No sexual magnetism

Design - Malcolm Clarke goes in search of adventure with some hot technology

I was really rather looking forward to ogling some slipstream wind-tunnels, well-oiled engine parts, and gleaming phallic DC3s at a new exhibition at the Design Museum on "The Adventures of Aluminium". If smelting technology doesn't just reek of sex, what does?

Before you sneer that aluminium fetishism is a step too far, check out the racy web-site www.aluplanet.com. It's got some images that I challenge even the most straitlaced lover of boring old stainless steel or MDF to resist, including aluminium in various stages of undress, and the real raw hard-core stuff: bauxite - being mined.

I can't recommend the site highly enough. Visit it, whenever you feel your knowledge of aluminium has failed to keep pace with the latest trends. It's full of ice-breaking conversation starters. I discovered, for example, that the aluminium alloy frame of Concorde allows the plane to expand by 12.5 centimetres during the heat of supersonic flight. Yes, 12.5 centimetres. Does British Airways charge for this temporary extra leg-room?

Sadly, the exhibition isn't half as erotic. This might be because it's sponsored by the world's biggest aluminium manufacturer, Alcoa, a company worth a mere $21bn. Its former chairman, Paul O'Neil, resigned to become Bush's treasury secretary, whereupon he set about doing to the American economy what Alcoa normally does to bauxite deposits.

But back to the exhibition. Aluminium is important, as the curators are at pains to remind us, often and loudly. It's used in everything from window frames to robot parts. As it's light, doesn't corrode and isn't affected by magnetism, it is a vital part of most buildings, cars and planes. Where would we be without billions of feather-light Coke cans?

The heart of the show is the historical narrative, which traces aluminium's rise from semi-precious metal to ubiquitous design material. This all started in 1854 when a reliable method of extracting aluminium from ore was discovered. At first the process was so expensive that the resulting silvery grey metal could only be used for things like ceremonial helmets, medals and, rather appalling jewellery, hence the exhibition's subtitle: "jewellery to jets". It was even taken up by sculptors as a chic alternative to bronze. Gilbert Scott's Eros, in Piccadilly, is made from it.

As smelting technology improved, the price of aluminium fell sharply and it was adopted by the Modernist movement in architecture and design. A modern age, it was thought, required a modern material as its emblem, and aluminium was incontrovertibly modern. The huge amounts of electricity that its production required only added to aluminium's Machine Age credentials. And since its lightness meant it was the natural choice whenever speed was required, it became associated with the new streamlined aesthetics of trains and planes.

Unfortunately, "The Adventures of Aluminium" is not very adventurous, even in a non-sexual way, unless a brightly lit bun-warmer or napkin holder from the 1920s is your idea of fun. There are no jetliners, no molten metal, not even a bit of dirty, rough ore. Instead, there's plenty of space for less than memorable memorabilia, from guess who? Alcoa. Including an early aluminium overdoor decoration from the company's research lab and a gate from their plant. Thanks, Alcoa.

For some strange reason - absolutely unconnected to Alcoa's sponsorship - little attention is paid to the alleged drawbacks of aluminium. Little, as in none. So we hear nothing about the tonnes of highly toxic fluoride that aluminium smelters produce as a by-product every year. Or the way in which aluminium compounds have crept into more and more consumer products, including unlikely items such as roll-on deodorants. Mmmm. Aluminium scented, please.

Claims by some doctors that there is a link between aluminium and Alzheimer's, clearly isn't considered culturally significant enough to warrant a mention, although it might have played a role in the enthusiasm or otherwise of designers to work with the material.

Aluminium smelters, it seems, are among the most intensive consumers of electricity on the planet. Maybe this explains the token exhibit on recycling. It is a shame, therefore, that this is a chair made in Ghana, which bankrupted itself in the 1960s building a hydroelectric dam to fuel, you guessed it, an aluminium smelter.

Instead, the exhibition is devoted almost exclusively to celebrating the heroic achievements of the aluminium manufacturers in promoting their products. Something that continues to this day. We are told that aluminium is about to have the latest of many revivals. A new school of designers are picking up where Eames and company left off, and are about to "imagineer" fabulous new products using the miracle metal. They are neo-minimalists apparently, who see aluminium as a material that expresses "spiritual purity". At $21bn, spiritual purity is obviously an expensive commodity.

"The Adventures of Aluminium: jewellery to jets" is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD (020 7940 8790) until 19 January 2003