The History Of Glass In Architecture

Glass was discovered, seemingly by accident, nearly 4000 years ago and has since evolved into one of our most used and most revered materials. It was only 2000 years ago that the manufacturing of glass progressed to being able to create sheets strong enough to be used as windows and architectural features. Today glass is used in everything from revolving doors to skywalks and interior partitions and is one of our most striking architectural materials with a fascinating history.

The Beginnings of Glass in Architecture

When glass was first used in architecture and construction, the limitations of masonry and weaker building materials meant that its prominence was restricted to small windows. With developments in construction, this began to change and by the Medieval Era glass started to be used as more of a decorative feature than simply a way to let light in. The trend for tall, stone Gothic churches facilitated the use of elaborate glass windows made up from fragments of coloured glass and depicting striking biblical scenes. These windows related the stories of the bible to an illiterate populace and spurned the architectural trend of searching for transparency, luminosity and weightlessness through glass.

The Next Big Step in Glass

It wasn't until the 19th century that glass in architecture took its next significant step forward. Before this time, the manufacturing process itself restricted the use of glass to only small sheets, which is illustrated in the prominent use of cottage pane glass and intricately divided windows in 18th century architecture.

The introduction of iron and other materials during this time meant that glass could take on a whole new role in architecture. Thanks to the materials now existing to hold it in place, coupled with the new ability to mass produce large sheets, the possibilities for the use of glass in construction became nearly limitless. Architects began to experiment with things like conservatories and entire walls of glass that were held together by high trussed steel arches and finger fixings. The Crystal Palace constructed in 1851 represents the most ambitious glass architectural projects of its time a construction made up of 300 000 sheets of glass.

Glass in Architecture in the 20th Century

Architects use of glass continued to evolve throughout the 20th century although most of the larger, ambitious projects were confined to large office buildings with massive budgets. The idea of transparency and dematerialisation was dominant during this time and architects the world over tried to use glass to create honest' buildings that focussed on a sense of light and space. One of the biggest changes during these years was the move away from seeing glass as only the material for the openings within a structure, but rather as the material for the structure itself. Glass skins became the challenge to tackle whereby a thin steel structure literally supported skyscrapers of full glass walls.

The Fagus Factory in Germany was one of the first buildings to employ this technique. This urban shoe factory was designed by Walter Gropius in 1911 and used a thin steel structure to hold up a full glass fade to meet the client's brief of an attractive outlook.

One of the greatest feats in glass architecture in this century is the new Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan which is set to open its doors to the public in early 2009. The steel sphere of the planetarium is an 87-foot structure which can accommodate 585 people. What's so breathtaking is that is seems to float in the centre of a breathtaking glass cube.

Using glass in architecture has certainly come a long way from its start. As structures like the Hayden Planetarium are constructed, limitations fall away and glass architecture takes on a life of its own.

Glass in Architecture Today

Constant innovations in glass and building materials continue to increase the possibilities for the use of glass in architecture and today have resulted in some of the most spectacular buildings imaginable. Lightweight, strong plastics, new cladding materials and fixing technologies have allowed for even more experimentation with glass and has enabled architects to translate many of these styles to work in the domestic environment and not only in corporate skyscrapers. Other innovations in glass have also enabled it to become less of a building material and more of a design feature in homes across the globe. Glass is now stronger and safer than ever, allowing it to be used anywhere from roofs to staircases and interior walls glass is no longer just for windows and the occasional sliding door.