GLASS IN ARCHITECTURE, Michael Wigginton, Phaidon 1996, pp320
Reviewed by Ian Ritchie for the Architects’ Journal, February 2007
I would have liked to have given an unqualified endorsement to this book, however, I find I cannot.
With the rennaissance of glass architecture over the last twenty or so years, led by British and Irish (e.g.Sean Billings & Peter Rice) “designers” , it is important to have well researched and presented information on the subject of glass architecture as well as the latest architecture.
Michael Wigginton’s book expands upon the book by David Button, introduces a concise technical appendix, but offers nothing further in respect of structural glass architecture and engineering. David Button and Brian Pye’s book, Glass in Building (Butterworth) provided a balanced overview of glass history, technique and application. La Verre Structurel (Moniteur) offered a thorough insight into a seminal work of structural glass design by RFR in pursuit of transparency, supplemented by further projects exploiting essentially the same theme.
The illustrated case studies are at the heart of his book, describing them as “the inspirational core of the book”. Yet, in too many cases, one is left disappointed because of factual errors, the lack of critical appraisal, or the absence of observation upon the very essence of the projects. I will highlight some examples.
In his selected case studies of “glass skin” architecture, I can understand the importance of describing one or two examples of structural sealant glazing, but not four. In none of the descriptions is there mention of the early problems of glass panels slipping – most notably on one of the case studies the author enthuses about, and how this problem is overcome. There is no information on the origin, development and characteristics of structural or non- structural sealants in the book, despite their fundamental importance in the application of so much of contemporary glazing. When faced with a glass facade or roof, the first question of clients is invariably about the performance life of the silicone.
In his description of the Louvre pyramids the basic question of the relationship of geometry to transparency is overlooked. In fact he describes the architect’s frustration with transparency “as the structure supporting it gets in the way”. This observation may be that of the architects, but it illustrates blindness to the effects of geometry. From the outside, transparency is impossible to achieve if you start with pyramidal surfaces. Although the book refers to the pyramids, he only describes one. The inverted pyramid is not mentioned at all, which is a shame since it is a much more interesting late twentieth century application, both in terms of the chosen glass, and in its play of refracted light through the polished angular edges.
Renzo Piano’s travelling exhibition pavilion for IBM is an architectural masterpiece in the art of understanding lightness and transportability. Michael Wigginton does not explain the clear limitations of glass to respond to these criteria. He appears to justify its inclusion in the book on the grounds of polycarbonate as an ersatz material.
The author has selected three buildings using multi-layered glass walls to explore environmental performance. The Lloyds building is not included here, yet it is surely more appropriate in this section since one of the prime objectives of its designers was to try to achieve an environmentally dynamic light transmitting office wall. It is in this sense a seminal work in environmental engineering of “the glass facade”, and is a more sophisticated proposal which preceded by more than a decade the later examples in Duisburg and Essen. Improving the environmental performance of the glass wall is, as the author points out, an important issue. It is therefore a pity no insight into the relative performance of single glazed (shown in two examples) and double glazed outer skins (two examples if the Lloyds building is included) or of the overall embodied and in use energy value of these multi-skinned facades.
The notion of transparency did not come from the architect Fainsilber’s brief to RFR for the design of the glass walls – ‘les serres’- his brief was to create windows to the park which would also exploit solar energy and act as a greenhouses – i.e. to have trees in them. His term for these glass structures was “bioclimatic facades”. In 1981 RFR identified transparency as the real design target and defined it as a surface which, although physically impossible to make invisible, would be recognised by the points of attachment in its surface. It is also annoying that he suggests that RFR were inspired by Pilkington’s work on their own Planar system. This is simply untrue. RFR’s investigations were inspired by defining transparency, and eliminating bending in the glass pane in response to the exceptional load demands resulting from the safety requirements imposed by the checking authority, Socotec. His reference to the 8m x 8m composite panel of glass as weighing 600kg is a gross error. It is 1920kg, without including the fixings. It is a pity that the main suspension detail which finally attaches the verical load to the structure is not illustrated, and that figure 7 is printed upside down.
It is also a little misleading to suggest that they were designed in 1983. It took more than four years from 1981 to develop the solutions that were built.
Re-reading the description of the glass music hall in Amsterdam, I kept asking myself – didn’t the two horizontal surfaces (timber floor and laminated glass roof) offer some important benefit to the acoustics of the hall? Neither are mentioned in the context of the acoustic performance of the space, yet the author describes the hall as “one of the most ingenious uses of glass in architecture this century”. Why is there no explanation of the role of the glass in the acoustic behaviour of the hall? One presumes that this glassacoustic relationship is what makes it “ingenious” for I fail to recognise anything else which could be ingenious. Perhaps a reference to the entirely glass beaded theatre in Mexico City, which Yehudi Menhuin describes in his book, and so enjoyed playing in, would place this statement in context. The author identifies sound reduction as a key characteristic of laminated glass in the technical appendix – yet the walls of the hall are not laminated – only the roof panels. Sound reduction is primarily achieved by the density of glass. The interlayer provides additional sound reduction between certain frequencies. (There has been much work on the development of acoustic interlayers both with glass and other materials, such as steel and aluminium.)
This case study is not about fixings (the category the author has placed it under). There is nothing original in the way it is assembled, and furthermore, being an internal structure it is not subjected to the extremes of external environmental loadings.
In the same section on fixings I have a similar view regarding the two examples from Grimshaw Architects. Neither offers any originality in the way that the glass is fixed. I disagree with the author’s assertion that “the whole of Waterloo is a testament to will and ingenuity in the use of glass”. I think it is an elaborate demonstration of movement joints and assembly techniques.
I found that too many most of the architectural case examples revealed nothing more than the author’s apparent predilection for over elaborate structures. The Banque Populaire de l’Ouest is a good example of this – where the filigree structure only attracts the horizontal wind loading – the south facade of glass being suspended from the main building – a point missed in the notes accompanying the diagrams; and by the way, where are the blinds in the drawings which are referred to in the text? Could there have been an architect-client disagreement, subsequently resolved by the unilateral action of the client to install blinds?
The author refers to the comparative cost of low-iron glass – citing the water-white glass of the Louvre pyramids. The low-iron glass of the upright pyramid is not the same as the low-iron glass of the inverted pyramid. In fact they come from different continents. One was combined into a hugely expensive polished laminate, while the other was a relatively inexpensive very low-iron glass from America – not mentioned anywhere in the book. The development of this low-iron glass was not through architecture, but in trying to find an economic product with improved light transmission for enclosing photovoltaic cells.
The case studies were not studies in the sense I understand the word, but rather superficial architectural commentaries. Perhaps some of these texts would have been accurate if those very closely involved with the conceptual, aesthetic and technical decision making of the projects had checked them for factual accuracy before going to press.
The first two essays, History and the Architectural Context and Glass Technology were a well presented synthesis of material found in other publications, and I found much value in that, but discovered nothing new.
The two parts of the book with I enjoyed the most were those on the futures and the technical appendices – the latter being particularly well structured and informative.
In the end I am left wondering whether Michael Wigginton has merely collated facts about glass from manufacturers and technical publications and descriptions of glass architectures. He is evidently fascinated and passionate about the subject, but his understanding appears to lack sufficient depth.
I find this worrying for two reasons. First, because the author’s stated intention through the book is most laudable – “to enable the architect, glass technologist and the manufacturer to talk to one another in a meaningful way”.
Second, I believe that any teacher has an obligation to avoid factual errors and to offer at least some critical appraisal of contemporary glass architectures. A failure to do so will be reflected in the quality of education and the possible creation and propagation of myths.
© Ian Ritchie 1997