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architectural glass in façade of a building

The important Role of Architectural Glass in Contemporary History

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When did the reign of architectural glass start? Where did it mount the mainstream destrier of the built world around us? How did architects from distant eons throughout history fell in love with it? Glass has been an inseparable part of the architecture for so long that talking about it will touch many different design-related areas. It includes different types of architectural glass design, their installment techniques, various regulations and design guidelines on using glass in buildings and so on.

A piece of obsidian glass

We could go on a long spiel about each one of these long lists of glass jargons and technical expressions in a tedious manner; but what is the fun in that?!

Instead, we intend to put the story of architectural glass design into perspective by moving forward through the tipping points of our contemporary history and bring you the best examples of architectural glass use.

We will mention different architectural glass types and regulations along describing these notable projects. First, let’s segue into the glass history a little bit.

Glass discovery traces back to an uncertain point between 4000 B.C. and 7000 B.C. So, glasses have been around way longer than you may think.

Natural forms of glass can be found near active volcano sites where lava crystalizes for cooling more quickly than it usually does (Obsidian) or where a mighty lightning strikes teeny tiny grains of sand (Fulgurite).

You might not have seen glass pieces that trace back to Rome and Pompeii or Mesopotamia where it’s believed to be the first place to do the ancient equivalent of mass-producing glass, but you have probably encountered Gothic cathedrals, mainly across Europe, where tall, broad glass windows light up the nave and choir room of the church.

Let’s fast forward to the exciting contemporary days were architects and industrial artisans picked up the use of industrially manufactured glass.

Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London

Finally, around the time of the industrial revolution, the crude mainstream architectural glass of the day that was called Crown Glass and wasn’t precise and made up a lot of distortions and varieties in thickness across glass panes became obsolete by a more durable and neatly-made process.

Such advancements gave way to innovative aspirations like the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London in the mid-19th century.

Further developments that were mostly driven by modern-spirit movements in the late 19th century and early 20th defined new roles for architectural glass that wasn’t imaginable before.

Let’s dig into the escalating trend of using glass in architecture by a world-wide known modern teacher in France:

Tsentrosoyuz Building’s architectural glass design in Moscow

Tsentrosoyuz Building in Moscow by Le Corbusier

Before the industrial revolution and the advent of steel frame and concrete, walls used to bear almost all vertical and lateral forces to a building.


Masonry, stone, and brick walls were the main options; all of which were thick and imposing for architects to work around so they literally couldn’t think outside the box of the load-bearing walls.

Windows, the only place where glasses could be imagined, were detrimental to the structural walls’ function, so they were usually confined to relatively small openings or wholes, so to speak, in walls.


Le Corbusier’s vision for Tsentrosoyuz Building’s architectural glass design in Moscow, soared ontwo wings; technological advances of the day and his 5 modern architecture principles.

Those were the main reasons Le Corbusier could free the building from the overbearing walls and gave way to a more flexible free plan. One that was only impaled by steel frames and columns.


That’s why you can see broad architectural glass facades in his Tsentrosoyuz design. Tsentrosoyuz Building’s expansive curtain glass walls set the first big-scale example in modern architecture’s aspiring vision for glass in design.

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois

Another bold leap modern architects took was a house designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that ironically, got him sued by his client.

Farnsworth House was the modern movement’s take on the purity of relationship with the secluded nature that surrounds a house.

Having finished all the exterior walls of the house with clear glass, Mies assumed the surrounding trees to guard the privacy of the residents; a notion clearly lost on the client.

But as a weekend retreat, the architect wanted the house to set in its natural environment in a minimal and pure fashion.

He simply didn’t want the house to disrupt it; that was why he used the glass as the mean to let nature tell its story; to prevent the house from overstating its presence and rather be resolved in the bigger picture; to yield better unity with nature.

Here then, architectural glass design has been the way to express minimal purity and unity.

That’s also the reason why the house is elevated by eight steel posts. They also play as vertical frame to the floor-to-ceiling windows that run all around the house.

Of course, ventilation and thermal gain haven’t been high on Mies’s list; all the more backup for Mrs. Farnsworth’s denied argument at court. But technological advances in architectural glass design have introduced new types of architectural glass like Low-E (as in low emission) or insulated glass units.

Farnsworth House in Illinois

Seagram Building in New York City

Seagram Building in New York City

Dark tinted architectural glass coupled with vertical bronze elements are the main sculptural theme of Mies van der Rohe’s first attempt to build a high-rise in New York City.


Seagram Building has been a huge inspiration for many architects after Mies to try a similar purity and minimalism in their design.


The tower’s evident retreat from the street has created a vibrant plaza that cuts through its minimal structural columns and its floor-to-ceiling lobby windows; giving it a sense of continuity with the urban plaza, as was the theme with nature at Farnsworth House.


Here, the clear type of architectural glass design has helped blur the line between inside and outside; between the lobby and the urban life at the plaza.

