Ian Ritchie Architects

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Notes on a Monument, 1998/1999

Alba di Milano

In the case of Alba di Milano, light is the monument surface itself. During the day the woven fibre optic panel is semi-transparent, with Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower very visible through it. It is like gossamer. At night, the entire surface becomes a dynamic painting of thousands of points of coloured light emanating from within the fibres panel. This gently curved inclined light cloth intended, among other ideas, to reflect the original idea of capturing curved light and that of the first glass fibres. In 1870, John Tyndal, a British physicist shone a light into a spout of water as it gushed out of a tank. The water fell in an arc toward the ground, and the light went with it, following the same curve. Light was trapped in the curving water. The spout of water was a light pipe demonstrating near total internal reflection. A little later, in about 1880, an English physicist, Charles Vernon Boys fired molten quartz attached to an arrow into the air. He made fine glass fibres. Thus In 1880 the ingredients for light transmission through glass fibre were in place.

The latest developments in glass products have stemmed from an understanding of the structural chemistry responsible for the versatile properties of the glassy state – states which extend from the familiar insulating behaviour which we are exploiting more and more in architecture, to the metallic.
The classic example of a new glass is the optical glass fibre.
It represents a peak in our scientific and industrial capacity to create some of the most perfect solids ever manufactured – on a par with device-grade silicon. The revolution in telecommunications is a direct result of this invention. Yet this development, which required several technological breakthroughs, including the fabrication processes to produce ultra-pure glasses and the ability to graduate the refractive index of glass fibres is only thirty years old.

In its simplest terms, a fibre optic is a medium for carrying information from one point to another in the form of light. Unlike the copper form of transmission, fibre optics is not electrical in nature.

A basic fibre optic system consists of a transmitting device, which generates the light signal; an optical fibre cable, which carries the light; and a receiver, which accepts the light signal transmitted. The fibre itself is passive and does not contain any active, generative properties.