Crystalline architecture

In early XXth century, the craze for large iron and glass structure for green houses in England, covered glass arcades, streets or entire market, and the newly created department stores, train stations or World exhibits facilities pushed architects to realize that the use of glass was transforming in depth “proper” architecture.

These buildings were the result of new means of construction, new programs, but mostly they were conceived by engineers, who answered to questions such as: how to bring large amount of light in a green house? or how to, build a large span roof, fast, and easily dismountable, for the temporary buildings of a world exhibit ?

FIG: Galeries Lafayette Paris Architects: 1907 G. Chedanne 1912 F. Chanut – Galerie Saint Hubert Bruxels Architect: JP Cluysenaar 1847 – Grand Palais Paris Architects: H. Deglane, A. Louvet, A. Thomas and C. Girault 1900</div>

The answers were quite blunt, efficient, leaving stone in favor of iron and glass. The art of buildings had moved into another realm. Paul Karl Wilhem Scheerbart understood this change very early and wrote it in his seminal book Glasarchitektur (1914).

FIG: Paul Karl Wilhem Scheerbart – Crystal Palace Hyde Park London Architect: Sir Joseph Paxton 1851 – Bicton Park Devon 1830

Scheerbart acknowledged the change, recognizing the potential offered by iron and glass to architecture, but he also tried to reinvest a field of construction which the architects had not been invited to or if so, just to add here and there, a few floral ornaments or other decorative features.

Scheerbach praised the openness of these structures, the flow of natural light, but before all, the material “glass” itself  which is considered equivalent in architecture to the gems in jewelry.

Sheerbach suggested to add colors, the colors which had been so successful with glass since gothic architecture,  and to combine these large structures with the magic of color, that can be seen at the Sainte Chapelle, In Chartre and in some many others gothic construction

FIG: Sainte Chapelle – Chartres-Vitrail de la Vie de Joseph
FIG: Palau del Musica Barcelona – Grand Palais Paris Architects: H. Deglane, A. Louvet, A. Thomas and C. Girault 1900

Even if one the most famous of these new glass and iron buildings is called the “Crystal Palace”, its appearance is actually quite far from a crystalline structure. In Scheerbach’s writings the references to the gems and jewelry are more explicit, as it brings the glimmer and shininess, mixed with color what the “new glass” architecture should propose, moving away from the opaque, dark, dead and non-durable material such as the brick or stone. The new glass architecture will not be affected by time, almost as timeless as diamond.

P48 XVIII “About beauty on earth, when architecture of glass will have triumphed everywhere. ” Scheerbach writes  “The surface of earth will take a total different aspect if in architecture; the glass would replace the brick everywhere. It would be as if the earth was covered by gems. a properly unimaginable somptuosity.” ( Paul Scheerbacht L’ Architecture de verre, translated from german by P. Galissaire, Circé ISBN 2-908024-87-X)

Cut and polished, the gem like buildings, with their multiple facets are enhanced by the sky. They react instantaneously to any minute light variation, reflecting their surroundings in a continuous variation of their surface states. At night, the inner light of the buildings transforms them into large lamps which literally light the towns and cityscape. This new design trend will not only affect the buildings themselves but the whole landscape of the city

More than its transparency, Scheerbacht seems to be attracted by the reflectivity of glass. The multiple reflections combined with the feeling of weightlessness brought by the extremely delicate iron structures, introduce an aesthetic of life, alive through its instantaneous variation of aspect, its brightness and glimmering shine, far from the heavy and dull traditional architecture.

FIG: Werkbund Pavillon Architect : B. Taut 1914

In master of light, Henry Plummer mentioned, Scheebacht’s “fascination for the delightful effect of the crystal” which can be found Bruno Taut ‘s pavilion constructed for the Werkbund exhibition in 1914.

“This opulent cupola had facets of clear plates on the outside, line within by translucent glass blocks backed with sheets of colored glass. Translucent and transparent glass was employed in virtually every surface.” ( Henry Plummer, master of light, p 42 A+U, ISBN 4-900211-57-5 )

The Pavilion was a pineapple-shaped multi-faceted polygonal rhombic structure, explicitly jewel like and dedicated to Scheebacht. Glass was everywhere, from the wall to the stairs. Bruno Taut used stained glass and colored light, turning the whole space into a giant kaleidoscope, difficult to imagine from black and white pictures.

