As a child, my family lived for a time near a glass house. The glass house was low slung and understated, a gentle presence on a street of 3 story Georgian stone and Victorian brick neighbors. The house was a frequent subject of speculation amongst us at school—all agreed that it was ugly, many claimed to have seen people undressing, frequent suggestions were to throw a stone at it to see what would happen. I secretly liked the house, part out of sympathy for the underdog, part because I found it beautiful, and part, in hindsight, because it dared to be contrary. Questioning the presumptions of architecture as impassive, proffering security and privacy through fortress like facades, this house revealed its insides as well as its outsides through its glass skin.
Conflating this particular house (Hopkins House, 1976, Michael and Patty Hopkins, London) with the maxim that people in glass houses are not supposed to through stones added to the ambiguity of both the phrase and the status of the house. If you throw a stone the house might break. But that practical concern is not as central as is the notion of judgement, as your own transparent life is revealed readily. Both sides of this misunderstanding share truths with glass, a building material that is ambiguous enough to misunderstand. Inside /outside, separated by a thin membrane, revealing and enclosing, fragile enough that you could shatter it with a thrown stone, yet sound and weather resistant that you could utilize it as an exterior wall. Glass has a nervous nature, hot when formed, cool to touch.
The result of the thrown stone, of course, is the rupture of the protective membrane. If you live in, say sunny and arid Rome that shouldn’t be so bad, where buildings such as the Pantheon can welcome light without having to forcibly keep out cold or rain. There is of course, the broken window theory of urban planners and sociologists that tell us a broken window is a sign of collapse—better a hole in the roof than a broken window—and failure. In the case of the broken window, the failure is societal, while we know from the nervous material, that the failure can also be a question of performance. Volatile and fluid while hot, glass is breakable from stresses aside those of the stone. Working with glass at times when the act was not unlike working as a lion tamer attests to the allure of the material and the commensurate achievements.
Simply, an opening from an enclosed structure onto a source of daylight fulfills the basic need for illumination, but that accepts a cave as the basic architectural unit. The Northern Renaissance painter, Johannes Vermeer, illustrates the conceptual and structural uses of a more sophisticated opening in his images, the window, as a device to bring ambient light to an interior. Vermeer’s windows provided sources of light and focus for the picture, making a visual connection between an interior and the landscape beyond, while describing the low Northern light as a context against which to understand the picture. Illumination was of course also the keyword for the commensurate architectural movements of the Northern Renaissance that built Gothic Cathedrals. Illumination, in both these cases, courtesy of glass in architecture, was both visual and conceptual.
If we can equate illumination with clarity of vision, and light with both weight and the source of clarity, then the subversions of the physical weight of glass by architecture are light revelations. The visual suggestion of a gossamer presence that suggests floating are as visible in the parallel layers of thin glass screens that make the street façade of Jean Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation headquarters (Paris, 1993) , as in ambitions first exemplified by the architects of Gothic cathedrals. The great expanse of the gothic cathedral, to inspire with both its projected height in the landscape, and to resound with its interior acoustics and aura, is carried off by the fantastic spans of space, courtesy of a stone frame that relies on compression. These soaring expanses, flying buildings characterized by tracery arches and soaring stained glass whose use glass out of structural necessity to remove the massive load from the previously all masonry structures, as well as to illuminate the interior and religion, literally and metaphorically rather than cloaking spiritual structures in mystery and darkness. Besides the relief to the great weight of solid masonry walls, much needed light in Northern Europe, glass afforded the opportunity to tell stories to a largely illiterate public through illustrated examples in stained glass.
As glass production and architectural technology evolved the dialogue between these two notions of illumination, between accessing a source of light and using this light as a source for transformation, have been near constant. The seduction of transparency brings a temptation to disappear as a material, and at times, glass has offered a transparent membrane suggesting no separation between inside and outside. Enormous uninterrupted glazed expanses employed by architects from Mies van der Rohe to Richard Neutra in the US approximated the broad 120 degree vista of automobile windshields, the sweep of movie screens and the continuous panorama of wide open western US spaces. Whether in revealing the sweep of a landscape, or building the illusion of a flying building has been part of glass’ legacy in inspiring awe at the marvels of a versatile material.
Marvelous is not an inappropriate term. Miracles, say of turning lead into gold, were hatched via a glass house. Of the alchemical riddles most fitting in the story of glass and architecture is the ability to grow a tree in a house of glass. By the early 19th century, this feat was less a product of chemical experimentation than the interaction of physics with a sophisticated understanding of passive solar energy, the greenhouse effect. Joseph Paxton’s remarkable Crystal Palace, (London, 1851) inherited an English tradition of a different sort of glass house, taking its commercial imperatives as cues from horticulture’s architects. Devising an on-site modular fabrication and glazing system, Paxton’s team was able to build over and around 60-80 year old elm trees already growing on the Pavilions site in London’s Hyde Park.
