We started building using the rocks, plants and mud that were to hand. The development of man-made materials, eventually to be produced and transported on an industrial scale, revolutionised construction. Glass illustrates this perfectly.
Glass is a vital building material with a unique combination of properties. It is transparent and durable but keeps wind and water out. It can be shaped, cast, textured or coloured. Sheets can be laminated, strengthened or coated. Critically, glass can control and manipulate light and heat.
The Gothic cathedrals first demonstrated large scale use of glass and, since then, architecture and glass have been developing hand in hand for nearly a thousand years. While countries, cultures and styles have changed, glass has remained essential. Paxton’s iconic Crystal Palace showed that whole walls and roofs could be made of glass and, through the twentieth century, this concept has come to dominate large scale city building from Chicago to the Far East.
Although alternatives have begun to appear, notably ETFE, none of them provide the unique combination of characteristics found in glass. In construction today, glass still has an effective monopoly on transparency: imagine building without it. Life, not just construction, would be completely different without glass.
Ewan Jones is a Partner at Nicholas Grimshaw Architects and is currently leading the design team for the Minerva tower. He is also responsible for the firm’s civil engineering projects.