Glass in Architecture

(As published in OX Homes, Summer 2019 Issue)

Glass, has for millennia been seen to be a luxury item and one that epitomises the idea of high technology. A natural form of volcanic glass known as obsidian was first used by humans as far back as the stone age. Like modern glass, it is brittle and fractures with very sharp edges, ideal for making tools for cutting and piercing. It was valuable, and extensively traded. Around 2500BC, manufactured glass beads appeared around Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia.

In the 17 th C clear crown glass was first produced in London, hand blown and then spun like a plate to create a disc with a lumpy centre and thin, flat edges. The smooth bits around the perimeter were cut into small triangles and made into leaded windows to go on show, and the lens like centres were used where appearance was less important.

Machine rolled and cast glass prevailed in the 19 th C, adorning high tech monuments such as the Crystal Palace and modernist domestic icons by Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier in the early 1900’s. It wasn’t however until as recently as 1959 that Alastair Pilkington invented a commercially viable method to create perfectly flat float glass by pouring hot, liquid glass onto a tank of molten tin and letting gravity do the rest.

Today, glass comes with various additives and coatings to meet the needs of a range of applications for all climates. Its magical properties continue to inspire architects and designers with all its reflections, refractions, transparency and ability to provide shelter.

We were recently privileged to design a large all glass enclosure over a courtyard in a former country house in Oxfordshire (Now the home of Peking University's HSBC Business School, PHBS-UK). We pushed the structural properties of the material as far as possible and used pane sizes at the outer limits of what can actually be manufactured. We deployed glass beams,glass columns and massive glass roof panels, all completely frameless.

The aim was to create an atrium with an almost invisible enclosure so as not to detract from the beautifully crafted Edwardian building we were working with. Glass beams delicately slot into stone walls and the atrium is flooded with light. The technology behind the construction is extreme, but largely invisible, thereby enhancing the magic of this aspirational material.

Another example of how glass can refract and reflect to create an other worldly experience is shown in the entrance hall of a contemporary house completed a few years back in Woodstock. Looking up the void, reflections in the glass balustrade replicate the single overhead roof light creating an almost abstract composition whilst subtle shifts in the angles create a sort of hall of mirrors effect. In the photo the composition is static, but as you move around the space it becomes even more dramatic.

The ongoing trend for more and more glass in peoples’ homes is no surprise. The crystalline, mesmerising nature of the material can do nothing but inspire. As with everything, technology advances at an incredible rate, so if this is possible now, imagine the future.

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architecture + interiors