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Frameless wonder

The idea of a frameless glazed screen is still elusive, although Foster has used glazing technology imaginatively

The Electronic Arts building by Foster and Partners has been provided with some ingenious technical touches - as befits a state-of-the-art facility - which are subtle enough to be missed by the casual observer.

The ground-level internal glazed screens, the discreet ironmongery, superslim doorclosers and glass-faced doors all share one important, consistent innovation; the framing is contained within the glazing rather than the other way around.

This means that the appearance of the glass is taken to the edge and is able, theoretically, to run into the adjoining pane, creating a flush, smooth screen finish.

How is this possible, I hear you ask.

The framing system, IGG by GEZE, comprises 45mm wide steel channels which have glazed panels applied each side to create a wide double-glazed unit for internal use. The glass panels are bonded to the frame and incorporate gaskets to maintain the seal.

As the channels show through the glass, the overall appearance - rather than suggesting a frameless glass element - is still of large glass panels with a border.

Indeed, from a distance to the building it is hard to tell the IGG panels from the standard glazing and mullion curtain wall system above.However, at an oblique angle, the sheen of the glass emphasises the virtually unbroken surface. If tinted glass is used (which partially masks the channels), the manufacturers can provide specially coloured ceramic coatings - known as 'frits'- to match the tint, further reducing the visual impact of the framing structure.

The panels themselves span about 3.5m and are fixed top and bottom. The joints between each panel are coupled by compression-seal male and female gaskets, avoiding the need for further fixing mullions. This is the secret of the system.

Any additional supports - to assist structural stability, for example - can be incorporated within the channel frames, such that no chunky posts are visible.

Even more interestingly, the door closers, lockcases, hinges etc, which are specifically designed by the same manufacturer, can be installed within the channel frame to keep the intrusion of accessories to a minimum. The result is a sleek system of components.

The green glass on the single-leaf doors within the office spaces is very arresting, although the effect is slightly distracted by the jointed overpanel.To follow the logic of the system, it would have been better to have had full-height doors to reduce the horizontal disruption to the glass panelling.

The building has other fascinating features, such as the three-and-a-half-storey sliding door, which is certainly an impressive sight.When open to its full width, this feature creates a dramatic continuity between the inside and the outside but it falls victim to the piercing audible alarm mechanism, presumably the result of health and safety paranoia. Similarly, the angled sliding door - one of very few in the world - is an intriguing feature a lthough I wasn't conv inced by either its location or utility.

The internal sliding partition dividing up the restaurant area from the internal 'street' scene impresses by its subtlety.

This screen utilises the hidden frame system to its best advantage. Each panel is hung from the sliding mechanism, with runners contained within the thickness of the double-glazed panel to minimise the visual intrusion of the head and sole fixings.When the screen is opened - and the deceptive structural nature of the 'mullions' revealed to be false - the whole system of large panels of glass are stacked back in a neat rack. It is a sleek idea indeed. Unfortunately, the housing for the stacked panels, which would have been acceptable in any other building, looks positively Heath Robinson in comparison.

With rapid advances in technology and design - especially in a case such as this where research and development was done on site - architects may soon be able to enjoy the dream of true (and inexpensive) frameless glazing.

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