Glass Menagerie

Glass Menagerie

Since Joseph Paxton used almost a million square feet of glass to cover the Crystal Palace in 1851, architects have been experimenting with it in projects of every size, type, and context. For our annual Glass issue, we look at four projects that use the material in fresh ways. From the structural advances of a dome in Stuttgart to the conceptual layering of a house in upstate New York, the glass in each of these projects does much more than just let the sun in.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,
Kansas City, Missouri
Steven Holl Architects

Steven Holl’s expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City has been garnering awards since its design was unveiled in 1999, and now that the glass cladding of the five-volume addition is near complete, it looks as if the early praise was well founded. With the opening of the museum still a year away, the glazed envelopes are beginning to express Holl’s winning concept of a series of lensess that traverse the museum’s terraced sculpture garden.

Holl decided to break the 165,000-square-foot expansion into five interconnected, irregularly shaped low buildings rather than attach a single massive structure to the existing museum, a Depression-era Beaux Arts building, sited at the top of a 17-acre sloping park, designed by Dan Kiley. The all-glass cladding of the new volumes offers a striking counterpoint to the original building’s heavy stone facade. Connected via substantial underground spaces, the buildings appear as isolated glass pavilions, their milky skin bringing light into the galleries and, at night, illuminating the garden’s path that wind around them. Holl compares them to Noguchi’s Akari lamps.

Each volume (first of five, at left) has a slight crank in plan to create new views (below) of the formal spaces around it.

Holl and project architect Chris McVoy refer to the five volumes as lensess because of the way they bring light into the galleries and subtly reshape one’s views of the space. According to McVoy, the volume’s forms were driven in part by the idea of a parallax view, or the apparent displacement of an object caused by a change in the position from which it is viewed. For example, the lens containing the lobby and the library begins on axis with the original museum, and then shifts slightly to lead one back towards the other new volumes.

The outer layer of the lens is double-interlocked glass planks with translucent insulation in between them. Though Holl had worked with similar industrial glass planks for the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, German manufacturer Lamberts worked to develop a new product specifically for this project, tested to ensure that they could span 18 feet without support, as well as meet standards for waterproofing and light transmission. The glass is also low in iron content, increasing its whiteness and minimizing the coloring the light that would shine on the art. The inside surfaces of the glass were sandblasted for further light diffusion. The inner layer is laminated, low-iron, butt-jointed glass, with a translucent white interlayer and acid-etched surface that provide for white light diffusion.

Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Between the layers of glass is a 3.5-foot wide cavity that, along with an upper-level plenum, provides a place for heat to gather in the winter or exhaust it in the summer. On southern walls, the cavities host a computer-controlled system of movable shades that darken the galleries as needed.

Holl’s design is an elegant and complicated proposal for making a glass wall, creating perhaps the most spectacular daylighting conditions for art seen in this country since Louis Kahn designed the Kimbell Museum. william menking


Binocular House,
Ghent, New York
Michael Bell Architect

The J-shaped plan and glass walls of the Binocular House (now under construction) create a series of layered views through the living spaces and raised courtyard, out to the surrounding woods.

Because architect Michael Bell’s Binocular House in Ghent, New York, is clad entirely in glass, it will inevitably draw comparisons to some famous precedents. According to Bell, though, The update [of the glass house] is one of experience, not form.. Bell and his clients, photo editor Philip Gefter and filmmaker Richard Press, looked to sources as varied as James Turrell, Michael Heizer, and jury duty for inspiration. While Bell said that he did think about the Farnsworth Houseehis clients even went to visit ittTurrell’s ability to use light to imply an ambiguous depth was equally important. In the Roden Crater, you start to understand the shape of space,, he explained, even if you don’t know how or why..

The house gets its name from its front faaade, where one can see through two different rooms straight to the woods beyond. Between these rooms, there is another large sheet of glass, but here it is opaque (a sheet of white film is sandwiched between its two layers) to shield the bathroom from view. According to Bell, this creates an effect whereby the opaque glass seems to project forward, and the landscape seen through the clear rooms seems to fall back. The house’s transparency doesn’t simply invite the landscape inside; it begins to tinker with one’s perception of it.

In plan, the house is a J-shape that surrounds an open courtyard whose genesis was more prosaic: Last winter I had jury duty downtown, and even though it was very cold, the light reflecting off the buildings gave a sense of warmth. I thought, ‘That house needs a courtyard!’ and went home and redrew everything.. Beyond the suggestion of warmth, the courtyard creates a series of alternately reflective and transparent layers, and so adds another layer of visual depth to the house. The courtyard is also raised 20 inches above the level of the hallway that runs alongside it, so one must step up into it. Bell explained that he wanted the slight rise to reorient one’s view upward towards the sky and out to the forest.