” reflections of light whose colors began at the base with a dark blue and rose up through moss green and golden yellow to culminate at the top in a luminous pale yellow. ( Richards, Brent et al., New Glass Architecture, Yale University Press 2006, ISBN 0-300-10795-1 )

FIG: Postal savings Bank – Vienna Architect: O. Wagner 1903

This building follows closely the Otto Wagner’s Postal savings Bank in Vienna, 1903, which already exhibited an all glass architecture, including the floor. Wagner’ project is much more minimal, all in shades of translucency ,less demonstrative which may better suit to a bank.

The Werkbund pavilion on the other hand, seemed to have only one goal which was to saturate surfaces and spaces with light and color, which is a quite amazing stand in 1914.

FIG: Friederich strasse High rise / Architect: L. Mies van der Rohe 1919 – Illustration from Moebius

Five years later, it is with a simple drawing that another architect takes a forward-looking stand for glass Architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, declares about his twenty story office building design on Friederich strasse in Berlin : ” because I was using glass, I was anxious to avoid dead surfaces reflecting too much light, so I broke the facade in little plan so that light could fall on them at different angles, likes crystal, like cut crystal” and “I discovered by working with actual glass models that the important thing is the play of reflection and not the effect of light and shadow as in ordinary building…at first glance, the curve outline of the plan seems arbitrary. These curves, however, were determined by 3 factors: sufficient illumination of the interior, the massing of the building as seen from the street and lastly the play of reflection.”  (Henry Plummer, master of light, p 44 A+U, ISBN 4-900211-57-5)

We are far from the building volume of the “Miesian architecture”, rectangular, minimal and pure … in short the Barcelona pavilion. No colors but multiple reflections, here, ” the important thing is [clearly] the play of reflection and not the effect of light and shadow as in ordinary building” Important also because it varies, as a diamond where the cuts multiply the reflections. To be fair with the Barcelona pavilion, let’s not forget the subtle choice of materials, glass, marble, polished concrete, mirror polished stainless steel …. and water which turns the whole space into an interactive field of reflections, one material with the other or of the whole building with the sky.

This Friederich strasse high rise, although unbuilt, has a quality that most of its followers, in the business quarter of all great cities, fail to achieve: a mix of a very light presence in the cityscape, through its transparency and still strong stand through its large reflecting planes which capture light at different time of the day. This quality relies mostly on its geometry, on the fragmentation of its form as much as on the material itself.

FIG: Giant Cristals – Naica Cave  -Mexico/ Golestan Palace Ceiling – Teheran

Contemporary examples of architecture inspired by gems aren’t so many even if some projects appear regularly. The reference to a crystalline structure or a diamond like facetted shape can be embarrassingly literal. But the goal stays the same, showing a dazzling glass gem.

It is quite surprising that even when the reference is totally literal that the building keeps a strong presence, as if the light bouncing off its facets was abstracting the overall shape making it less literal

FIG: Kinémax 1- Futuroscop Potiers France Architect: D. Laming 1987 – Citroën showroom,Champs-Élysées Paris Architect: E. Gautrand 2004 – Galeria Dong Chang Shanghai Architect: W. Alsop 2010

The kinemax of the Futuroscope park in Poitier, designed by Denis Laming is a good example of such presence despite its kitschiness or the Citroen showroom designed by M. Gautrand on the Champs-Élysées with a more elaborate work on the form, which integrates the famous chevron of the Citroen logo.

These projects with a fragmented surface, are harder to detail keeping elegant support and long lasting waterproofing system. A prefabrication approached of larger elements is certainly the best approach to insure a better realization which was the case for both the Citroen project and the Galleria in Shanghai from Alsop.

FIG: Prada Store Ginza Tokyo Architects: Herzog – De Meuron 2003

The last example is the Prada store in Ginza Tokyo by Herzog and De Meuron. The diamond shape appears at the scale of the whole building with large flat surfaces Within the surface, some elements of this unitized system have cushion like double curved glass panes, which create some local disruptions on the façade surface and its reflections.

The facade principle developed for this building is clever. On one hand, a relatively standard curtain wall system (one of the early use of a toggle) on the overhand some formed insulated glass. The form of the glass is achieved without paying the toll on the glass system that form usually implies. The actual edge of the diamond shape IGU stays flat, as a standard unitized system, only the central portion is form. It fact, the flat edges act as a frame which it is used to form the glass.