The commerce of Paxton’s Pavilion would not have been possible were the feat of growing a tree inside a house of glass not previously realized. Developed by botanists of the royal courts in England, Holland and France, the conservatories provided carefully controlled environments for fantasy gardens, free from the climactic realities of the seasons, and hospitable arenas to protect the exotic species brought back from overseas exploration. The imperative of the laboratory drove the development of the glass house form—an architecture that offers warmth and protection as a counter-environment, intimately connected to the sun as a source of life. The houses’ orientations were eventually set to benefit from passive solar energy. Further advances were made as knowledge of the greenhouse effect built, specific relationship between angle of walls, orientation with respect to latitude, ventilation. The construction of these houses coincided with their builders’ experiments with wrought iron as a skeletal structure. Glazing stretched tight over the narrow iron bones provided tensile strength while capitalizing on transmission of solar energy to the internal climate. Once builders’ were confident that plants could survive and thrive in these carefully orchestrated microclimates, formal achievements were remarkable.
Glass structures grew from these nurturing palaces to embrace their building techniques for use with entirely different contents. The 19th century train sheds of Western Europe and the United States required massive free span space for trains and platforms, not to mention the large volume of air needed to ventilate the stations of smoke and steam. Perhaps in many ways the respiratory needs of these buildings were not that different from the glass conservatories, that needed to have means of controlling temperature for their activities. In 1993, Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners completed London’s end of cross- channel travel with Waterloo Terminal, an impressive structure that unlike its 19th century predecessors needed to snake its way through a densely built London. Instead of relying on a massive open space to regulate internal climate, Waterloo’s trains and building breath via the assembly of individual glass panels fitted and fixed with neoprene gaskets. As trains rumble and hum, the building moves with it, the glass living and breathing rather than rigid and static.
Grimshaw’s Waterloo, among a number of contemporary projects, bring to fruition the vision of French architect Le Corbusier’s desire that buildings may serve as machines for living. In celebration of the machine age, the utopian visions of the early Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, Germany saw glass as the material expression of its political agenda. Glass was associated with post-industrial attributes–clean, hygienic, and modern–as well as serving for metaphoric connections between transparency and democracy. No visible backdoor dealings in Bauhaus. IM Pei’s pyramid for the Louvre (I.M. Pei and Partners, Paris, completed 1988) accomplishes some of these same objectives, while simultaneously engaging history. Essentially opening a hole in an otherwise solid plane (the ground) as an entrance and a focal point while inviting visitors through into a form derived through both rational geometry and conceptual organization while projecting its glass form into the world. The pyramid acts as a lens through which to peer inside and outside as a shared event, revealing its facetted construction, framing the view through water white glass allowing visitors to be surrounded by a history of building in the Palais Royal courtyard.
As a temple of culture, the pyramid inherits a mantle of glass construction for society gleaned from the forms of science and industry. The excesses of industry and the production of large panels of plate and sheet glass concomitant with the diffusion of steel, wrought and cast iron architecture that replaced masonry and timber. Paxton’s 1851 pavilion was not only a stunning temple to commerce, it was the single largest glazing contract to that point, accompanied by framing and glazing techniques that made it all possible. Inside, for a year in Hyde Park, the temporary structure showcased the crowning achievements of the mid 19th century world, all the while encased in what is largely believed to be both the beginning and the apotheosis of modern movement’s architectural achievement. The rise of the pavilion as a type of commercial building spawned the arcade–not precisely a building itself, but a glass covered passage linking buildings (a proto shopping mall to be sure.) With year round hospitable environments to germinate shoppers’ consumer desires, the flaneur of Baudelaire’s 19th century city had the possibility of non-stop browsing, glass provided the thermal enclosure up top, while the vertical uses of sheet glass completed the package. Perhaps this was one of the reasons the Hopkins house was a subject of such intrigue. By proffering temptation with out total revelation we felt tempted, without full knowledge of the content, and like a dance of veils we wanted in.
What can be better than allure? More allure? Too much of a good thing, can, after all, be a little nauseating. The transparency, visual lightness and manipulability of glass as components in the machines for living envisioned by the Bauhaus’ Gropius and Mies led to eloquent experiments on a residential and institutional scale. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s 1973 Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, makes allusions to this aspiration, turning the normally hidden structural and systemic functions of a building inside out through a series of facade mounted people movers along with the display of ventilation and elevator structures. The stepchild of this Bauhaus-inspired innovation by mid-century led to the wholesale manufacture of kits of aluminum extensions and float glass cladding. Independent of the structure, the glass surface could be ordered from catalogues and applied. The overuse of repetitive minimalist monoliths, has led many to dismiss the multi story glass slab as universally inarticulate, and climactically insensitive, as the reflections cast off these towers causes both street level and internal climate insensitivity. Most if these curtain wall buildings, so called as the glass is hung from the structure like a curtain, are environmentally challenged, with relatively poor radiation transmission. Whatever minimal benefits are gained through coatings in the summer is vastly outweighed by the loss of light in winter months at 41 degrees latitude.
