Stucco Today and Yesteryears

The difference in nomenclature between stucco, plaster, and mortar is based more on use than composition. Until the later part of the nineteenth century, it was common that plaster, which was used inside a building, and stucco, which was used outside, would consist of the same primary materials: lime and sand (which are also used in mortar). Animal or plant fibers were often added for additional strength. In the later part of the nineteenth century, Portland cement was added with increasing frequency to improve its durability. At the same time, traditional lime plasters were being replaced by gypsum plaster.

Traditional stucco is made of lime, sand, and water. Modern stucco is made of Portland cement, sand, and water. Lime is added to increase the permeability and workability of modern stucco. Sometimes additives such as acrylics and glass fibers are added to improve the structural properties of the plaster. This is usually done with what is considered a one-coat stucco system, as opposed to the traditional three-coat method.

Lime stucco is a relatively hard material that can be broken or chipped by hand without too much difficulty. The lime itself is usually white; color comes from the aggregate or any added pigments. Lime stucco has the property of being self-healing to a limited degree because of the slight water solubility of lime (which in solution can be deposited in cracks, where it solidifies). Portland cement stucco is very hard and brittle and can easily crack if the base on which it is applied is not stable. Typically, its color was gray, from the innate color of most Portland cement, but white Portland cement is also used. Today’s stucco manufacturers offer a very wide range of colors that can be mixed integrally in the finish.

Every building tradition in the history of humankind has produced stuccowork. The ingredients, usually some combination of lime, portland cement, and fine sand, may vary greatly in type and proportion, but the material used is less significant than the manner in which it is used. Examples of stuccowork occur in the Aztec architecture of Mexico and the Islamic architecture of North Africa and Spain. In ancient Greece, stucco was applied to both interior and exterior temple walls as early as 1400 bce. Architects of ancient Rome stuccoed the rough stone or brick walls of huge monuments, such as the baths at Hadrian’s Villa, erected at Tivoli about 120–130 ce. They also favoured it for low-relief modeling. Tombs dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries ce have extensive stuccowork.

Stuccowork reached new heights in the work of Baroque artists such as Egid Quirin Asam and his brother Cosmas Damian, a painter with whom he often collaborated. Renaissance designers were also devoted to the use of stuccowork. They used smooth stuccowork in many buildings to contrast with the heavy rusticated stones at the corners and openings. In the work of Raphael and his followers, festoons and medallions of molded stucco were featured on exterior walls. Stuccowork was readily adaptable to the elaborate, ornate styles of post-Renaissance architecture, and, because it was less expensive than stone and easier to model, stucco began to be applied to columns and their entablatures. Post-Renaissance ceilings were especially heavy in stuccowork. In the Renaissance revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, stuccowork was used, notably in England, for exterior architectural features.

In the 20th century, as the term began to be applied to exterior surfacing exclusively, stuccowork was for a time limited in use to small-scale, modest buildings, usually residential. In the United States, especially in regions of warmer climate, the stucco bungalow became virtually ubiquitous in the 1920s. Because of the many ways in which it can be treated, stuccowork remains popular: It can easily be painted, pigment can be mixed with wet stucco, and surfaces of varying texture can be obtained by the addition of heavy sand or pebbles to the finish coat. Stucco also may be combined with other materials, such as brick, stone, or wood.

 

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