The glass is held on its edges, put into an oven. Heat plus gravity make it sags into this cushion shape but within controlled dimension and edges which makes the insulated unit almost standard and easy to integrate into the façade system.

FIG: Shard Tower London Architects: R. Piano RPBW 2014 – Triangle Tower Paris  Architects: Herzog – De Meuron – Great Pyramid of Giza Egypt

As the gem glitters, all round, building owner likes that there building attracts the views, it is like being at a prom in the urban landscape, the art of being a tower is to be tall and shiny. Two towers, one in London, just completed by R. Piano, the Shard and one in Paris soon to come, by Herzog and De Meuron, the Triangle, look for this similar glimmerish aim. The latter one, has a more tectonic approach with a surface of discretization which reminds the great Egyptian pyramid stone stacking, although made out of glass.

This tectonic approach is closer to a texture at the scale of the building. The facets are much smaller, enhancing the interaction with light, giving it a much crisper effect and the capacity to be reactive to light by multiplying the orientations of the facets.

FIG: Palazzo dei Diamanti Ferrara Italy Architect: Biagio Rosseti 1503

The two following projects could be seen as late cousin from the famous Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara 1503. Even if this is quite a stretch, I find the bugnato, the diamond shape marble elements which cover the exterior wall and give its identity to the building, not conceptually very far from the prefabricated glass unit which cover the Oxford Street facade by Future Systems or the Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall façade by Henning Larsen Architects and Olafur Eliasson and Jing Mian Xin Cheng building in Beijing by Spark Architects.

FIG: Harpa  Reyjkavik Concert Hall, Iceland: Olafur Eliasson/Henning Larsen 2011
FIG: Oxford Steet Building London: Future System 2010/ Office Building Seoul Architect: Barkow Leibinger 2010/ Jing Mian Xin Cheng building  Beijing: Spark 2015
FIG: Galeo, Paris : C. de Portzamparc 2009/ Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi: Asymptote

The tectonic is different, but still within the mineral reference, marble is replaced by glass, the overall result belong to the same family of projects which are characterize by the sharpness of its angles, like cut out and a quasi-kaleidoscopic effect through multi-reflection

Simpler shapes can create this crisp “texturisation” of an overall more complex form, using flat planes which conform to the surface though a discretization principle combined with a shingle assembly or a folding principle.

For the shingle assembly two projects are rather representative. The first one is the real estate company Headquarter Galeo in Paris which has been designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc and the second is the Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi by Asymptote architects.

In both cases, it is quite remarkable to notice how light is gradually changing on each facets, very subtle shades of white revealing the actual underlying surface. Through the shingle each individual pane acts as pixel which plays its partition in the ever-changing light level.

Sometimes I wonder if instead of being all of the same color, each of these panes where telling a story which has less do with the geometry of the building?

FIG: ShiLiuPu dock glass roof Shanghai Architects: Xian Dai Architectural design 2010

This is what happens in a way with the folding principle. The fold is also used as a discretization principle. It also brings a third local dimension in a more affirmative way than the shingle. As for the diamond shape of the Pallazo di Diamenti, the folded plans give two local opposite orientations which both reveal through the reflection of two light environments. The surface acquires a crisp appearance, which combined the subtle gradual variation of the smooth shape with the strong opposition of light reflection of opposite sets of folded plans.

This is the case for the project designed by Xian Dai Architectural design for th ShilLiuPu dock, where RFR Shanghai engineers proposed an optimization of a structure which was fully triangulated, similar to the Fiera roof in Milan. The idea was to get rid of half of the panels by folding the glass and greatly simplify the nods connections.

FIG: Miss Reiko Ginza Tokyo Architect: S. Yoh – KfW bank Frankfurt Architects: Sauerbruch Hutton

In Shoe Yoh, Miss Reiko building in Ginza Tokyo the folds are made all out glass where Sauerbruch Hutton architect for the KFW bank in Frankfurt, used an asymmetric set of plans, using the smaller ones to introduce either a random field or a set of gradually changing colored panels. The building changes of aspect as the viewer moves around it.

During centuries, glass has been praised for its transparency, and mostly for the light it helps to bring within the buildings. As its uses, has spread to cover large surfaces of the buildings if not all, its reflective properties take as much importance as its transparency , particularly when one consider the presence of the building in the city. It is particularly true with towers.

Designing with reflection as well as  with transparency is a paradigm that could be pushed forward without falling back again in the reference to the diamond or any others pseudo precious gems….

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