Le Grande Louvre in Paris

Louvre Museum in Paris

The familiar face of Paris, Louvre Pyramid and its three smaller triangle sidekicks, located at the center of the museum, are the main entry point of the complex as well as a lighting source to the hall underneath, Cour Napoleon.

The architectural glass and steel design of the pyramids assert a break from the past to be a cautious statement of today.

But they don’t sever ties with the past entirely; rather their strong and stable form complements the historical building that encircles them. The transparency of the pyramid’s architectural glass design seems to redirect the attention to the Renaissance building at the backdrop.

The element of architectural glass and the extension’s Giza-inspired geometry create a serene harmony with the site’s ancient roots. They have made up an inseparable juxtaposition of familiar styles.

It could be said that Louvre Pyramid is the Parisian narrative of the link between our time and the past it is built upon.

Bibliothèque Nationale - South view

Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris

Paris has been the scene for other aspiring controversial projects; most of which have been proven to have dissolved in the city’s present urban fabric.


In the 80s and 90s, under President François Mitterand, the so-called “Grands Projects” were directed to invite a new wave of change all over France.


France National Library or Bibliothèque Nationale in downtown Paris followed the same path as its much-debated precedent; the Louvre Pyramid.


With its four huge volumes of minimalist mass finished with tinted architectural glass, steel, and wood, the national library mixes the innate might and grandeur character of the French architecture history with the humility of its transparent architectural glass design.


So, as yet another expression architectural glass can help articulate, the building is not looking to overstate its presence; a socialist statement that was certainly campaigned by the leftist president.

It both makes a bold and humble impression at the same time.

This project’s jump into the minimalist values of the late Modern era is leveled out by its green central courtyard that tries to value nature as the returning point of solace for the urbanized human.

Reichstag Dome in Berlin

Reichstag Dome in Berlin

According to what Foster he has stated on the design objectives of a building with so many stakeholders, and as the architectural glass design of the dome represents, Reichstag seeks to serve four main purposes.

It tries to be as a democratic forum, be respectful to its past, grant remarkable public accessibility, and finally tries to appease environmental concerns.

The clear architectural glass and steel of the central dome or Cupola (as Foster has phrased it) houses the upward spiral ramp that culminates to a vantage viewing point to the Berlin landscape; a luxury that needs no clearance, cause it’s open to the public.

Aside from the inherent transparency of the architectural glass design and the cupola’s formal ties to Reichstag history, an incremental set of mirrors reflect the daylight into the parliament hall underneath.

They also foster the upward natural ventilation that lets the hot air exit out of the upper outlet at the tip of the glass dome.

Foster’s architectural glass design at Reichstag renovation project, effortlessly brings all distant demands of the project together. It perfectly finds an answer for a public landmark in Berlin that is supposed to be environmental, democratic, and remain historical at the same time.

The Dancing House in Prague

The Dancing House in Prague

Resembling a dancing couple, the Dancing House hotel in Prague has become a national symbol of the country. It has even made its way to the Czech Republic banknotes.

Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić’s Deconstructive design sharply appears in 99 differently-shaped glass panels on northern tower and the non-linear lines that run across the whole building.

These lines shape the wavering placement of the windows at the southern tower and façade of the building.

The fluid motion and dynamic expression of the building is most apparent where the northern tower leans toward its southern partner and occupies the sidewalk at the same time; a visual gimmick of a dancing partner.

Architectural glass cladding of the hotel adds a touch of transparency that portrays the building’s spirit of change, by giving an insight into the life inside.

Kimbell Art Museum Expansion in Texas

Kimbell Art Museum Expansion in Texas

Following the footprints of Louis Kahn’s 1972 iconic building, Renzo Piano has meticulously emulated the old’s form and material to express his own specific take on the past.

While respectfully receding to Kahn’s design, Piano states his own by using the same material; architectural Concrete, wood, and most importantly architectural glass to illuminate the galleries and different light-sensitive requirements of the museum.

A state-of-the-art system of natural and artificial architectural lighting made of photovoltaic panels, architectural glass, and wood beams see to the varying needs of the Kimbell art galleries throughout the day.

Conclusion

Over the centuries, so many different types of architectural glass design methods have helped architects express their desired qualities in buildings.

We came to understand the vital role of architectural glass in the liberation from load-bearing walls as a way to design free plans and huge glass façades, minimalist expression of the Modern movement, the power of glass to mitigate the differences between the old and new in France, and finally its widespread use to express motion in the late post-modern movements.

And it is going to be a continuing tale so don’t expect the architectural glass to leave the stage.

What other buildings that you’ve seen do you think have properly used glass?

Where else have you found glass to play the main role in telling the story of an architectural design? Help us complete our list in the comments section below.

Mitchel Sardy
Author: Mitchel Sardy
I am a Computer Engineer and an architecture enthusiast, graduated on both majors up to the master's degree from the University of Washington; I'm an advisor to early-stage architecture startups all around the globe; the ones using computer-based solutions to design in architecture.


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