From the first archeological traces in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt in 3500 BC, with the production of beads, dishware and small objects to the recent forays into additive fabrication, Glass has never ceased to be a material of its time: a key material during most of the architectural revolutions, from the defensive window of the middle age castles or roman churches, the larger openings with stained glass of the gothic architecture, the green houses and other iron and glass palaces of the industrial revolution, to the cult of light and transparency of Modern architecture.
Glass is made by expert makers, who were and are still at the forefront of the knowledge in the science of their time. Such as the alchemists, jealous of their knowhow, the art of making glass was kept secret, limited to few people and transmitted carefully from one generation to another.
This tradition of secrecy is still very present within the glass industry, turning it into a closed community.
The production of glass has become a huge industry. The factory to produce float glass represents a massive investment which needs to be compensated by sailing massive amount of products, standardized as much as possible to maximize return. This industry is controlled by a few very large producers on each continent (Nippon Electric, Corning, Saint Gobain) which orient, lobby, protect their market shares geographically and define the kind of products which are available and more importantly, compatible with the returns on investment.
This huge industry is heavy and not really flexible, interested in innovations that increase the mass of glass sold or with high margins. Thousands of patents are archived, left untouched, (and therefore secret) because they have been considered unworthy by the market “analysis”.
If Glass is now produced quite cheap, in very large quantities. In the building industry for instance, the more elaborate products require more investment in tools and specific know how at each stage. If raw glass with typical assembly can easily be automatized and become very cheap, as soon as some transformations are done, prices rise up quickly.
And this is where rarity comes back into play: how many glass factories can laminate a 15m sheet of glass? How many very good glass benders, is there worldwide? 3 to 5 may be less.
If Glass is no longer as rare as in ancient time, some of its treatment or transformations stay difficult, and expansive. Transformation of raw glass into laminated, tempered, insulated glass unit, with offline specific coating or even bended or thermoformed glass… is very difficult to keep profitable when including the labor, investment cost and all the risks attached to doing one in a kind product.
Breakage, defaults are unavoidable at the start of a production process. It is fine if the project requires many panels because the series will absorb the cost, but just unbearable when it needs only one pieces, unless it was charges for the cost of 3 or more at the start. Like anywhere else the economic viability comes from the sale of large number of the same products. Everything push toward replication, even for a very specialized transformer,
This standardization is in contradiction with the notion of rarity and very often with the notion of preciosity. So if “glass” as a material is nowadays not as rare and highly valued as it used to be, unless it receives some high end treatment or transformations, it has kept its aura of preciosity which craftsmen, designer and architects has not ceased to call for at least symbolically in their projects.
If the alchemist aimed to turn copper into gold, why not turn glass into diamond. The proximity of glass with diamond is obvious, why not imagining to be able to get rid of all impurities, bubbles, make it very hard, clear, and profoundly transparent.
Generations of glass maker improved their formulas, replacing calcium content by lead or lead oxide, for lead glass and crystal glass, or adding flint and many other additives for crown glass …to obtain a clearer, purer material for optics, with more malleability to make precious objects.
Even if its name suggests the contrary and entertains the confusion, Crystal glass is still a glass, an amorphous material which it doesn’t have a crystalline structure such as diamond. Its appearance is very similar but it is malleable, opening the possibility to create amazing forms and objects which would be unconceivable out of diamond.
Glass as a material has this inherent preciosity transcended by the amazing work of the glass blowers. They capitalize on this aura and one could consider it as a property as much as its reflectivity or its transparence. Murano artists such as Lino Tagliapietra, or in the US, Steuben Glass , Christopher Reiss, in France Lalique, or established companies such as Baccarat, Tyffany, Swarovsky, Lasvit, keep on pushing a tradition of glass which has created a very wide and rich body of work.
Sometimes too rich, often kitsch, it would be a mistake to disregard this work; not only because it perpetuates a tradition of craftsmen, with ancient practices, knowhow and tricks but also because a lot of innovation occurs, showing new insights and use of the material and its combination with light, colors, forms, textures…
This foray into arts and craft is also to remind that transforming glass, highlighting its specificities, is what makes it a great material, even if it goes against the industry main drives. Transformation is the key, who cares about a perfectly flat or transparent piece of glass ?
Transformations of glass are limited in size if made by artscraft makers or limited in types if made by the industry which watch carefully on its return and overprice the small productions. But “tools” are evolving fast at each steps of the production
For conception, there are all tools that architects and designers already used to digitally create new form, buildings …ect mostly cad, but also parametric design of form and textures which could very well be applied to glass. We start to see some elaborate glass composition, but it stays quite rare, compared to the potential particularly when considering rich field of optical effects that are inherent with glass.
For the fabrication side, we might witness a similar switch as the one which occurs by the replacement of the mainframe computing by personal computing. With the pace of robotization and automatization occurring in others industry, I am eager to see 5 axes robots in small producer factories, not only to ease, make safer the manipulation of glass, but also to carve specific mold to do thermoform glass for instances, or to print coating (as we already see) or engrave with laser in large size, or 3D print some incrustations onto a glass pane.
The rise of these tools and their availability will transform the industry as it has almost swept stone carving by hand.
One of the great challenge to come will certainly to find how to keep what this tradition and empiric knowledge is bringing and start using the tools of the numeric revolution and a wider use of robotic and automation system during the production and conception, not only for artisan glass producer of arts and craft product but also of architectural glass.