Through the Glass Darkly …

RedBuildingEver wonder what goes on in all those dark glass towers … what menacing big brother is concocting ways of invading our privacy, spying on us or taking over the world? Glass boxes have been around for almost a century now, and the mystery of what lies behind remains constant. Some are less mysterious than others; compare the Hallidie Building in San Francisco or the Boley Building in Kansas City to the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago and the Seagram’s Building in Manhattan. The clear glass Hallidie and Boley invite us in to see what is going on.

We can imagine in the early twentieth century looking in on office workers doing their daily duties. On stage as it were. Maybe that was the point, keeping workers honest by allowing people on the street to see what you were doing. You never knew if the boss was sitting in a coffee shop across the street watching how you typed that memo, or filled out that order form.

Dark towers are menacing, what happens behind those tall tinted glass monoliths is the stuff of fiction … or maybe not. We see Marlon Brando in The Formula coveting the formula for synthetic gasoline, looking out of his office, high in a glass tower, overlooking a massive congested freeway system.

Over the evolution of the curtainwall we see different colors emoting different vibes for each building. Picture the Blue Whale in Los Angeles, completed in 1975 and designed by Cesar Pelli.  The building was completely out of scale with its surrounding and sat there like a beached whale until the last decade when it was finally joined by its partner Center Green and Tower Red.  Color notwithstanding, it’s still a series of buildings akin to the emperor’s new clothes, out of scale, uninviting and nonetheless hostile reinforced by signs all over “To the Trade Only.”

In contrast to this, Lever House, the glass box of all glass boxes, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of SOM in the 1950’s, is an inviting jewel of colored glass. The renovation, completed by SOM in the last decade brings us the original glass and stainless steel façade, somewhat see through, inviting us to look in where we can.

Nouvell’s residential building in Chelsea, Manhattan, gives us glimpses of clear glass into the individual residences. It humanizes the structure, an urban living room, where real people live and breathe. Clear glass lets us be otherwise connected.

Colored and dark glass is neither good nor bad, evil and menacing or redemptive—it simply either evokes welcome or not, depending on the scale and context with which it is used. Stained glass is colored glass no matter the context …