In 1990, stained glass was still the dominant technique used by glass artists working in an architectural context. Stained glass normally means leaded glass - associated with church buildings and Edwardian front doors - and is made with thin sheets of coloured or textured glass, cut into pieces and held together with H-sections of lead soldered together. The technique is more than a thousand years old, but in just a decade the world of glass art has totally shifted.
Float glass is now the building block of most large-scale glazed art projects done today. The float glass may be sandblasted, acid-etched, screenprinted, moulded, have bits bonded onto it, be laminated to other sheets, and so on. But it is basically the same float glass used every day in the construction of buildings. So why is the ancient technique of stained glass finally being supplanted?
Largely it is a reflection of how we think about buildings. The modules, the contexts and the fundamental aesthetic language we aspire to have all changed. The ideal stained glass window is based on panels about 600mm wide. These panels are then stacked on top of each other, with a little additional support to prevent them sagging, and this becomes a window. Admittedly, lead vertical supports can be thickened to increase the number of modules which the opening can support, but today architects want walls of glass, not slitlike apertures. They want a seamless, frameless, weightless experience.
Leaded glass is supple and flexible and is enormously durable because of this, but it has no structural strength, no intrinsic rigidity. It requires structure to support it.
Glass is more The development of 'modern architecture' has been based on using new materials, particularly steel, concrete and glass, to enlarge the distances that can be spanned, covered, supported or contained with the minimum amount of volume and mass. Glass is an integral part of this language. It can have enormous structural strength, has little volume and appears to have little or no mass.
As long as glass artists were clinging to a medieval method, contemporary architects felt there was not much on offer.
There are exceptions to this. In the 1980s, Brian Clarke designed three huge shopping centre roofs in Buxton, Leeds and Oldham. They are fine examples of what can be achieved with stained glass artistically, but they were not economically efficient.
Because the largest panel was about 900mm x 900mm, an entirely separate framing structure had to be manufactured and installed to house the hundreds of separate glass panels. In Leeds each panel had to be installed by hand from a one-man cherry picker, 7m in the air.
This is not an efficient way to commission art. The optimum way is to use a material that is already part of the structure and to allow this to be transformed into a decorative device. Thus the materials are already in the budget, any framing or supporting structure is accounted for, and the installation is part of the costings. Often the only additional cost needed to transform the glass into glass art is the design fee. This is an efficient use of funds, and often allows the architect more control of the art in his building.
The glass ceiling The Patrick Heron window at the St Ives Tate Gallery shows genuine mouth-blown glass, as traditionally used in stained glass, adhered to two large panels of float glass, with a single 32mm fin behind them. The drawback of creating panels of such great size, (the largest panel was 4.85m x 2.85m) is that the glass is more expensive to install than to build. It is fair to say that increased size only works up to a point. At SmithKline Beecham's HQ in Harlow, we installed a 10m tall curved screen. There you see etched float glass mixed with small amounts of antique glass.
To suggest that screenprinting onto float glass can match in detail the exquisite beauty of a piece of mouth-blown antique glass is absurd. In texture and colour it cannot compete; but architecture is more an art of form and structure than it is of exquisite nuances of texture that may only be visible from a few feet away. In the screen, made for Baker & McKenzie's office in London, there is a mixture of screenprinting with two different acid etches to animate the surface texture of the glass, and then antique glass, which has also been heavily etched, has been bonded to it. This creates a truly dynamic piece.
There are many visual and architectural ideas that have still not been properly exploited. No one has really explored what can be achieved with 'ornamentation'. Instead of moulded stone, we could have printed patterns on glass running laterally or vertically, assisting in establishing the flow of the building, both from inside and outside. Repeated images on glass are not only cost effective, they are a way of merging the language of art and architecture so they become part of an integrated experience. The art modestly assuming a role as part of the form, texture, rhythms and colour of the building.
Over the years, I have observed that those people who pay for buildings, who worry about budgets endlessly, and appear to resent every unnecessary expenditure, discover that the million pounds spent on the foundations does not excite them.
Nor the £200,000 on air-conditioning, and the carpets, and so on. But - and this is the point - the £20,000 on the work of art they have commissioned, that they have assessed, nurtured and given birth to, still provides a buzz long after the building is finished. The graphic designer doing the marketing brochure will love it, and it may be the thing that makes the difference in renting the property.
Incorporating art into architecture is challenging and it can go wrong. By definition, 'it' is a one-off.
It requires more thought and discussion than almost any other component. It is time consuming for the architect, the client and probably the contractor. But art, and in this case, the rare beauty of glass art, if well integrated into the architecture and designed in collaboration with the architect, will help give a building definition, beauty and colour. If it succeeds, it is something that will emphasise the strength of the building's design, and be something of which all parties can be proud.
Andrew Moor is a glass art consultant and author of Contemporary Stained Glass and Architectural Glass Art.
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