A building “envelop” is, before all, an interface between inside and outside. It acts as a protection from the natural elements. Usually, the more it protects, the less it lets your senses perceive the outside, except for the view with the windows.
Richard Sennett rightfully notices that transparency through a glass envelop tends to undermine others senses, partially or completely cutting them off, smell, sound, perception of an air flow, humidity or temperature onto the skin.
Glass defines a sensory boundary leaving the user in the building almost sensory deprived apart from the view. With the current energy concerns, introducing triple glazing, very low U value, this boundary is even more sensory proof, creating a state of suspension from the outside reality which has become so common that it is considered as normal. We forget easily that it has not always been the case. It is actually quite recent (and not in all cultures) that large glazed surfaces are a key part of the feeling of comfort because it brings large amount of light and view.
According to Sennett, glass does even more, it is a “material, which lets [us] see everything inaccessible to desire.”( Richard Sennett: Plate Glass, in: Raritan, Vol 6, No. 4, Spring 1987, p.1) One can look through but cannot touch, which means, one can desire, but not possess.
Thus, the view through the shop window reduces street life to merely viewing. It allows vision but prohibits touch and sound, which intensify the desire of consumers and make commodities “look better than they really are.” (Richard Sennett: The Conscience of the Eye, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, p. 109)
But if we come back to the glazed envelop, the inherent contradiction, transparency and partial sensory perceptions, described by Sennett, is amazingly exposed in Robert Irwin installation, “1° 2° 3° 4°,” 1997 in San Diego museum of Contemporary Art. By cutting some small apertures into 3 existing windows, Irwin brakes the barrier, making the envelope useless, he brings back to the viewer everything that was left out by glazed envelop.
These 3 windows are also creating almost a 180 ° panorama. If the column in the center could have been removed, I would bet that they would have been, leaving an extra wide window, entirely transparent, opening up a wide view of the horizon, another very strong modern paradigm, the horizontal window.
This dominance of the view in architecture isn’t new, neither exclusive. It is dominant along with the predominance given to the “image” in our contemporary culture.
In architecture, design or art, what is not seeable, meaning representable by an image doesn’t communicate therefore doesn’t sale (which is often another way to say “exist”.) Why bother about all others senses, touch, smell or sound? They cannot be communicated through an image, particularly in an architectural competition submission, how to valorize them in front a jury or the public before the project is built?
And even when a real work has been done, appealing to all senses, these perceptions are often very subtle, so difficult to grasp, that they are not recognized and value by most users, not to mentioned that they are very difficult to “control”, which makes it barely worth the fight.
View comes first, as much as possible, with larger and larger window, to allow more view, more transparency. This aim for maximum transparency is strong since the end of the XIX s. The trend of use of more glass has not really changed since then. For the architects, the mantra is still “bigger, wider, clearer, no joint” and for the engineers, “everything out of glass”… and recently “ without mechanical fixing”
Extra wide, all in glass window, are praised particularly in science fiction movies. As anticipation movies, they often reveal trends, fears, questionings, pushing them to the limits as an aspiration for a better future or a representation of a possible distopy. SF reality is not always much different than the present, with just a change of scale. In term of façade, just more glass do it.
Apple has recognized the commercial and image benefit of the Science fiction mythologies. Just by scaling up the glass size for its store window, introducing features all in glass, floor, stairs, … it shows its trust and control of high technology, even in building.
Apple will soon unveil its new headquarter in Cupertino, with some humonguous glass panels pursuing this trend of maximizing the size of glass unit as a token of its vision of a positive technological future. But one should wonder why is a big clear window considered as so futurist ?
May be because since the gothic architecture glass associated with light has been part of each major architectural evolution, often just by using more of it
These all-glazed envelopes are not only wide but they are supposed to keep their protective functions as envelops. glass participates to the notion of “comfort” as a softening power, which levels everything too intense. It does it with more and more efficiency, with more and more control, even for light.
Actually, the dynamic controlled of light and temperature levels is the next big trend which SF architecture has been using for a long time. (Blade runner, Sunshine, the Island.) In Sunshine, one can change the opacity of the window and watch the sun in all safety and comfort, unless ….
Associating glass with comfort can seem a bit odd for a material known to be brittle, the wider the surface the stranger it gets, even more when the glass is fully structural. …Extremely strong in compression, glass is also prone to instant breakage with no previous warning, its brittleness combined with its transparent nature, always introduce a doubt about it trustworthiness. Is it gonna brake? This feeling is not comfortable except if you have built up a trust in the technology.
Playing on old fears, showing that you master them, is not only good to build trust in return, it also shows one’s power to make these projects possible.
But brittleness is not the only default of glass, it is also tagged as hard, cold, slippery and easy to get dirty …which is quite true and some important aspects to consider when designing with it. Then how can such a material still participate to the notion of comfort that the envelop is suppose to bring to a building?
Essentially glass has a paradoxical nature, it is ambivalent, or ambiguous, but unique. It is never a one liner, in fact even less and on the contrary of the some of its most common and current uses.
Is there something beyond plain transparency in a wide format with a brittle material? Yes ! and may be it is time to change this formula. Size matters, but not so much.
Decorative glass has a long tradition and glass can of course bring much more than aesthetical visual pleasure, appeal to others senses through form, texture, and color.