Reflections on glass, so to speak

The first thing I noticed about Vancouver’s fairly modern downtown was that the buildings make extensive use of glass. From high-rise condo balconies to naturally lit public transport walkways to towering mall pathways, glass is everywhere, sleek and reflective and bright.

Hiding out here for a couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to thinking about building materials, and which are the dominant ones in a given period. In older cities like Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto, I noticed a lot of stone. Early skyscrapers contain stately Gothamesque ornateness, but where do metal, glass, and even composite fit in aesthetically? What do they reflect about the values of their builders?

Right now glass is getting a lot of attention in many areas. It is being engineered to be unbreakable and unscratchable. It is made to accommodate touch screens on ATMs and smartphone displays. Televisions and camera displays are getting constantly finer, and Apple’s latest MacBook redesign touts its biggest retinal display ever, promising never-before seen graphic detail. A lot of the products that drive the consumer and professional economy rely undeniably on glass.

But back to buildings. In a modern downtown center like Vancouver it seems also that glass is taking its turn. Glass reflects the focus on natural light and the open feel of lofts, offices, progressive homes, and other currently hip or desirable spaces.  Precious old warehouse condos get new windows to make them more efficient, leaving the raw space intact. I would like to think about what that says about the present time, as opposed to metal (maybe the main physical/aesthetic element of early Modernism) or stone (before that) or wood (even before that).

The use of glass seems to dovetail philosophically with current conditions of capitalism and society. Which is to say, it’s really complicated. Let’s compare it to stone. Stone is fairly unambiguous, and suggests constants: literal and metaphorical pillars of society. Wall Street, the U.S. Capitol building, factories, industry. There’s an implication of faith in the stability of these systems. They will stand forever. Even the little Christian Science Reading Room on North Clark in Chicago has a grand facade.

Metal, being lighter weight and more malleable, implies more flexibility and a new range of possible surfaces (dull/shiny, rough/smooth, &c). This flexibility could be seen metaphorically as a reaction to the expanding needs of the systems that have been put in place. This is also meant literally, as buildings get taller and machinery gets more demanding. It’s necessary to be flexible, to react to increasingly complex developments in systems, and meet an increasingly wide range of needs at an increasingly fast pace.

Glass has even more complicated metaphorical implications. On one hand it implies a desire to disappear or to be invisible. A building made totally of glass would seem to dissolve into its environment completely. Would this hide the activity inside, or make it completely transparent? Glass dissolves into modern systems, either ignoring or blending into them. But glass also stands out, calling attention to itself simply through its existence – the Farnsworth House, a Mies Van Der Rohe-designed house outside of Chicago, draws attention precisely because of its extensive but subtle use of glass. So it’s playing both sides of the game a bit.

Glass is also confusing because it’s not load-bearing like metal and stone – it needs other materials to support it, even though the glass itself may be the focus of a modern space. The role of the space or the structure is left unresolved, but the systems themselves are not called into question. The presence of glass presents a no-comment situation on what happens on the other side – it merely aims to facilitate the space, whatever its activity. It pretends to offer a contemplative barrier, like a wall, but does not. Except that it does.

Taking the metaphor further, even the origins of glass are far more obscure than those of stone and metal. Glass is divorced from the process used to produce it, whereas the quarry, mining, and steel refinery industries are more documented and understood, more tied to a specific geographic location. Glass, on the other hand, simply appears in our lives in stores, on trucks, and in purchasable items. It is symbolic of the confounding, increasingly tragic riddles of late capitalism – the barrier that hides in plain view. 

One wonders what will come next, especially with the easy-sell environmental arguments in favor of glass (natural light, &c.). Is there a material that can emerge to provide more direct, more constructive connotations of value, and what values would this new material have? Would it reflect a new desire for authenticity and process (i.e. reclaimed or recycled materials)? How would it be weighed against practical concerns, and how can it respond to (unreasonable) demands of scale?

What comes after glass?


About Travis Bird

New Orleans musician and writer
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