perceived as mass, as in classical architecture, but as volume, as in modern architecture. Engineering, always a source of architectural ideas and a means of realizing them, at times goes beyond creating structures to transform the very values of architecture. The steel structures that Pevsner introduces—engineer-designed all—give a taste of an ideal, of a frontier spirit that suggests one of the important, in fact, essential roles that architecture plays. Though we often forget, architecture can and should lead to a utopian society where human beings can realize their dreams.
Modern architecture would be unimaginable without steel; in fact, the modern era would never have begun without steel. The rapid expansion in steel use occurred in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thanks to mass production and the appearance of large-scale machinery driving advances in processing technologies. Steam engines powered the rolling mills that produced large steel sheets. When someone conceived of creating structural steel pipe through pressing to produce curved surfaces, steel moved from playing a secondary role as a material for providing supplementary strength to the starring role as the principal architectural material, the framework of structures and underpinning of modern architecture. A further development, processing sheet steel into thin sheets, made it possible to wrap steel around spaces and to shape steel freely as the design dictated. A material with outstanding properties—light in weight, but with strength that gives it a palpable stability--sheet steel would make further advances, most conspicuously, in the twentieth century, with the rise of metal vehicles made using steel sheets and sheets of what was then a new material, extruded aluminum: steamships, locomotives, automobiles, and airplanes. It no other age did machines made such progress and have such impact on architecture.
Le Corbusier, asserting that, in contrast to Greek temples, “A house is a machine for living in,” was making the automobile, which technology had made possible, the symbol of his age. The explosive energy of machine power brought about uncountable new expectations, new possibilities for humankind, transcending innate human abilities. Engineers sketching dreams and images of the future, working night and day at their research, making new discoveries: theirs was the spirit that became a touchstone for modernist thinking about design.
Structures protected human beings from the violence of nature; they were objects that always stood in contrast to nature. Powered vehicles also stand in opposition to nature; moving by mechanical means, they ably assist humans to expand their capabilities, to strive for a man-made natural world. Yet in being able to move, such vehicles resemble living beings in nature. In the late nineteenth century, Art Nouveau skilfully combined thinking about nature (ecology) and industrial technology to build an organic relationship for a new inquiry into form. In every age, architecture has sought the ordered nature of an ecological, natural world while making effective use of new materials. Indeed, a relativism that rests on an ecological view of the world, a unity that does not define boundaries are key concepts in the contemporary quest for meaning and order, and, arguably, architectural themes that have continued to be addressed since the early modern period, when human beings began engaging with machines. Technology itself seems to show signs of reducing the forms of architecture themselves to unitary structures approximating simple natural systems rather than integrated structures.
Buildings have long been built as unique items, on site, on their own ground. But production on site by highly experienced craftsmen implies particularity--and is not economical. A new thrust is to find ways to produce buildings in factories, as much as possible, to simplify the work to be performed on site and to achieve greater safety and efficiency introduction. The trend is to develop simpler methods, reduce the labor-intensiveness of the process, and focus on shipping the factory product to the site for assembly. Steel is an appropriately easily handled material for the industrialization of construction, given the advances in technologies for processing it and its consistent, reliable quality.
Steel sheet architecture, using the same steel sheets that form cabins on ships, can make possible structures with a unity of design and structure. Making effective use of monocoque main structural materials and the properties of steel sheet in exterior walls, we can cover a structure with a membrane of steel sheet, permitting great freedom in design and structural strength. The calculations indicate that these structures can stand as surface structures, without pillars or beams. The structural models are the vehicles using monocoque designs--ships, trains, automobiles, and aircraft—conceived of as unitary, integrated architectural forms. At present, building codes require pillars and beams as the main structural elements in such structures, but the steel sheet exterior walls fix the upper and lower beams in curtain wall fashion, and the external walls or membranes are of monocoque type: steel sheet, with no frame beneath. The aim is to implement this monocoque structure while requiring no special techniques or high technology, using methods not beyond the technical mastery of the ordinary iron and steelworks. For shipping, the structure is disassembled into several parts of conveniently handled size. For example, the maximum size of one panel is set according to the specifications of the steel panels and the requirements for shipping them; that size determines where the joints will be located. After the steel sheet parts are bolted together to form a single exterior sheet, the joints are all seal welded. The result is a unitary façade of steel sheet.
Precedents for the experimental use of steel sheet include a design for a prefabricated metal house by Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus (1925), the Stalhaus (Steel House) by Georg Muche and Richard Paulick (1926-1927), the Haus Schminke, which resembled a passenger liner, by Hans Scharoun, and the Corbusier Center in Zurich. My goal to explore and further develop the potential of monocoque steel sheet structures.

