By any standards, aluminum and its alloys do not come very high up the list of sensual metals. Yet the material was chosen in 1893 to cast the iconic statue of Eros for London's Piccadilly Circus. The Greek god of love is seen, bow in hand, ready to fire one of two types of arrows: gold arrows with dove's feathers to arouse love, or lead arrows with owl's feathers to cause indifference. At the time of the sculpture's commission, aluminum was the new wonder metal. Being light and strong with a pale complexion, it seemed ideal for a sculpture of the winged cupid. But it appears that the arrows which aluminum fired in the last century have mostly been of the lead variety, causing the public to feel indifference to the metal.

In the early 20th century, the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe asked, “Is there anything this material cannot do?” But this early optimism was followed by a run of bad luck. Mistakes stemming from an incomplete understanding of residual stress and fracture mechanics led to bicycle frames cracking and airplanes falling out of the sky as a result of fatigue failures. Meanwhile, in the cooking arena, aluminum pans – lauded for their high thermal conductivity and modern chic – were causing tomatoes and other acidic fruits to discolor and taste bitter. Early aluminum double glazing actually seemed to suck heat out of the room. Finally, the metal was somehow erroneously linked with Alzheimer's disease. Not a good way to start your first hundred years as a metal.

Objects made to last are generally repairable and polishable, like our wooden furniture, silver jewelry, and brass clocks. They may not last forever, but we treat them as if they will. Polishing and repairing are little acts of love and appreciation that we generally do not lavish on our aluminum possessions. Even a scratched iPod mini is going to stay scratched, partly because the bright anodized coating would need to be stripped in an acid bath and reanodized, but also because we view the technology as intermediate. Despite the premium of its environmentally sound label, aluminum, like modern gadgets, is perhaps viewed as too fluid, always on the move, only in one's hand for a moment before being recycled. Thus, aluminum seems to possess a pristine perfection that is forever in decline once in mortal hands. We open the kitchen drawer and, for a brief moment, there is a Pulp Fiction moment with our face aglow in the reflection of a roll of this aerospace metal. We marvel quietly at the thinness, ductility, and sheer splendor of the foil in our hands, before summarily smudging it over a hapless chicken and stuffing it in the oven.

Aluminum is the material of airplanes – the one application where it has no equal. These flights would have amazed our ancestors just a hundred years ago, and are due in large part to aluminum's superb age-hardening nature. Yet, sadly, this inner, nanoscale sophistication is not reflected in the outer form. And so, like cars, airplanes get uglier and uglier. The conspiracy theory about Concorde – surely the most beautiful aluminum sculpture ever created – is that it was retired, not for technical reasons, but because its sheer existence at airports was embarrassing for the other planes. Safety and economy may be the mottos of the 21st century, but they often come bundled with ugliness. It is hard to argue when the future of aviation is unveiled as the double-decker Airbus A380 – a plane that, despite its environmental credentials, looks like a sardine can with wings.

After the successful US show Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets in 2001, many designers and architects took a new look at the material. This led to a whole host of new aluminum-based materials, such as Areo, which is a type of aluminum carpet-like crocodile skin, and LiteCore, which is a translucent composite made from aluminum honeycomb. Thom Mayne won the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize by designing a movable aluminum skin for the new California Department of Transportation building in Los Angeles.

If we can persuade the design and architecture community to collaborate with aerospace engineers to produce a much needed replacement for our late, lamented, beautiful Concorde, Eros may yet be firing some aluminum arrows into the stratosphere.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)71133-0