Earrings, rings, brooches, bracelets, combs and mirrors have been discovered from the ancient civilisations of China, India, Peru. At a later stage, men realised that copper could be mixed with tin to create a much stronger material – bronze – and thus began to use it for a number of other applications – axes, knives, chisels and bowls – hence starting the so-called bronze era.
Since then, copper has been widely used in many fields of activity, up to a point that it has now become a basic commodity in manufacturing and construction industries.
Ductile, robust, creep and corrosion resistant, copper allows the creation of extremely thin wires, compatible with all modern insulation materials, that can withstand being wound without breaking.
Although silver is a better electrical conductor than copper, the red metal stands no comparison with any other material in terms of relationship between technical performance and cost. Its safety record – within an electrical environment – is also extremely high.
After these considerations, we should not be surprised when statistics inform us that copper is the most intensively used material in high, medium and low voltage power networks.
Fifty per cent of all existing copper is used to conduct electricity. In most countries, copper is today a standard for creating domestic and industrial piping work – its use preventing the formation of bacteria and fungi, and contributing to the purity of the water we drink.
Funnily enough, the more advanced the society – ie the more it requires the use of electricity to bring power or carry data – the more copper is actually used.
The latest internet connections, such as ADSL, rely heavily on the presence of copper in telephone wires in order to function, and a variety of means of transport – such as high speed trains like the TGV or others – utilise vast amounts of copper in their locomotives and wiring.
But the qualities of copper go well beyond its technological and conductive potential.
Copper is, together with gold, the only colourful metal existing in nature. Its appearance, when in contact with the environmental elements, changes with time – at first losing shininess and then acquiring an ever darkening colour, to finally settle on the well-known greenish finish (that can also nowadays be obtained from the very start, by artificial handling of the material).
This changeability – in previous times regarded as a ‘fault’ of a non-noble material – is now increasingly perceived as a positive quality for a living material that ages gracefully.
“We chose copper because it ages” – said Craig Casci of Hamilton Associates, who designed buildings in Brewery Square in Clerkenwell, London, that in 2003 won the Copper in Architecture Award. “Natural materials change and, if detailed properly, get better for it”.
Yet, the aesthetic appeal and the capacity to age gracefully are not the only reasons why copper has always been widely used in architecture – for creating rooves, wall cladding, drainage systems and so forth.
Oxidised copper, for instance (ie copper that has been exposed to atmospheric agents) becomes progressively more corrosion resistant and for this reason it was often chosen for applications near the sea and areas subject to harsh weather conditions.
The most famous example is probably the Statue of Liberty in New York, whose eighty tons of copper resist smoothly, the terrible mix of pollution and marine atmosphere of the city.
But there are older examples. In Sweden’s capital Stockholm, for instance, located in close proximity of the sea and the lakes, architects have been using copper rooves for more than 400 years!
The old city centre is still featuring a great number of green-blue patina coloured roofs, consisting of different copper minerals. Even the old Swedish royal palace, Tre Kronor, (Three Crowns) has a late 16th century copper roof.
It comes as no surprise then that Marianne Dahlback and Goran Mansson, when asked to build a Museum to host the famous ancient ship Vasa in Stockholm, chose a copper cover for it.
Other buildings in Northern Europe include Renzo Piano’s New Metropolis Museum in Amsterdam (clad in pre-patinated copper) and Steven Holl’s Het Oosten Office Pavillion also in the Dutch capital – using a pre-patinated, perforated copper panel screen system.
Often, this material is chosen for its relative ‘softness’ that allows it to be formed into unusual, complex shapes, used in architectural details. In modern buildings, interior copper detailing is also used, especially in environments where health considerations are significant. This is due to the fact that copper – and its alloy brass – act as effective bacteriacides.
Copper is also a widely available, sustainable material. It is estimated that only twelve per cent of known copper reserves have been mined throughout history. Most copper is extracted from open cut mines which can be found – almost equally distributed – in all five continents.
Local environmental impact of mining is strictly controlled and refining is carried out close to the main sources of ore. The recycling of copper is a well established practice and its extent follows overall consumption patterns: by 1985, more copper was recycled than the total consumption of 1950.
This is due to the relative ease – compared with other metals – of re-using both processing waste and salvaged scrap from eventual demolition, as well as the incentive of copper’s value. Today, at least ninty per cent of copper scrap is re-used and about fifty-five per cent of copper used in architecture comes from recycled sources.
For many years, copper has been used for storing and distributing water heated by solar power.
More recently, the world’s leading solar energy companies have been developing technologies that use copper for the manufacture of photovoltaic cells – an innovative process that promises to make solar power more plentiful and much less expensive than the silicon cell systems currently in use.
All solar systems of the future will heavily depend on copper to transmit the energy they generate with maximum efficiency and minimum environmental impact.
Flexible, corrosion resistant, recyclable, and highly conductive – copper is, without doubt, a very interesting material to be used also in design.
Its physical and chemical characteristics make it extremely attractive in the realisation of technologically advanced and sustainable solutions, whilst its natural aesthetic attractiveness link it to a precious, craft based past. A synonym of quality and durability.
Yet, copper specialists of the Italian Copper Institute felt that it was still underestimated and underutilised in the design profession. For this reason, they proposed to some emerging designers and some companies to brainstorm on the use of copper in the design of domestic objects, paying particular attention to the issue of the red material in relation to heat and light.
The result was a remarkable exhibition, located in the heart of Milan, Italy, in which various objects – lighting systems, radiators, fireplace accessories etc – were revisited by designers through the use of copper.
Beyond the different languages that designers have chosen, what emerges is the search for underlining copper’s natural attributes under many points of view – mixing its technological features with its aesthetic appeal. The view on the home that emerges is natural, yet sophisticated; functional, yet attractive; traditional, yet contemporary.
In other words, in line with the potential of this highly versatile material.