Curved gems

In a previous post “crystalline architecture”, we considered the symbolic of the gem in the use of glass in architecture and the raised attraction of the reflective properties of glass as a key part of the design at least as much as its transparency.

If the sharp aspect of the facetted geometry is coherent with the symbolic of the gem, is it really pertinent for a material which is fundamentally a liquid in a solid state? Fluid shapes seem to be more natural to the fundamental nature of glass than these assemblies of plans which mimic the appearance of a gem. Actually, these facetted buildings, with many angles are often the result of a discretization, a simplification of a curved surface, in order to use flat plans, which are cheaper.

FIG: Glass Skyscraper Berlin Architect: L Mies Van der Rohe 1921 – TMA Glass Museum Toledo Usa Architects: Sanaa: K. Sejima R. Nishizawa

In 1921, Mies van der Rohe proposes yet another office building design made out of glass, the Glass Skyscraper in Berlin. Mies declare”I tried to work with small area of glass and adjust my strips of glass to the light and then pushed them into the plastine planes of the floor, that gave me the curve” (Henry Plummer, Master of light, p 44 Mies Van der Rohe A+U, ISBN 4-900211-57-5)

The curved plans replace the facets turning the building into a giant fluid reflector.  If  playing with reflection and transparency is a quite unavoidable theme of composition for glass facades, very few projects have brought such an atemporal use of glass, such a stand among the urban landscape of its time and even now . Is it necessary to develop about the influence of this “fluid, shimmering veil” on the following generation of architects ? Actually, this field of play has still a wide array of invention.

FIG: TMA Glass Museum Toledo Usa Architects: Sanaa: K. Sejima R. Nishizawa – O. Wells Lady from Shanghai

Two of them are Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa from Sanaa. Is there a direct influence between the Berlin Skyscraper and the museum of Glass in Toledo ? Difficult to tell but the comparison between the plans of the two buildings is a first hint, the reference to the one story building architecture such as a famous pavilion or a few residential houses designed by the master might be the second hint. But this post does not aim to debate about the influence of one architect on another (who cares!)  but more to try to understand what are the novelties brought to the use of glass.

The images above showing an overlay of these curved glass walls when one is looking through the building. The transparency is blurred, due to the superimposed layer of of curved transparent glass wall which slightly distorted their reflections. Actually it is not really a blur, since the view going through the glass stays sharp, although disturbed by the distortions. It is easy to imagine the movement of the visitors in these multiples reflections, as the actors in the mirror field of the Lady from Shanghai of Orson Wells

This building, with a very strict and minimalist concept has created a sensory visual fest, an actual giant optical system which questions the perception of building between reality and virtuality.

FIG: Johnson Wax headquarter Architect: F. Lloyd Wright 1950

Among this collection of seminal design using glass in a revolutionary way, it is impossible not to mention, Frank Lloyd Wright Johnson Wax building in Racine Wisconsin USA. Qualified by Henry Plummer, as a “another sparkling gem[…] the greatest twentieth-century work of crystalline architecture” (Henry Plummer, Master of light, p 46 A+U, ISBN 4-900211-57-5)  Wright uses Pyrex glass tubes from Corning Glass.

In “Corning and the craft of innovation”, Margaret bw Graham and Alec T Shuldiner quote a gaffer who worked on the production of the tubes “ tubing has literally been wound around and around the tower from top to bottom, and made completely weather proof by the research and engineering skill of corning” This book described Corning development since the end of the XIX century, a company, which has found ways to keep a constant focus on research and innovation ranging from the production of dishware (the Pirex), TV tube, to rocket heads made out of glass, glass fibers, ultra-fin Gorilla glass used on many smart phones, not forgetting all the spin off companies which have developed products like the Foamglass insulation or the silicon from Dow-corning.

“Wright in particular was often held up as a champion of the industry who preached a “gospel of light [with] glass as its apostle”

This project would not have been possible without the resource of Corning, not only to produce the tubes but also to bend them, to waterproof them with the newly developed silicon, to seal them with “the new electroseal process, so effective in vacuum sealing television bulbs […] used in conjunction with glass couplers designed by Corning’s product engineering group” 

“Dazzling wall of gauzy light” p 48

I have not visited this project, but it isn’t difficult to imagine through the few images gathered, the totally atypical lighting, and how the veil of glass tubes transcends the light passing through it and bouncing out of it, not to mention the reflection of the curved surfaces.

Restoring the SC Johnson Research Tower

The last example is the Vuitton store designed by Jun Aoki with Eric Carlson and Aurelio Clementi in Roppongi Tokyo. This project is an example among many, of the care that this company put in the architecture of its store. It was one the first to put such emphasis on the design of the façade, setting a trend rapidly followed by others luxury trademarks. The store of Roppongi Hill exemplifies the emphasis put on the design of the façade.

FIG: Vuitton store Roppongi Tokyo Architects: J. Aoki E. Carlson A. Clementi 2009

The recipe is simple and very efficient for the common store: a simple play with a moiré pattern of the famous checker board pattern. The moiré is produced by an autoreflection, using a back mirror and a serigraphic pattern on the outer glass pattern. For the Roponggi project, the checker board is only suggested mostky by the use of a grid of  tubes, set normal to the plan of an otherwise very minimal façade.

The presence of theses thousands of tubes act as many reflectors, it suggests the multi-reflection of a gems without being too litteral. May be the best aspect of this glimmer is its capacity to react to the environment, and to be versatile and ever alive.

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