Chapter One

Editor’s note: Christopher Ward is the latest addition to the Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine’s blogger line-up. He is an architect with CWA Architects in Pasadena, Calif., and will share architectural insights about working with glass in his blog.

Glass. Is there a more useful and diverse a material? I say no. Glass permeates almost every facet of our lives. Shortly after we are born we are being stared at through glass in the hospital nursery. For me, I am sure the stained glass of the gothic church where I was baptized made a strong impression. That was no doubt my first journey out of the home, and to such a vibrant surrounding, made more so by those colorful glass portals.

A 6-year old boy makes a trip to the bakery with his grandmother, all the great pastries and cakes behind that magical glass enclosure. Later a 10-year old boy visiting an Italian delicatessen staring at the salami, bologna, mortadella and provolone, all behind the glass front of a refrigerated display case. Without glass we might all starve! Or at the very least have to guess what our food tastes like half the time.

I will look at new as well as old buildings and how they made the most of glass in the design and effect. We will touch on some technical aspects, but my focus will be on how people are affected by glass, in fenestration, in enclosure, and any other areas that glass makes a difference in architecture.

To emphasize the diverse nature of this versatile material, let’s look at some distinct buildings that use glass to the best effect, and dare I say, without glass these structures cannot exist. In comparison, the Apple Computer Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, and Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius at the University of Seattle. In each of these structures, glass plays a pivotal role in both defining the space and giving visitors the impression of importance and reverence.

At the Apple Store, more structure than fenestration, the glass box envelope describes the importance of the space we enter, there is nothing like this structure and box anywhere. It simply covers a hole in the ground if you will. Nowhere in the world is a hole in the ground more inviting. Without the elegant glass box, we have an entry to a subway station or an underground mall neither the most elegant of places. The remarkable nature of the material to be structural, it holds itself up! I know Manhattan is a seismic zone 4 so the engineers (Eckerlsey O’Callaghan) really did their homework. One piece of steel bracing and this structure is way less elegant. Strangely Travel and Leisure magazine gives this building an “Honorable Mention” in retail space awards. Nice of them; I would think this would deserve “Best Outstanding Retail Ever”… I digress.

Ronchamp is all about focused fenestration, made possible by glass punctuating the body of the building. I say body, because skin is too thin a word for this structure. The mass is strong and Corb’s attention to focusing the sunlight, and emphasizing the mass of the church, makes light a sculptural element. The clear and stained glass, while secondary to the sculptural form, make the space vibrant; setting the glass at alternating depths is radical. The stained glass is modern and colorful, and directs color, not imagery. Religion for architects and believers alike.

Finally, Holl’s St. Ignatius Chapel is a tribute to Ronchamp, taking the idea of focused light, by direct and indirect sculptural fenestration and making true believers of us all. What Corb started Holl finished, all by using glass in sculptural formed punctuation. More literal than Ronchamp, the fenestration frames an altar and brings light around walls into the main room and the smaller chapel inside. There is light emanating from the distance it comes to us from somewhere we are not sure where but we know it is there. Isn’t that just the nature of faith as Stephen Holl has showed us.

So that is chapter 1 of this journey. See you next time.