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Glass: Transparent, Translucent, and Ironic

October 15, 2007

by Joann Gonchar, AIA

If there were a prize for the project most often mentioned during the conference “Engineered Transparency: Glass in Architecture and Structural Engineering,” it would go to the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, designed by Tokyo-based SANAA. The first to present the building was SANAA principal, Kazuyo Sejima, in her keynote address on September 26 for the two-day event at Columbia University, in New York City.

Several of the subsequent more than 30 speakers, including architects, engineers, manufacturers, and academics, cited the 76,000-square–foot, one-story building, which houses the museum’s collection of glass art, for its minimal structure, transparency, and seeming simplicity. For example, New York City-based Guy Nordenson, the Toledo project’s structural engineer, discussed the pavilion as a manifestation of “infrathin,” a term coined by Marcel Duchamp, but used by Nordenson to describe structure that seems to disappear. The Toledo project’s immateriality is so pronounced that Nordenson thought the floor plan was a bubble diagram when first presented with it at SANAA’s offices. So attenuated are the building’s steel columns, he said, that the joints between 8-foot-wide pieces of glass could just as easily be read as structure.

The process for designing the diaphanous container was not without compromise. Matthias Schuler, of Stuttgart-based environmental consultancy Transsolar, revealed that it took nearly a year to convince Sejima of the need for curtains to protect the art from ultraviolet light. “That’s the way of collaboration,” said Schuler. “You don’t say ‘it won’t work’ and walk out the door.”

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Transparency was not the only property of glass explored during the conference, which was sponsored by Oldcastle Glass and organized by Columbia’s schools of architecture and engineering, along with the Institute of Building Construction at the Technische Universitat of Dresden. Steven Holl presented his expansion of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where he exploited the translucency of glass in the story-tall light monitors that emerge from the turf covering the underground galleries. And among the many projects discussed by glass artist James Carpenter was the recently completed 7 World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. According to Carpenter, who worked with building’s architect, SOM, on the facade, the tower’s reflective coating “allows it to connect or merge with the sky.”

The deep examination of a single material revealed some ironies. For example, the coatings typically used to enhance the energy performance of glazing make glass more difficult to recycle, according to Graham Dodd, a mechanical and facade engineer in the London office of Arup. The industry needs “nanostructure” coatings that would not require removal from glass before recycling, Dodd said. Such frits and coatings “are often at odds with the goal of pure transparency,” pointed out Robert Heintges, a New York City-based curtain-wall consultant. “Each manipulation to enhance energy efficiency renders glass less like glass.”

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