GLASS FOR CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE

Invisible Skin to Colourful Canvas

Glass is a remarkable substance and, despite being one of the oldest man-made materials, it has been reinvented transformed and adapted ever since its discovery in the Middle East many thousands of years ago. In the twenty-first century, square kilometres of so-called ‘float’ glass are inserted into buildings every year and we take for granted its role as one of the essential elements in our built environment.

The float process for making continuous sheets of glass is a relatively new invention, only perfected in the late 1950s by Pilkington Glass, a business that had been manufacturing glass since the early 1800s. Pilkington had the idea that if a ribbon of glass could be floated on liquid then it would find its own level and not develop the distortions and imperfections that were inevitable when molten glass was drawn through rollers. After a great deal of expense, technological development and experimentation the first continuous ‘float’ glass, made on a bed of liquid tin, was proved to be a viable product that allowed sheet glass to be manufactured in virtually limitless lengths. It changed the landscape of architecture and building in ways not possible with the old methods of handmade, drawn or plate glass.

Pilkington opened the first float glass plant in the Southern hemisphere at Dandenong in 1974 and the streetscapes of Australian cities began to change. The epitome of the new curtain-walling that float made possible was Pilkington’s own headquarters in St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, which was virtually a glass box that

reflected the sky and blurred the boundaries between solid glass and the sky - a kind of anti-architecture.

While float glass transformed the use of glass in buildings it has brought a new invisibility: it smoothed out imperfections to give distortion-free clarity and perfection that resulted in blandness to the point where we no longer see glass at all.

This perfect material known as float glass has its place, and thankfully other architectural forms have replaced the boring glass box of the early post-float years and encouraging signs of a return to restrained ornamentation has re-ignited interest in glass as a textural, colourful element in contemporary architecture. I would argue that this remains tentative in Australia, with few architects, developers, builders and probably most of all, financiers, willing to take risks with new uses for glass. Glass designers too are often ready to give the client what he/she wants rather than explore new innovations that might involve straying too far beyond the tried and true: ‘risk’ is equated with ‘hazard’ ‘peril’ or ‘threat’ instead of ‘opportunity’, ‘possibility’ or ‘daring’.

Kirra Galleries, Federation Square, Melbourne, best known for championing Australian artists using hot blown, cast and kiln-formed glass has shifted the focus to glass in architecture for their latest exhibition, Juxtapositions.

This was a challenge for the nine artists. Selected for their innovative use of glass in architecture, exhibiting in the confines of a gallery space required them not only to adapt and explore their architectural ideas to function as individual collectors’ pieces but also to work as prototypes for locations in contemporary building projects. An accompanying visual presentation allows the audience to see how these works can function within and become integral to their architectural settings.

One example to be seen in the exhibition is Queensland artist Christopher John’s Obelisk which is a sliver of an entire façade in a residence at Fairlie Court, South Yarra. Christopher John was commissioned by Andrew

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Bartholomeusz from Saaj Design, Sandringham at a very late stage, due to unforeseen circumstances that proved a fortuitous collaboration with architect and artist working their way through the challenges together.

Even from the exterior view, it is clear that glass is integral to the entire project, starting with the glass façade, completed from float glass thin strips of glass stacked on edge. Although not a new technique, the result by Christopher John is elegant and conceptually simple and in harmony with the design of the building. From the interior, the finished wall effectively modulates both light and sound, creating a translucent buffer between the street and the living space. It is worth noting the use of glass throughout the building, as floors, marking the start of a staircase, and internal hand painted and precision-bent screen in the bathroom.

Other exhibitors demonstrate that bold colour, that ‘wow’ moment, is not always the answer architecturally and a wellconsidered understatement may prove that less is more. While Waynne Rayson at Toucan Forged Glass often uses colour in bold flashes to mark and divide spaces, he has devised glass panels that act as both manifestation and as translucent screen, seen in the gentle rhythm and deceptive simplicity of his exhibit Large Pod (not pictured).

Like Christopher John, South Australian artist Jan Aspinall works with stacked glass that has proved equally effective on a large and small scale. For a private residence in Parkside (SA) splashes of colour were introduced that reflect and refract through the stacked glass slabs, and change dramatically with the seasons, weather and time of day, effectively trapping and diffusing light within the space.

On a far grander scale was her vast glass window at Strathalbyn Library, where Jan was part of a design team led by architect Peter Moeck from Brown Falconer Architects; a collaborative relationship between 3

architect and glass designer/maker that was initiated in the early stages of a project. Here, the glass slabs have been laid up like books on a shelf, and backed with handpainted colour that represents earth, air and water. The problem of moving such large and heavy pieces from studio to site was minimised by making the window in sections.

Colour is a major component of Sydney artist Marc Grunseit’s flamboyant works, whether he is taking his ideas from the Australian landscape around him or the galaxies beyond. Colour and light are integrated to create an immediate ‘wow’ by the viewer, but also pull the viewer into the work time and again. Les Baxter too uses colour and landscape as the basis for his grand wall pieces. Here light is absorbed and reflected, rather than transmitted, to create glowing images that are uniquely Australian in flavour. Jan Aspinall, Marc Grunseit and Les Baxter demonstrate that colour can be reintroduced as a major element in glass for architecture boldly and safely and with diverse results.

