The Ascent of Glass

Advances in production, energy efficiency and methods of construction have enabled glass to rise to new heights and assume unexpected forms

"In the 1920s, the renowned Swiss architect Le Corbusier observed that the history of architecture is the history of the window." In the new generation of glass buildings now appearing in cities around the globe, "the window has broken out of the frame," says architect James Polshek, founding partner of Polshek Partnership and lead designer of the American Museum of Natural History's new Rose Center for Earth and Space in Manhattan.

From Berlin to Tokyo, New York to London, a rash of striking new structures is giving glass architecture new life. "Not since the early 1950s, when sleek, green-tinted glass buildings like New York City's Lever House rose amid the stone canyons of countless major cities," writes author Jeffrey Hogrefe, "has glass elicited so much attention. There are so many glass buildings currently on the drawing boards or under construction, in fact, that it is hard to keep track of them all." From the 357-foot-long barrel-vaulted, transparent roof of New York-based architect Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia to the soaring glass dome of London architect Norman Foster's restoration of the historic German Reichstag, glass is assuming innovative, dramatic and surprising forms.

This revival in the art of glass construction is due primarily to changes in glass production and to the development of new building techniques. Innovative systems now allow expanses of glass to be suspended in front of a series of nearly invisible metal trusses and braces. In addition, advancements in glass production since the 1973 energy crisis have resulted in revolutionary changes in its performance. The new glass is not only spectacular to look at and through, it is also safer, stronger and more energy efficient. Glass is now one of the most versatile and cutting-edge building materials available. As Kenneth Frampton, professor of architecture at Columbia University and author of Modern Architecture: A Critical History, puts it, "Glass is back."

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