This year, for the first time in its 10-year history, the Jerwood prize for applied arts is being offered to workers in metal.
Only one of the eight artists on the shortlist, Chris Knight, works in architectural steel, and only sometimes. He has just completed a set of stainless-steel doors for the service bay of a shopping mall in Basingstoke. It wasn't easy to tell whether the tittering presenters who announced this fact on BBC Breakfast were more astounded that the doors were in Basingstoke or that they were in a shopping mall or that the Jerwood prize is worth £30,000; whatever it was, Knight's doors came in for the casual ridicule that greets all art objects made of steel.
Knight's elegant design, a hugely expanded version of the metallic diapering that forms the background of medieval manuscript illuminations, is inoffensive almost to the point of banality. It is only the material - massive stainless steel - that is extravagant. The brief was crushingly prescriptive. The door had to be ram-raider-proof yet penetrable; air had to pass through it, but no mouse, rat or bird. Knight designed matching rigid rectangular grids and filled them with uniform laser-cut panels with pierced points raised like the scales of an armadillo, to repel fly-posters. Only steel could perform so many tasks at once, and present so teasing a combination of strength, viciousness and delicacy.
If Knight wins the prestigious prize, it might be a sign that Britain is finally becoming aware of the sexiness of steel, but I suspect that, if he does, it will be for his work in other metals. The use of steel in and of itself is enough to downgrade art to mere civil engineering. Would Richard Ingrams have waxed so waspish at the notion that Anish Kapoor's Turning the World Inside Out (1997) was to be placed on temporary exhibition amid the Rollright Stones last year if the piece had not been made of steel? Would Thomas Heatherwick's B of the Bang be so constantly maligned as a piece of rusty old junk if it had not been made of the same material as train tracks and steam hammers? Would 4,500 residents have signed a "Stop the Statue" petition if the Angel of the North had been made of bronze instead of steel? Antony Gormley knew what he was about; his weathering steel angel was fashioned by Tyneside steelworkers and it stands as, among other things, a monument to the vanished shipbuilding industry. Now no one would dare to lay a glove on it, but it was touch-and-go at the beginning. In 1999, when Robert Erskine's 45ft-high stainless-steel sculpture Power Rhythm was chosen by the Peterborough Sculpture Trust, the townspeople howled in derision; the fact that most of Erskine's patrons are huge manufacturing corporations and that two engineers helped in the construction and erection of his design simply verified the general opinion that the work was not art. Mountain, an 18m-long stainless-steel sculpture by Diane Maclean (who always wanted to be an engineer), which has just been removed from the lawn in front of the Natural History Museum after four months on exhibition, seems to have been effortlessly ignored.
Maybe steel went down with the Titanic, and the great age of steel has already passed. The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, more than 20 years before the Titanic, probably to the same sort of knee-jerk outcry that met the Angel of the North and B of the Bang. Though the tower is what it is, as thoroughly steel as Michelangelo's Tomb of Pope Julius is thoroughly marble, it didn't give rise to an aesthetic of built steel. The view of architects since then seems to have been that, while steel could and should hold buildings up, it shouldn't be seen to constitute them. It can make planes and trains and bridges, but not palaces or monuments.
To me it seems more likely that the great age of steel is yet to come. After two world wars we have learned much more about steels and their properties, but often this new understanding seems parodic. The use of steel by Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind seems to guy its solidity, fitting it over composite structures like torn foil on an Easter egg, as if it were there simply to be removed. The tension between biodegradable materials and implacable steel, works by association. Bullets are made of steel; the cruellest tyrant in human history called himself Stalin, "man of steel".
Steel is the most versatile of all man-made materials. It can be drawn out to a thread as fine as a hair or cast in massive beams and ingots. It can be gauze or armour-plate. It can be hollow or solid, reassuringly rectangular, or airy and fly-away, smooth and dull, satiny or mirror-bright, monumental or explosive. In Chicago, citizens are enjoying, on one side of Millennium Park, the techno-baroque extravagance of Gehry's band shell, with its flying stainless-steel curls and parabolic trellis, and, on the other, the monumental sublimity of Kapoor's polished stainless steel Cloud Gate, otherwise known as "Da Bean". If Kapoor had waited for an invitation from a major British city to build 550 tonnes of steel monument to be a permanent feature in a central public space, he'd have waited for ever.
For five years, this little pig has been trying to get herself a smart house built from steel. There's nothing new about that. Buckminster Fuller had the same idea, and he wasn't the first. Something cheap, modular, versatile, fire-proof, termite-proof and transparent. I'm no nearer now to commissioning my steel pavilion than when I started.
You can make a house out of steel but you have to hide it under brick, stone or stucco. You can't have steel walls and doors. If you do, your house is a shed. A dwelling with a steel exoskeleton would be a tank. Steel is thought to be an austere, workaday, inelegant, brutal, comfortless medium. But I want a house as clever as Heatherwick's Folding Footbridge at Paddington Basin, a house that I can fold up and move from place to place, a house that can shut down like a cash box or open out like a flower, and steel is the only material that could do it. Heatherwick has made a steel pavilion but, alas for me, it's not a house but a sculpture.
The Guardian, Monday 12 September 2005