Hiroaki Kimura

3 in 1 House: Towards a Monocoque Structure

The 3 in 1 House is a multi-story apartment dwelling of mixed construction; the lower two floors are of concrete, while the third has a steel frame. Each of the three units can be approached directly from the street, yet the design also provides for private, outdoor spaces. The three units of this very urban, small-scale multi-unit building fit into a sculptural whole that appears to be a single-family dwelling.

Built site: Sakuradani-cho, Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture
Design began March, 1994, completed August, 1995

A House: An Experiment in Steel Sheet

A House is a small steel frame, three-story dwelling that was my first experiment with steel sheet. The conception was that the entire façade would be enveloped in smooth steel sheet, which was cut out, bent, and folded like a sheet of construction paper. The design was quite unlike existing architectural styles: the effect was as though the structure was wearing a mask—or was a sporty automobile.

Built site: Matsuekita, Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture
Design began February, 1994, completed April, 1995

N’s ARK: Enfolding Part of the Original Structure

This house originally consisted of an old wooden Japanese-style house, which was totally destroyed by the Kobe Earthquake, and a reinforced concrete wing that survived undamaged. It was reconstructed by adding to the surviving reinforced concrete part. The lower floor of this mixed construction dwelling is of reinforced concrete; the upper floor is a steel structure with steel sheet used for the exterior finishing. The design sought to create a visual sense of stability and actual lightness.

Built site: Imazu, Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture
Design began October, 1995, completed December, 1996

1/4 Circle House: Exploring the Potential of Steel Sheet

This house is located on a site with a generous view of Osaka Bay, with the graceful form of Mt. Kabuto in the middle distance. The panoramic vista was the determining factor in the design concept. The exterior, with 20 meters of steel sheet that give the structure its distinctive character, bends almost 90 degrees, following the shape of the site. The 9.5 meters of continuous, pillar-less windows, open the interior up to that panorama. The steel sheet enfolding this space has the role of making the wide-open window area impressive.

Built site: Hikarigaoka, Takaratsuka, Hyogo Prefecture
Design began April 1996, completed May, 1998

Glider House: A Floating Feeling

The concept for the shape of this house was inspired by its location. It began as a white-winged glider, soaring on the quiet winds blowing through the valley. I determined its visual orientation to provide openings as though to capture a bird’s eye view of the distant vista opening up, delta-like, from the site. The light roof, almost floating, suggest wings. The skylights carry through that theme consistent in a structure that seams to float, as though gliding in air.

Built site: Kurakuen, Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture
Design began January, 1996, completed March, 1998

TA House: Rebirth and Invigoration

Tatsuno, the site of this house, is an old castle town in a basin surrounded by mountains on three sides. The house was given a roof that was very similar to what research on the history of the site revealed would originally have been used on earlier structures there. Using the design vocabulary of the existing dwellings in the neighbourhood, I sought to achieve a mixture of the contemporaneous, through the use of steel sheet, and the historical, through the tile roof, for a vital rebirth.

Built site: Tatsuno-cho, Tatsuno, Hyogo Prefecture
Design began April, 1998, completed March, 2000


Wagon House

Built site: Itakano-cho, Higashi Yodogawa-ku, Osaka
Design began February, 2001, completed May, 2002

M House
Design began January, 2002, scheduled for completion in April, 2003.