Advances in technology, along with societal concerns about sustainability, shape contemporary glazing applications

Blurring Transparent Glass

Advances in technology, along with societal concerns about sustainability, shape contemporary glazing applications

SANAA's Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art (Timothy Brown/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The following editorial from Aki Ishida kicks off the Focus section of the July/August 2022 edition of The Architect’s Newspaper, which showcases the latest and greatest innovations in glass. You can view the entire section, complete with product roundups and case studies, in full here.

In recent decades, technological advancements in chemical coating, structural engineering, and fabrication methods have altered architectural possibilities for the use of glass. As new techniques expand the range of effects and performance of clear glass, glass transparency has become increasingly multivalent and complex—it is blurred, both materially and metaphysically. Historical associations of glass with exclusivity and exquisiteness have resulted in today’s predicaments of excessive consumption, as evidenced by all-glass iPhones, the curtain walls of luxury high-rises, and other glass buildings and products. At the same time, when we spend more than 90 percent of our day indoors, glass that connects us to the outdoors remains indispensable to architecture.

Beginning in the late 1990s, I worked for four years at the office of glass artist/technologist James Carpenter when glass knowledge was still exclusive relative to today, as now many architecture offices have their own glass and curtain-wall experts. At the time, Carpenter’s studio worked at the forefront of experimenting with reflective coating (including the polychrome effects of dichroic glass that characterized much of Carpenter’s early work) and the first use in the United States of cable-net glass walls, designed in collaboration with German engineering firm Schlaich Bergermann Partner.

Building on my professional experience as an architect, in my book Blurred Transparencies in Contemporary Glass Architecture (2020), I examined the intertwining of material, culture, and technology through six case studies and argued that readings of transparent glass are increasingly blurry.

Glass’s fragility, which intensifies its exquisiteness, has challenged architects and captured their imagination. From the 11th to the 16th centuries, the secrets of glassmaking were highly coveted by the Venetians until three glassmakers were smuggled in by King Louis XIV of France to realize Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors. Crystals, glass slippers, coffins, and mirrors often appear symbolically in fairy tales, which describe the collective dreams of a culture. In modern architecture, glass is a material imbued with idealism, symbolism, and utopian vision. Walter Gropius, for example, referenced crystals in the Bauhaus manifesto, writing that “the new structure of the future […] will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.” It was thought that in early modern sanatorium buildings, including the Zonnestraal (1931) in the Netherlands, solar transmission through the glass walls would “heal” sick patients, transforming them into healthy workers. Today, these historical examples continue to affect meanings associated with glass.

Following the financial fallout of 2008 and amid increasing concerns about global warming, glass came under attack for being environmentally irresponsible and unaffordable. Bird lovers villainized New York’s Javits Center as a hazard for birds that flew into its reflective glass walls. In 2014, FXFowle replaced I.M. Pei and Partners’ (now Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) original glass with fritted glass that is more visible to birds; avian fatalities dropped by 90 percent. In 2019, in response to a surge of glass skyscraper construction in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio alarmed architects and developers by hyperbolically claiming that steel and glass “have no place in our city or on our Earth anymore,” although what he meant was that the energy code requirements should become more stringent, not that glass would be banned. Architect and academic Andrés Jaque’s 2021 performance Being Silica was a critique of ultra-clear, low-iron glass made with a white sand extracted from a few exclusive locations around the world; the same sand is also used in fracking. Jaque remarked that low-iron glass, which costs three times as much as regular glass with a green tint, has become the material of choice for high-profile glass architecture, including Apple stores and the supertall luxury apartment towers on New York City’s Billionaires’ Row. In other words, ultra-clear glass symbolizes excessive wealth and environmental exploitation.

Despite the negative attention given to glass in recent years, much of which is based on valid societal concerns, most people would agree that a world without glass would be unimaginably grim and dull. Responding to the climate crisis shouldn’t require a ban on glass, but rather more thoughtful applications instead of draping every face of the building with the material, top to bottom. Architects can educate their clients and the public to no longer associate floor-to-ceiling glass with “the good life.” Excessive fritting, coating, and tinting needed to meet the energy codes defeat the purpose of having glass in the first place.

Architects can also consider smarter couplings of building function and location with the material of glass. For example, SANAA’s Glass Pavilion (2006) in Toledo, Ohio, is an all-glass building that recirculates the heat generated by the furnace in a hot glass shop to heat the gallery and office spaces in the winter. As Michael Na Min Ra of facade consulting firm Front shared in my book, this innovative approach to heating and cooling made an all-glass building sensible in the cold climate of Toledo.

Moreover, as architects such as Lacaton & Vassal have shown, transparent walls and windows can be made operable and adjustable, thus offering the occupants a sense of agency in managing their own environment.

Even though glass is no longer specified for its “curative” effects as it was for tuberculosis sanatoriums a century ago, transparent glass continues to capture our imagination and remains vital to our cities. As advancements in glass surface treatments and engineering continue to alter glass as a material, its visual perception will become further blurred, along with its cultural symbolism.

Aki Ishida is an architect, educator, and writer currently serving as interim associate director of Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design in Blacksburg, Virginia.