Ian Ritchie Architects

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Glass Futures

Glass in construction has enjoyed a phenomenal renaissance since Pilkington’s invention of the float process1.
During this time glass walls have changed the nature of our cities with fractured and distorted images in the day (appreciated by artists such as John Cage as metaphors for our society) to images of empty office building interiors burning energy for no apparent purpose. Our cities used to be much darker, but the glass wall has allowed building interiors to illuminate them. It seems that more opaque, more substantial, and more important buildings have had to be floodlit to compete with this phenomenon. All is for the beauty of our environment ­ with little concern for energy waste or climate impact.

This is the ambivalence of glass ­ both beauty and beast. Developments will have to deal with the “beast in the glass”.

The development of on-line coatings within the float process, and the extension of this automated linear process with on-line toughening and heat soaking has led to a greater range of high quality glass. This has enabled the industry to offer insulating (dielectric) products and glass suitable for structural application. Both of these qualities have been exploited extensively by architects, engineers and glass artists who work in the architectural field.

The main markets for sheet glass products are still the construction of buildings, cars and screens for monitors. However, two dreams of the future use of glass ­ `the information wall’ and the `environmentally responsive wall’ – have not reached anywhere near their potential. I am far more interested in the latter. The former, as information wall, will simply allow the advertising media industry to hijack and camouflage architecture more and more.

In a lecture I gave at the Royal Institution’s Glass Symposium in London in 1990, I spoke of our future architecture and our dependency on new materials.

“By understanding solar geometry we can recapture the art of carving form and manipulate the surfaces of our buildings with nature’s own light pen. Through the development of new facade technologies our own architecture will become more dynamic and less-material, in the sense that transparent structural materials such as glass and diamond films will become the support medium for holograms, transparent integrated circuits, miniaturised lasers and biogenetic coatings offering possibilities to improve energy efficiency, create interactive building surfaces for both user and the environment, and release new creative energies in the design and visual pleasure of our buildings.”

At this symposium Professor Greaves gave a paper on the molecular simulation of sodium glasses, and the ability to simulate the heating and quenching of them. This gave me an idea of molecular doping glass to reduce its susceptibility to crack propagation. I have remained interested in the molecular (nanotechnology) level of treating glass ever since, because it is at this level that I believe the major new breakthroughs will continue to occur.

1 1952 Alistair Pilkington conceived the idea of forming a ribbon of glass by floating the melted raw materials at high temperature over a bath of molten tin. It took seven years and more than £7 million (£80 million in today’s money) to develop the process. Pilkington set out to replace the twin grinding and polishing process for making plate glass. In the event, the float glass process superseded not only that process, but also the sheet glass process for making ordinary windows. It became the universal process for the manufacture of high quality flat glass. (source: Pilkington History)

© Ian Ritchie 2005