In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Glass in Modern and Contemporary Architecture

  • Introduction
  • Light
  • Between Indoors and Outdoors: Glass, Ecology, Health, and the Body
  • Lightness and Transparency as Metaphor and Phenomenon
  • From Places for Plants to Places for People
  • The Crystal Palace
  • Crystalline Glass Dreams of the 1920s and 1930s
  • The Artificial Environments of Atriums
  • Integrated, Intelligent, Responsive Skins

Architecture Planning and Preservation Glass in Modern and Contemporary Architecture
John Sadar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0088


Glass is paradoxical. Glass is prized for its permeability to light. Its material qualities of reflection and refraction that gift it the spectacular quality of being seen to not only transmit light but contain it, enabling the splendor of the chandelier and the dizzying nightscapes of the city. Although visually light, it is as dense as concrete. Glass is simultaneously valued for its imperviousness and inertness, making it a valued container, particularly for perfumes and chemicals. Despite its density and hardness, it is painfully fragile, requiring careful handling. Into the seventeenth century, the secrets of glassmaking were closely guarded, protected even to the death by Venetian glassmakers. It was a luxury and taxed as such, with Britain’s Window Tax introduced in 1696 and not lifted until 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. France’s Door and Window Tax was not rescinded until 1917, amidst the Great War. Glass is thus more than a material; it is an ideal. Glass is central to the relationship between our bodies and environments. Because it can transmit energy flows, glass holds the promise of a programmable, ecological material, which might enable us to restore a sense of balance with the world (despite the energy required for its production). Its relationship to optics and lenses links it with rationality and the Enlightenment. Through its inertness, glass exudes hygiene. As the chief intermediary between our bodies and the natural world, glass radiates our ideal of health. Transparency has itself become an ideal whether in the operations of the state or corporation, or the conduct of an individual: lucid expressions, clear thoughts, illuminated society. At the same time, as any Gothic cathedral reveals, glass’s visual immateriality lends it a magical, mystical dimension. Successive changes in production have transformed glass into a commodity, ever larger, cheaper, and more programmable. When the Crystal Palace was constructed in 1851, it was comprised of nearly 300,000 panes, mouthblown by skilled and specialized artisans. Successive waves of reconceptualizing glassmaking in the twentieth century increased sheet sizes and lowered costs—from the Lubbers process of mechanized cylinder glass to the Colburn and Fourcault processes of drawn sheet to the Pilkington process of float glass. In the early twenty-first century, glass production is dominated by multinational companies with annual sales worth more than one hundred billion dollars. We have come to expect a great deal of the material. We expect it to connect us with our surroundings, yet also to protect and define our inner world. The choices facing early-21st-century architects regarding glass selection range from light transmission, to heat absorption, to sound transmission, to shock resistance, to load-bearing capacity. These variations, which may employ altered chemistry, surface treatments, and laminations, each strive to realize our changing notions of the ideal ambience. For all of these reasons, Michael Wigginton perhaps put it best when he wrote that glass is an impossible material. Glass is a dream.

General Overview: Glass in Architecture

General overviews of glass in architecture take their cues from Korn 1929 and McGrath, et al. 1937 from the following decade, in that they are at once both technical manuals and histories, and presentations of both exemplary projects and philosophical issues. Korn effectively captured the increasing importance of glass in architecture and design, as it extended beyond architectural glass products to other facets of human activity, such as science and packaging. This is particularly true of the original German of 1929, which is more extensive in its inclusion of technical articles by particular specialists than its English translation (Korn 1967). McGrath’s text similarly presented both the technical and artistic possibilities of glass. His own work was supplemented by collaborators Christopher Tunnard, who wrote on agricultural buildings, and Harold Ernest Beckett of the Building Research Station. While both Wigginton 1996 and Button and Pye 1993 take a more purely architectural focus and consider glass in more recent concerns of energy transmission and load-bearing capacity, both also take similar approaches to Korn 1929 and McGrath, et al. 1937 in discussing glass recipes, detailing, and constructions, along with their ramifications for spatial experience and occupation.

  • Button, David, and Brian Pye, eds. Glass in Building: A Guide to Modern Architectural Glass Performance. Oxford and Boston: Butterworth Architecture, 1993.

    A foundational reference and starting point in glass architecture, the book is organized by performance consideration: visual, thermal, mechanical, and other (such as fire resistance, acoustics, and electromagnetic properties). In positioning glass within the eternal struggle of how to admit light while resisting gravity, the authors take the reader through key buildings and theories, from the Crystal Palace through the Crystal Chain to the physics of climate control, structure, and responsive coatings, concluding with a useful glossary of terms.

  • Korn, Arthur. Glas: Im Bau und als Gebrauchsgegenstand. Berlin-Charlottenburg: E. Pollak, 1929.

    The original German book is well worth reading in parallel with the English (Korn 1967), as it has a more extensive array of illustrated technical articles by specialists, including such topics as Luxfer prisms, glass mosaics, and glass painting.

  • Korn, Arthur. Glass in Modern Architecture. London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1967.

    A translation of the seminal text Korn 1929. The book discusses the ever-increasing use of glass across society, but particularly in buildings, in the United States and Europe, resulting in what he calls a new glass age, equal in beauty to the Gothic. The English translation includes a foreword by Dennis Sharp, which positions Korn’s text in relation to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace.

  • McGrath, Raymond, Albert Childerstone Frost, and Harold Edward Beckett. Glass in Architecture and Decoration. London: The Architectural Press, 1937.

    Written at the urging of design critic and advertising copywriter John Gloag, this book was simultaneously a coffee-table book, a technical manual, and a historical account which presented glass in both technical and expressive terms. At once scholarly and designerly, technical and artistic, historical and pictorial, it is the model for subsequent books on glass architecture.

  • Wigginton, Michael. Glass in Architecture. London: Phaidon, 1996.

    A comprehensive overview of the history of glass architecture and technology, key examples of built works, and technical data, the book interweaves glassmaking technology, the deployment of glass in the built environment through glazing systems, suntraps, and atriums, and the philosophical ramifications of its use. Generously illustrated, it spans from the earliest examples in Syria to Gothic stained glass to future speculations, such as aerogels and chromogenics.

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