Throughout the history of architecture, designers have searched for a balance between the support offered by stone and other building materials, and the illuminating function of glass. Glass was often maligned as weakening a structure, so the duelling needs of light and stability were met by installing windows – essentially a centuries-long compromise. Now, thanks to advances in technology, both needs can be met by glass, subsequently allowing it to become a dominant material in modern construction. Here, we explore the story of this important material and the growing use of glass in high-end architectural projects.
Glass-making has existed as a trade since around 4000BC, but it wasn’t until the first century AD that craftsmen learned how to make it colourless and clear. The Romans were the first to use glass for windows, though the product was dull and translucent. Similar defects were common until the late 18th century, with windows often containing air bubbles and thickness varying within the same pane. It was also a very expensive material, so only the wealthiest could use it in their homes. Over time, new techniques improved the purity and consistency of glass sheets, and when the duty was removed in 1845, demand rapidly increased. Today, the practical and aesthetic advantages of glass have seen it become an increasingly dominant feature of modern architecture.
“Glass is the most miraculous means of restoring the law of the sun.” Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern glass architecture.
As evidenced by the grand stained glass found in Europe’s mediaeval cathedrals and churches, architects have long sought to harness the inspirational, light-giving qualities of glass. Today, the long-held goals of abundant light and softened barriers between indoors and outdoors, twinned with structural integrity, have been achieved with the development of plate glass, which allows the passage of light with little to no distortion. This freeing technology has facilitated eye-catching modern designs that exist in harmony with their surroundings, including the understated, slender Selgas Cano Architecture office in Spain and America’s Farnsworth House.
Many of the world’s most iconic modern buildings are famous for their innovative use of glass, such as the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, London’s needle-like Shard, and the graceful National Grand Theatre of China, whose oval design has earned the nickname ‘The Giant Egg’.
One challenge that had to be overcome to build with glass was the issue of temperature control. In temperate countries, thermal insulating glass was a crucial development. By reflecting heat back into the room and allowing external heat to be absorbed, a comfortable room temperature is easily maintained. Meanwhile, tinted glass reduces heat uptake in tropical climates, keeping the residents cool and reducing the need for air conditioning. Modern methods of strengthening glass include ‘toughening’, in which the glass is tempered using heat or chemicals, and ‘laminating’, in which a layer of plastic is inserted between layers of glass.
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