These mid-century treatments, in many ways point to an articulation of the glass surface that differs from structure and form. As we know from throwing the stone, the window is the weakest point: the thin membrane keeping out the world is just that—thin. Coatings can only reduce radiation transfer. To sheath our buildings in less permeable material requires thicker skins, and the thicker we get, the heavier we get, while losing many of the properties we admire in the apparently light material. Some future options include the use of glass-based insulators, such as aerogel in granular or block form, or more of a synthesis between building and environment. These machines for living find form in glazing that understands its environment and with buildings that begin to acknowledge that electric lighting during the day is a crime and a fact of architecture that blocks daylight. These are the true smart buildings, whose designers are aware of their responsibility and of their material’s capacity, including Cannon Design’s 1980 Occidental Chemical Center. Located in Niagara Falls, New York, this climatically articulate structure is sheathed in two parallel glass walls, each independently solar responsive. The two walls work together to block and receive the sun when necessary, while gathering radiative energy that is in turn fed to floor grilles for dissipation as warm air. Richard Rogers and Partners 1986 London headquarters for Lloyd’s bank employs a similar dual wall system. The exterior wall the so called breathing wall that responds to external climate changes, while the intervening space between the two serving as a thermal blanket, in which the building swaddles itself in its own air to keep warm. Conceptually the Greenpeace Warehouse (Windel Thimm & Morgen and Ridder Meyn & Partner, 1993, Hamburg) sees its building as an energy farm. Among other features, the building includes a glass walled staircase that harnesses 6-kilowatt hours of electrical energy during the day for trade to a local power company in exchange for night lighting. Collection and transmission of light via fiber optics allow buildings to be transmitters and producers of energy, rather than merely passive receptors.
Another breathing building, French architect Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe (Jean Nouvel, 1987, Paris) takes its cues from Islamic architecture in a series of perforated frames and patterns. Via a glass brain in the form of a photovoltaic cell on the roof of the Institute opens and closes the metal diapraghms, opening and closing each individual iris to regulate light as the building measures outside and inside light levels.
Night is perhaps the most appropriate place to conclude, as the setting of the sun gives way to the beacons of the internally lit glass structures. Architecture offers itself as a transmission of its marvels during this inversion, and the co conspirators of glass and electricity in architecture are well known from singular examples such as lighthouses to massive displays from Tokyo to the Las Vegas Strip.
To project as well as to receive accurately describes the nature of glass as a hyper material that is complex, as its attributes are generative as well as reflective and protective. More than merely keeping things out, holding them in, or showing them off, the Northern Renaissance ideal of illumination through architecture lives in these structures. Today’s commercial urban centers, from Tokyo’s Shinjuku to New York’s Times Square are dominated by billboard sized LCD screens that transmit this information rather than receive it. Toyo Ito’s temporary (1986-1995) Tower of the Winds in Yokohama anticipated this activity through a cylindrical folly structure with an exuberant transmission of a nightly light show. This seventy-foot tower surrounded a pre-existing utility building, and each night the 1,280 small lamps, 24 floodlights and 12 neon rings lit into action from behind perforated surface. Each element was keyed to a function—the neon to an hourly cycle, the floodlights responding to changes in wind and the small lights dancing to ambient noise levels. As the technology to build with glass changed, so do its forms. The small segments that tell the complex stories of the windows of the Cathedral at Chartres are a manifestation of is ingenious use of available technology. The small segments were what was available to work with, the individually wrought segments framed in carefully built enclosures, each hand colored and painted, the opposite in most ways of the 20th century fad to clad. The individual agency of each piece working in concert is legacy glass architecture can and frequently does aspire to. Consider the LCD screen, and its structure. Each point is individually educable, an intriguing extrapolation for new building morphology, one that combines the articulation of complex built forms we have seen since the glass houses of the early 19th century with the hypersurface of fiber optic transmission and LCD imaging.
Maybe that’s why that little glass house was through unsettling, as its surface was not only transparent and reflective, but also dynamic and transmissive. Isn’t architecture supposed to sit still?
This text was first presented with accompanying images as part of the conference, Glass and The Photonics Revolution, Bad Soden, Germany, May 2002.
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