Glass: Three Invisible Walls
This piece was my contribution to “Blue Skies” a lecture evening about new glass technology at the RIBA with Andew Moor and Jose Gallego a research scientist at Pilkington. Three Invisble Walls looks at working with glass at different stages in my career. It was also published in The Art and Architecture Journal and in the book “Reflections on Light””
“The First Wall ”
The glass façade or “invisible wall” has been used in buildings more and more as an open expression of minimalism in architecture and many examples hark back to Mies van de Rohe’s simple planes. A glass envelope may read as transparent but the reflective or mirror like quality may also be explored to make glass a crystalline solid. One example of glass architecture made to express positive form is Milton Gate by Denys Lasdun Peter Softley and Associates.
I have a personal connection with the project, as I was an architectural assistant on the design team back in the early eighties. Lasdun has been honoured with the title of “The Concrete King”, by many an architecture student, so I was surprised and fascinated to be working on a glass structure. Now Milton Gates (an office development) stands behind Moorgate station and a recent visit reminded me of discussions in the office during the design development process.
In conversation about the building Lasdun was less concerned about the overall form of the envelope as he was preoccupied with the detail of the colours of the glass support structure, the colour, degree of transparency, and reflection properties of the glass. A green tint was chosen with green and blue powder coatings on the inner skin frame. A full size mock up was made of the cladding but the purpose of exploring such detail was to ensure that “shimmer” and “ripple” were there in the fully glazed curtain wall section.
The green tint of the glass is noticeable between the blacks, browns and Barbican grey of adjacent buildings although the surrounding sites were not fully developed when Lasdun began the project and selected his palette. More intriguing than the colour contrast of the bright green glass in the dull surroundings is the reflective quality of the glass skin. It mirrors the forms and materials of its neighbours at curious angles in the articulated facade.
Lasdun wanted to pay homage to Charles Rennie MacIntosh by choosing the form of a MacIntosh castle. Within the curtain of external wall glazing he made play of the elements of a tower, turrets and high bay windows. The reflective quality of the external form with its angles and facets gives the building a presence like a quartz gem in a plain rock formation.
Inside there is an atrium with a central tower and the area is roofed over with a space frame and clear glazing above. This is very much a softer internal, although daylit, and here glass provides none of the drama of the external walls. Inside light from the roof falls on to warm granite and planting. The corner turrets and articulated facade seem even craggier by comparison with the interior.
I chose this project to show a glass building as a crystalline form deep in “The City” where glass is not just a window but the whole wall and helps express form not just as an envelope but as a shimmering reflector of all the surrounding area.
It is also interesting to see how a material with all the ethereal qualities of transparency is so strong when handled by one of the original “Brutalists”: Denys Lasdun.
The Blue Glass Wall at Southwark Station
“The Second Wall”
This glass wall is under ground: in fact it is part of Southwark Jubilee Line Extension Underground Station. I worked as lighting consultant to MacCormac Jamieson Prichard and part of the brief from the architects was to simulate the varying daylight conditions so that we could model the fall off of light from the roof light at the top of the 9m high wall.
It was at UCL in the artificial sky chamber where I first met the glass artist Alex Beleschenko with the team from MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. Alex had slavishly modelled his design at 1:50 scale building up blue triangles into the geometry of the conical ellipse (engineered by Anthony Hunt structural engineers). The pattern of the silk screen-printed triangles is darker nearer the floor. At the top near the skylight the glass was much lighter in colour with less blue patterning so that the whole piece is in harmony with the natural gradient of the fall off of daylight.
One concern of the whole team was to test the appearance and reflectance of floor and tunnel wall finishes but the main interest was in simulating the light through the glass wall. At high level a design for interior baffles was also modelled in different materials so they could be seen in context. Glass, metal and solids were all made at scale and tried in situ but in the final installation the baffles became redundant.
Physical modelling allowed the team to understand how the admission of daylight would enhance the finishing of the glass wall and how the space worked as a whole. There were also attempts made using fibre optics to model luminaires in miniature to show how electric lighting of the intermediate concourse could be handled.
By careful positioning of an SLR camera with a wide angle lens it was possible to photograph the model of the glass wall : a striking side view seen by a passenger, entering the intermediate concourse, as if they had come from the ticket hall above. Another impressive model photograph is the view of the bottom of the wall at floor level as it is first seen from the escalators which take passengers up from platform level to the daylit intermediate concourse.
I was invited to attend site and saw the installation of the electrical equipment which was impressive. My overwhelming experience was to confront the glass wall and to see how similar the model conditions had been and that we had successfully anticipated the feel and mood of this underground daylit space. The model and site photographs show how well the model study worked and make a strong case for making an architectural model to test both daylight and electric lighting effects for any large scale glazed space.
“The Third Wall”
This article concludes with a glass wall which has a conventional function as a window or viewing zone and is selected because it frames my own favourite view : Porthmeor beach in St.Ives and is in the recently completed Tate Gallery. This glass wall often takes second place in reports of the gallery to the Patrick Heron coloured glass window, but for me the changing scene of the seascape and beach are better than any fixed image however dramatic.
For years I have, like many others, been a weekend painter at the St.Ives School of Painting, in the Porthmeor Studios, so remember early dreams of a structure on the site of an old disused gasometer near Barnoon Cemetery and fund raising plans.(The studios have also been refurbished since this piece was first published)
This window is in the sculpture gallery and follows the curve of the external wall , and makes reference to the previous forms on the site. The visitor entering the lower level ticket office can glimpse the open semi -circular space above with tempting forms and showcases inside.<
In the sculpture gallery there are seats on a wide sill so the visitors are encouraged to rest and reflect on the exhibition but also to enjoy the curved forms of the architecture and the broader context of this fabulous seaside site. Part of the Evans and Shalev design is introvert but this circular gallery is outward looking. The rooftop eating space also uses windows to frame views of the sea and landscape.
This article has been a rove over favourite projects which have use glass in dramatic but different ways. The wall versus window is an interesting idea, as we must not always assume that glass is to provide a view. Glass can be coloured and solid but I have finished with a conventional example of contemporary fenestration to show that the invisible and the very visible installations still sit comfortably together in discussions about glass art.
“Digital Art from images taken at Portmeor Studios St Ives: Transparent and Canvas pieces with views of Porthmeor beach” Permission for photography from the resident artists during open studios and from the Borlase Smart Trust.
© Jane Gosney FSLL www.janegosney.co.uk edited September 2012
Also by Jane Gosney: Painting with Light
Jane Gosney was born in Sheffield in 1961. She studied architecture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London in the early 1980’s She followed this by being the first Bartlett architecture graduate to go on to take the MSc in Light and Lighting. It was the combination of these two learning experiences that was to set the scene for her career in lighting.
Jane first worked as a lighting specialist with YRM then as an independent designer with a strong emphasis on daylighting. In 1996 she was appointed by WSP to set up an in-house lighting practice within a multi-disciplinary engineering group. Her design work spans both daylighting and electric lighting for a wide range of building types. She also writes about lighting for Architecture Today, Light and The Art and Architecture Journal. Jane was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts in 2002
In parallel with her professional career Jane has developed a fascination for the interaction of light, landscape and sculpture. This is demonstrated in her affection for St Ives and in particular the works of the late Dame Barbara Hepworth who lived and worked there. This interest has manifested itself in her writings and photographic work which form this book. The book is a portrait of her work so far.