Ian Ritchie Architects

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Aesthetics in Glass Structures

Article for IABSE Journal
© Ian Ritchie 05/2004

Introduction

For the last thousand years glass has been the surface through which light, but not rain or wind, has entered buildings, revealing the internal spatial art of architecture, and allowing the outside to be seen from within, and vice versa. Nevertheless, Glass, if used without aesthetic understanding, can destroy space and architecture.

Glass as architecture, or glass architecture, began its legitimacy during the Gothic period, when use of the sun and skylight to illuminate storytelling in stained glass gave glass its apotheosis (the apse of Aachen Cathedral is an exquisite example and has such thin stone mullions).

Glass architecture’s first apogee occurred with the construction of ever larger greenhouses during the mid-19th century when skilled craftsmen and engineers used the tensile qualities of wrought iron and the compressive qualities of cast iron with glass and produced a `wall-less’ and dramatic alternative to traditional masonry wall construction. Bannister Fletcher’s book on A History of Architecture1 eventually listed the Crystal Palace in its 1961 edition, suggesting that it took historians more than a hundred years to accept Paxton’s Crystal Palace and similar works throughout Europe as architecture.

Glass architecture’s second apogee has occurred as a result of the structural use of glass, which began in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Aesthetic meanings and their applied values have been largely philosophically determined rather than empirically, and there is in every era a prevailing visual aesthetic that finds expression in architecture.

Aesthetic representation in architecture has always been underpinned by geometry. In the West, it was dominated by geometric systems developed in Ancient Greece and Rome until abstraction emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, when Poincaré was writing about chaos, physicists were redefining our world, and artists were opening up new horizons. Late twentieth and early twenty-first century architectures are still defined geometrically (by x, y and z coordinates) and continue to explore abstract qualities.

The twentieth century saw architecture use reinforced concrete as the material that responded to spatial geometric ambitions, and we have seen the end of the twentieth century marked by glass and steel buildings ­ whose style has been commonly referred to as high-tech – an extension of modernism. Their aesthetic values have been associated with the beauty inherent in precise machine made elements and the importance of the connection, or joint, between the various parts – a desire to read the whole from the smallest assembly. For this reason high-tech architecture has been closely associated with an engineering renaissance. There has been a significant shift from this aesthetic over the last few years, triggered largely by a paradigm shift in the understanding of biological systems ­ notably DNA and genetics – and realised architecturally by using computational power and industrial robotics.

Glass in architecture can be used to embody and express ideas about our union with nature, our attitudes towards society, and our notions of lightness and transparency. Achieving the quality of lightness is a reductive exercise – of the problem, of the concept, of the design, of the structure, and of the materials. Superfluousness is anathema to lightness. Lightness tends towards minimalism, not necessarily transparency. Transparency is about feeling, of openness, or of emptiness. The association of openness and emptiness conjures up images of great spaces and landscapes.

1 FLETCHER, B. A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method. University of London, The Athlone Press, London 1961

© Ian Ritchie – May 2004