Courtesy Michael Bell architect

As in the Mies and Johnson versions, privacy isn’t an issue for the Binocular House because it is set in 12 wooded acres that back up to a small mountain. Heat, however, was a concern. Because there is so much glass, the house will use a geothermal heating and cooling system to keep energy usage down. Consumption is still likely to be somewhat higher than in a typical house of the same size (about 2,300 square feet), but the 51-degree water drawn from deep below the house will help to keep usage closer to standard. The trees also play a big role in keeping the house cool: though Bell designed a nylon brise-soleil system that will be put in place each spring, he is relying on tree cover to keep heat gain down. And if it gets too hot? Said Bell, We’ll plant some more.. ANNE GUINEY


Shaw Center for the Arts,
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Schwartz/Silver Architects

The Shaw Center for the Arts, which opened on March 4 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is not what it seems: While the theater and gallery building is clad entirely in glass, there is only one major window (albeit a big one) and it is anything but flat and reflective. The Boston-based firm Schwartz/Silver Architects devised a rain screen of channel glass that cover the building’s corrugated aluminum skin, and gives it an improbably light and insubstantial quality. The channels are set vertically, with short edges facing outward to better catch sunlight and shadow and give the faaade texture.

According to principals Warren Schwartz and Robert Silver and project architect Chris Ingersoll, they wanted the building to evoke the movement of the waters of the Mississippi on whose banks it sits, and to borrow its colors from the reflection of the sky on the river. One day late in the afternoon, we saw the building change from gray to blue to gold to pink over the course of about 20 minutes,, said Schwartz. At night, the screen is lit from outside, so that the light fills the channels.

The rain screen on the Shaw Center is made out of channel glass set with the C-profile facing outward and reinforced with aluminum clips that tie back to the wall behind it.

If the glass screen is a metaphor for the ripples of the river’s waters, it is a practical one. Hurricanes frequently hit the region, and the heavy rains can do significant damage to buildings by seeping into the walls. Rain screens work on the principle that a small cavity between a screen and a building’s wall systemmin this case, eight inchessensures that the pressure inside the walls is not lower than the pressure outside, thereby keeping water from being forced into the walls. They saw the process at work when they tested the strength of the channels, which are reinforced with thin wires embedded in the glass. Ingersoll said that after a DC-9 engine blew water in a simulated 100 mile-per-hour wind at a mock-up of the faaade, there was no water in the cavity between the rain screen and the wall, just a fine mist.

courtesy schwartz/silver architects

The system that keeps the channels anchored to the wall behind them is a straightforward one that is fairly common in industrial buildings in Europe. Horizontal bands capture the channels at top and bottom, and intermediate clips that tie back into the wall stabilize each one along its length. The anchoring system is visible through the glass, and from afar, the bands and clips read as an irregular horizontal pattern on the faaade, some light and others dark as if just out of reach underwater. The Shaw Center is the largest building to date to use glass channels as a cladding, but its noteworthiness comes not from its size: It turns the prosaic need for protection from the elements into something that capitalizes on them. AG


Lighweight Dome,
Lucio Blandini and Werner Sobek

>A soap bubble just floating over the groundd is young Italian engineer Lucio Blandini’s description for his potentially revolutionary design for an entirely frameless glass structure. Blandini designed the project while a doctoral student at the University of Stuttgart’s Institute of Lightweight Structures, founded in 1964 by Frei Otto. Since 1995, the institute has been under the direction of Werner Sobek, the noted German engineer who has done pioneering research on glass, including the development of carbon-fiber reinforced glass and load-bearing glass structures.

Blandini’s prototype, which is installed at the University of Stuttgart and represents three years of research initiated by Sobek, is the world’s first frameless structural glass dome. The elegant shell is 8.5 meters long and nearly 2 meters tall, comprised of 44 pieces of doubly curved, 10 millimeter-thick glass panels. The panels actually consist of two layerssan 8 millimeter-thick laminate and a second layer of 2 millimeters of chemically tempered glass. The technology [chemically toughened glass] is already used in automobile and aerospace applications but is new in architecture because it is still so expensive,, said Blandini, who is currently a Fulbright fellow in the architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania. The glass dome sits on a titanium ring that’s lifted off the ground by 32 stainless steel columns, which Blandini calls a dematerialized support system.. Titanium’s reaction to heat and cold is similar to that of glass and, unlike steel, will allow the glass to expand and contract freely. The key to this project is the use of adhesives as a joining system. The beauty of gluing glass panes together, of course, is the ability to create a continuous glazed structure, unimpeded by steel bolts and joints. Over the last three years, Blandini tested a variety of glues, including epoxies, acrylics, and polyurethanes, on different types, shapes, and configurations of glass, measuring strength and loads. The dome shape helps to alleviate the load from the adhesive.

Courtesy Lucio Blandini

The young designer and his professor both made clear that it’s too early to introduce this technology into architectural projects. The major concern is the durability of the bonding agent, which needs to be tested in rain, heat, and various UV rating conditions. Another concern is how to repair a damaged glass panel. (In a conventional building, a broken pane of glass is simply removed from its frame, unbolted, or unclipped.) Blandini imagines the future development of a glue-dissolving solvent that would allow the panels to be individually replaced. This research project is young, yet. We are monitoring the long-term behavior of the shell,, said Blandini. So far, everything is behaving better than expected.. He promises to build a shell with an even larger span in the next year or two. WM


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