Through The Looking Glass

Through The Looking Glass


Vakko Headquarters
Istanbul, Turkey

When asked to design the new headquarters for Vakko, a Turkish fashion and media company, the architects at REX were presented with an old, partially constructed concrete shell and an aggressive timeline to redesign the project. Rather than concealing the building shell—derelict structures like this are common in Turkey, where concrete construction is fast and inexpensive—the architects grew interested in revealing it through the thinnest sheets of glass possible. “We didn’t want to hide the adaptive reuse,” said REX principal Joshua Prince-Ramus. “This kind of adaptive reuse, of an abandoned, incomplete structure, is really at the forefront of sustainability."

The architects turned to the technique known as slumped glass, by which glass is repeatedly heated and cooled until it falls into a mold and assumes the mold’s form. Slumping is typically used to create decorative effects, but REX decided to use it for structural purposes: The glass panels feature an X-shaped impression that gives them vertical and lateral stiffness and strength. At 5 by 10 feet, the 134 panels that wrap the building are a wafer-like 3/16 of an inch thick. They are held in place by four simple pins at the corners.

Before the glass could be heated, however, molds had to be made. Wood composite forms were cut from jigs, and then ceramic molds were made from the impression of the wooden forms. The glass was then heated and cooled over the ceramic molds, using the same techniques used to heat-strengthen glass. The process would have been prohibitively expensive in many other places. “Turkey is at that sweet spot in their development where they have all the technology, but labor costs are low and they retain a large and highly skilled class of craftsmen,” Prince-Ramus said.

The effect, according to the architects, is something akin to Saran Wrap, with the glass appearing to pucker as if pulled taut. Startlingly clear when viewed straight on, the panes catch light and reflections when viewed from an angle. The facade is distinctive without resorting to heavy-handed branding or the overt decoration  common in many prominent buildings for fashion companies. “Our client didn’t want a logo on the building,” Prince-Ramus said. “But they wanted something memorable.”

Alan G. Brake




Museum aan de Stroom
Antwerp, Belgium
Neutelings Riedijk

Ascending the escalators that spiral up Antwerp’s newly-completed Museum aan de Stroom, galleries displaying artifacts of the city’s past alternate with 18-foot-high views onto the city and waterfront. A competition-winning design by Dutch architecture firm Neutelings Riedijk, it comprises ten floors cantilevered out from a central core, each one rotated 90 degrees from the one below. Because many of the exhibitions’ contents will be sensitive to the sun, the galleries themselves have no windows, providing a stark contrast to the expansive panoramas on every other floor. 

Those views are especially striking through the museum’s undulating glass enclosures. After winning the commission ten years ago, Neutelings Riedijk teamed up with glass engineer Rob Nijsse to devise a way of making their oversize panes thin enough to maintain clarity but stable enough to withstand wind, without resorting to metal supports. Their solution was to corrugate the panes, placing float glass in a wavy mold and baking it until it melted into shape.

Although the basic technique for curving glass dates to the 19th century, the unprecedented size of these panes raised a host of new problems. Only one other building had incorporated similar corrugated windows, to Neutelings’ knowledge: the 2005 Casa da Musica in Porto, by Rem Koolhaas, who worked with Nijsse as well. But the 18-foot panes in the Museum aan de Stroom were far larger, too large for most ovens to accommodate.

The team solved that problem by renting Europe’s largest oven, a 20-footer in Italy, but other difficulties remained. The hardest, according to principal partner Willem van Neutelings, was how to achieve enough precision in the dimensions of the panes to allow them to align perfectly and connect with silicone joints. “It took a lot of calculations and work with the glass industry to make it suitable,” Neutelings said.

The thin panes, unmarred by any metal reinforcement, seem to disappear when the museum is glimpsed from far away. When viewed from within the building, the corrugation is obvious. Standing inside the radius of one of the curves appears to create a private viewing chamber, with a much wider panorama than that of a flat window. Alternately, seen from a slant, the glass takes on a greenish tint, turning the window into more of a curtain and making the room feel enclosed. “What you see in the glass depends on your position,” Neutelings said.

Julia Galef


Lightcatcher at Whatcom Museum
Bellingham, Washington
Olson Kundig Architects

The Pacific Northwest is known for many things, among them salmon, pine trees, and grunge rock. Sunshine does not often make the list. When designing an expansion of the Whatcom Museum, a showcase of regional art in Bellingham, Washington, Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects knew that to attract a crowd, a luminescent structure would be essential.

The new, 42,000-square-foot museum is known as the Lightcatcher, for the 180-foot-long, 37-foot-high swooping wall of glass that is the project’s signature, a shining concavity that lures visitors into a nexus of art and activity. “It really came from the idea of light and a lack thereof—that this would be a focal point to gather light and gather people,” said Olivier Landa, the project manager at Olson Kundig.

On typically overcast days, the glass wall takes on a silver hue, reflecting the clouds; during the summer, it radiates warmth, shining like a peak of the Northern Cascades. As with most of Olson Kundig’s work, the project draws heavily on its surroundings.

To achieve this effect, Olson Kundig employed a complex system of frits and laminates on the two walls of glass that comprise the Lightcatcher. They began with an acid-etched product made by Montreal-based Walker Glass with a translucency that shifts from a nearly transparent ghostliness to an opaque veil. “It’s almost like it’s alive,” principal Jim Olson said, adding that it took a year of mock-ups to create the desired appearance. The etching serves a dual purpose, protecting art from direct light as well as transforming the wall into a canvas, allowing for art installations and films.

Where the glass meets the museum, an agate-tinged frit is employed, which gets progressively denser as visitors travel toward the galleries, allowing their eyes to adjust and shielding the art within. The frit helps the museum glow, both by day and night, when interior lights telegraph activity inside. To create even more of a beacon, white, golden, and salmon-colored lights have been installed within the wall.

The most unique thing about the Lightcatcher, though, is not the way it looks but the way it works, as an integral part of the museum’s HVAC system. The two sets of window panes create a 2-foot chimney that traps heat, insulating the building in winter and cooling it in summer, when vents at the top and portholes at the base are opened. 

Matt Chaban