Copper has been used in architecture for thousands of years and is one of the earliest metals to be used by humans. Starting out as a metal for tools and jewelry, copper quickly became a popular building material as well.
Copper was used by such famed builders of the ancient world as the Egyptians, who used it on temples as early as the 3rd Century B.C., as well as by the Romans, who placed a roof of copper above the Pantheon in 27 B.C. The uses of copper are many and varied, from decorative elements to roofing and doors.
Copper is a popular building material thanks to its strength, resistance to corrosion, malleable nature, and of course its beauty. Adding to the unique beauty of copper in architecture is the oxidation process by which the metal moves through a patina of colors, ending in a distinctive shade of green. This color can be seen in a multitude of medieval structures, including cathedrals and castles such as Germany’s Hildersheim Cathedral, which has stood since 1290 and features a classic green copper roof. These ancient structures roofed in the original copper are proof of the metal’s durability.
Aside from providing a beautiful roof, copper has also been historically used to cover doors, create spires, domes, and vaults, build gutters and downspouts, and to form joints as well. This material is also used for decorative indoor elements, including fixtures, and copper-clad walls and ceilings hammered or cut out to create patterns and images. Hammered copper has been a classic part of facades on the exteriors of buildings. The ease with which copper can be molded and shaped makes it one of the most versatile metals for architectural applications. Copper’s antimicrobial nature has made it a popular metal for use in sinks, countertops, and other kitchen and bathroom fixtures in recent years.
Historically, copper has been allowed to oxidize through its natural patina, featuring shades of orange, brown, red, and green. As techniques have advanced, architects have been able to request specific finishes for particular uses. This allows for repairs to old copper structures in a matching patina or for the creation of the exact look the architect envisions.
Rooted in ancient tradition, copper has moved with ease into modern architecture and thanks to its position as a sustainable, earth-friendly building material, it is likely to remain popular for many years to come.