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Clare Melhuish reviews Andrew Whalley and the art of glass construction

The title of Andrew Whalley's lecture, 'Transparency', promised a thrilling foray into the realms of architectural-philosophical discourse.

But it was more of a student briefing session on the history of glass construction in architecture, culminating in a reasonably detailed look at the technical design of the Eden Centre, for which Whalley has been the partner in charge at Grimshaw for a number of years.

Whalley is clearly a devotee of glass in architecture - and he probably would not have been at Grimshaw as long as he has if he was not. Practices such as theirs have turned the use of glass and steel construction into common currency - it has virtually become de rigueur for institutional clients, whether in the fields of business, governance or the arts. The interesting question is why?

It requires a lot of cleaning, and there is always the danger of large panels cracking - as at Waterloo.

But even more importantly, is it really aesthetically pleasing? The nuts and bolts holding the panels of modern glass architecture have a tendency to dominate the surface, producing an appearance of clunkiness - whatever Whalley might say about these elements at Waterloo being like 'bits of jewellery.' In practice, they simply underline the fact that transparency is an illusion. The use of glass structural fins is scarcely more discreet.

There is an idea that the transparency of glass architecture has been employed to represent the principle of openness and democracy in the processes of Western institutional operation. And perhaps, with the proliferation of institutions, this is why the whole concept of glass architecture has taken off in such a big way.

But the truth is that it is never, or very rarely, transparent. By day, natural reflectivity is enough to obstruct the curious gaze, even without the additional obscuring layers required to rebut the rays of the sun and general glare, while by night - when the lights come on - the natural impulse towards protection and privacy is enough to ensure a flowering of internal screens and blinds.

For Whalley, it seems, the fascination of glass construction is both technical and aesthetic, and less to do with the philosophical question of why our society has become so obsessed with the notion of transparent architecture.

He asserts that 'architecture is about the control of light'. The emergence of glass and metal construction technology in the 19th century offered a new architectural language, which has ultimately resulted in projects such as I M Pei's Louvre pyramid, which 'has to be tuned like a piano every few years' to keep it all in tension, or the Eden Centre, which, in its use of ETFE 'pillows' , has taken the technology of transparency into a new realm.

Andrew Whalley's lecture, 'Transparency', on Wednesday 29 January was part of the Bartlett's 'Constructing Realities' series, held at the Archaeology Institute Lecture Theatre, University College London

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