In the middle of the 20th century, in 1954, on the other side of the planet in another desert climate, the U.S. State Department chose New York architect Edward Durell Stone to design the new American Embassy in New Delhi.
The defining element for the new embassy was a brise-soleil, designed by Stone. This curtain wall was constructed of thousands of one-foot square perforated blocks that shielded the embassy’s interior glass from the hot Indian sun.
Theories abound regarding Stone’s inspiration for screen block1. During the lengthy construction of the New Delhi embassy, the architectural press gave Stone much credit for being sensitive to the centuries-old tradition of decorative wooden grilles in Hindu and Moorish architecture.
Their excellent book, “Concrete Screen Block: The Power of Pattern, ” recounts the fascinating story of concrete screen block, starting with Stone in New Delhi, reaching its apogee at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and following its slowly diminished popularity in the 1970s, to its resurgence of late. In between those years, the clever marketing of screen block as “fashionable” by manufacturers resulted in an explosion of patterns and applications2.
- 1. Perhaps his source of inspiration was his friend Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile blocks. Possibly he was inspired by the concrete forms used by Belgian architect Auguste Perret at the Notre Dame du Raincy, a building Stone visited as a young man. Regardless of the source of his inspiration, the genius of Stone’s solution to the brutal Indian sun was undeniable; and in creating relief from the desert climate he was catapulted to architectural stardom.
- 2. [For example]Most commonly produced in 12-inch square blocks with perforated or pierced patterns, screen block offered modest decoration with helpful function for the desert Southwest’s emerging “sunbelt” communities in the last half of the 20th century.