The role of the forge in the history of architecture

Iron is a mineral found in the earth’s crust and has been in use since at least 1700 BC. Its early use was prominent in Egypt for the creation of weapons, wheels, arrows and other objects such as rings and jewelry.

Although it has long been used, it was not until the seventeenth century that it began to be used as an important material in urban architecture. Until then, it was used mainly in combination with wood or to replace structures such as pillars or arches.

Iron in architecture: the search for incombustible materials

Iron gradually became more prevalent in decorative and ornamental elements, such as closing mechanisms, grilles and other security elements. But the most important development associated with iron was the advent of cast iron pipes that, even today, supply the fountains of the Gardens of Versailles (built at the end of the seventeenth century).

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution, the small workshops that were dedicated to forging and blacksmithing gradually disappeared to become small factories, sometimes giving rise to important foundries.

It is from this moment on that forgings begin to be incorporated into various architectural elements as elements of street furniture: grilles, streetlights, benches, kiosks … and also as important decorative elements. This is partly due to the constant search for incombustible materials that would resist fire better than wood.

Iron architecture at the beginning of the 19th century

During the nineteenth century, iron was gaining ground against wood, and was replacing it in various architectural objects, but the large, multi-paned windows and bay windows characteristic of the architecture of the nineteenth century that can still be found today on the main avenues of major cities were the most striking example.

But iron was also used in other elements such as doors (previously made entirely of wood), as forged railings or cast iron columns (pillars that supported part of the weight of the house), canopies, etc.

The advances of this century allowed us to experience the potential of iron as a building material: buildings such as the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris have load-bearing elements such as iron columns and iron vaults.

In 1889, the century’s —and perhaps all of history’s— forged architecture reached its greatest height as the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, boldly showing off the aesthetic and structural possibilities of iron.

Forged elements in 20th century architecture

After the great success they had achieved in the previous century, the architects of the twentieth century continued to build large, multi-paned windows, Oriel windows and balconies richly featuring iron and glass, now also combined with elaborate lockwork and other materials like ceramics.

During the first part of the century, forged pieces continued to appear in modernist and art deco architecture in Spain, adapting to the local style, without losing the most avant-garde European influences. But its use declined in the middle of the century as materials such as aluminum or glass rose to prominence.

What about forged elements in contemporary architecture?

A walk through any Spanish city may be sufficient to observe a change in architectural trends: some streets go from beautiful balconies and terraces to enormous windows that replace the viewpoint function of the former. There is even a national law that indicates that the surface area of a balcony of whatever size cannot be computed as part of the “built” square footage of the house or flat.

Today, various materials are used in forging to produce wrought products, such as steel, nickel alloys or titanium.

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