With the development of polyvinyl butyral interlayers for glass sheet, there were improvements in safety and insulating properties of glass. Colour and design can transform float glass by the simple process of printing on the interlayer, but is rarely exploited to its full capacity. Instead, when the invisibility of glass needs to be interrupted, usually for safety reasons, meaningless repetitive patterns are considered sufficient manifestation. Why not have such areas designed to integrate with the architecture of a building instead?

Les Baxter has provided a solution in the glass entrance to Marymeade Catholic College at South Morang. Here, thin ribbons of colour and texture delineate the boundary

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between the interior and exterior of the building, adding to its safety as well as its design. Baxter, in collaboration with Living Glass, has devised a way to screen-print laminate film that results in far stronger colours than has been possible with other systems that are available.

Liquid laminates have also been developed and Merinda Young has utilised their use to produce multilayered panels that are decorative and can be used safely for bathrooms to balustrading. Her designs are often rhythmic swathes of abstract colour but in this exhibition she has shown how layers of glass and paint can be built to tell stories and evoke another world.

One other method of production that is under-utilised is the modular system. Apart from an ability to ‘mix and match’ with a variety of design options few Australian artists (or architects) seem to have used modules to create large scale works of glass in architecture. It has the added advantage of overcoming a lack of studio space – a common dilemma for many artists keen to work on a large scale. Canberra-based Lisa Cahill has produced glass for extensive wall spaces by using a loosely ‘modular’ system made from individual glass units. Each piece of glass has been kiln-formed to create an appearance of flexibility, like crunched up paper, or washing on a line. The finished units are hung to form patterns that seem to change in the light, although the subtle colour changes, shadows cast at different times of the day and the movement of the viewer past the works create the illusion of change. While the pieces are clearly static, that suggestion of gentle movement is reiterated in titles such as Paper Breaths, Breathe and Breeze.

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The very gentle work of Kristin McFarlane has a similar effect, however it invites closer scrutiny and an intimate reading of the text and images that the kiln-formed works demand.

Donna Cooper is one artist who feels that creating modular and interconnecting designs is a way to produce infinite patterns and options for different situations. Her exhibits for Juxtapositions, Inverse and Schism, were both made from 300 x 300 mm. square units in a combination of antique and commercial glasses and the time-honoured leadlight process. Shiny black glass is contrasted with textured clear in a minimalist pattern suitable for today’s architecture. Units are able to be assembled in steel or aluminium frames in a myriad of ways and a range of sizes based on the module. This versatility allows for domestic and commercial applications, even the National Gallery of Victoria has unknowingly been infiltrated to show just how the modules could be applied as a screen.

Almost without exception, the most successful glass is the result of an alliance between artists and architects, especially when the collaboration begins in the early stages of a project. Sometimes these take years to build up and hone before a long-standing association can develop through a shared vision and understanding of each project, respect for the skills and specialities of each party, and a free exchange of ideas. It is a model that has been used to great effect in large projects overseas, but is relatively rare in the Australian environment. One example is the collaboration between Nonda Katsilidis and Joseph Licciardi from

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glass firm Vetro Systems which began with the Katsalidis building on the corner of Russell and LaTrobe Streets, Melbourne (1991).

Juxtapositions demonstrates that artists, often in conjunction with architects, are willing to take risks and be innovative, sometimes with remarkable results. The best results often seem to include an intangible something – what Jan Aspinall calls ‘lyricism’ through light and colour. Maybe it is that ‘light and colour from glass evoke an emotional response that acts directly upon the body’s nervous system’, as Christopher John believes. 1

The possibilities of glass in contemporary architecture are almost limitless. In an ideal world our built environment appeals to the senses, stimulates the mind and encourages reaction and engagement – in other words, it evokes a physical, intellectual and emotional response. Ludwig Shaffath, one of Germany greatest glass artists of the 20th century, recognised that not every window in a building required ornamentation. 2 He encouraged his students to consider the entire project, to suppress the urge to make a bold statement if it was an unnecessary addition to the space, and to carefully consider the end users and how the art could best improve their living/being environment.

While glass should not be the only vehicle for achieving this, maybe the last word should be left to the English artist, Brian Clarke who said: I like my work to enable the building to function in a way that hopefully tips the balance of the experience from being functional to being inspirational. I think there is an extremely powerful argument to be made today for art to actually bring beauty and something of the sublime into the banality of mundane experience. So often now, art is limiting of that kind of encounter. I believe people respond to beauty both in nature and in art. When it involves the passage of light, it is uplifting in a way that is incomparable. 3

Bronwyn Hughes©
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August 2012

Christopher John, ‘Thoughts on Contemporary Glass – Artists and Architecture’, email communication to the author, 1 May 2012. 2 Ludwig Shaffrath Master Class. Interview with the author, Caulfield Institute of Technology, December 1980. 3 Brian Clarke, quoted in Charlotte Cripps, ‘Glowing panes: Brian Clarke’s stained-glass windows have earned him global recognition and the papal thumbs up’, The Independent, 20 September, 2010.

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