From the Louvre’s translucent pyramid to the floor-to-ceiling panes of Mies van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece the Farnsworth House, the role of glass in architecture is striking and varied. A glass building is both ethereal and structurally sound, blurring the lines between art, nature, and functionality. Let’s take a closer look at this trend.
History of glass in architecture
Glass has been employed as a building material for centuries, with evidence of glass windows used in Roman villas. Its function has evolved over time, seen in the plate glass of 19th century palaces and the sheer cladding of New York’s first skyscrapers. Yet it wasn’t until the float glass processing technique was invented in the 1950s that sheets of uniform glass were produced en masse. This revolutionised glass buildings during the modernist period, seen in iconic New York buildings like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and the neighbouring Lever House. The continued improvement of structural glazing has created a new era of intriguing, thought-provoking glass architecture.
In addition to its futuristic, sleek appearance, glass offers an array of benefits to architects in terms of performance. Energy-saving coatings and structural glazing insulate buildings, reducing heating and cooling costs for residents. The glass acts as a filter, reducing heat transfer during the day and retaining warmth in the evening while minimising glare. Today’s high-rises are safer than ever before, designed to withstand high wind loads as they spiral into the sky. At the same time, the use of this design aesthetic encourages open plan layouts in commercial glass buildings and reduces the need for artificial lighting. Inviting an abundance of natural daylight into the building can also boost employee productivity, to the tune of 6 to 12 percent.
Glass can be combined with colour to create a playful, head-turning impact. A good example of this is the Sports and Leisure Centre designed by Koz Architects in Saint-Cloud, France: The facade’s glass is stained and lit up with kaleidoscopic, pixelated colours, perfect for its function as a children’s recreation outlet. In addition to light and colour, glass buildings could soon offer embedded features similar to today’s smartphone touchscreen. A hint regarding glass architecture of the future can be seen in the designs for the new Apple Campus, Apple Park. With four-story glass doors and spherical glass interior walls, its construction resembles a spaceship and will include the built-in touchscreen technology to match. The Bloch Building in Kansas City offers another glimpse at the future of glass design, insulated with a semi-sheer material called Okalux. The end result is an elegantly frosted exterior illuminated with a glow from within like a paper lantern.
So where do glass buildings go from here? The use of new technologies is driving this sustainable material to greater heights of efficiency and performance. We can expect to see a continuation of this process, as well as an increase in the curved glass trend for the organically-shaped city skyline of the future.