Reading List

List Creator

Beverly Choe and Jun Sato

Stanford University

Transparent Structures

In 1914, the German poet and writer Paul Scheerbart praised glass for its ability to transform the built environment and elevate culture through its openness and color. For him, the enclosing quality of conventional brick buildings imposed a separation between a person and society, resulting in isolation and darkness. He envisioned a new architectural world, in which light-filled spaces reconnected society, and boundaries between indoors and outdoors dissolved. A new prismatic landscape would replace the dreary masonry cityscapes of old Europe. This crystalline world relied on the liberation of the facade from its opaque, load-bearing function. So, he described a two-part system in which iron frameworks would be shaped to support the glass. Together, iron and glass could liberate buildings from an oppressive past and activate a new, free-form environment and society.

As Scheerbart’s descriptions reveal, the non-structural properties of conventional glass have long confined its role to one of cladding and enclosure. Bruno Taut, in his celebrated glass pavilion design for the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, created a prismatic dome which became a symbol for purity and openness. Although the pavilion was a milestone in the construction of glass architecture, when the structure is examined, both the concrete columns at the base and the steel diagrid frame at the cupola figure more prominently than the glass. Earlier, Joseph Paxton’s prefabricated components for the celebrated 1851 Crystal Palace, so revolutionary for its time, was realized mainly through the efficiency of its module-based iron skeleton. The glass, set within wooden frames, played a secondary, infill role in the building assembly. Despite the utopian associations carried by glass, then, by structural necessity it has long remained an element which capitulates to the framework that supports it. Subsequent buildings designed by Le Corbusier and Mies, and indeed most contemporary designers working today, continue this tradition.

These constraints, however, are breaking down with the advancement of glass technology which strives for the optimal combination of lightness, thinness, and strength. As Kenneth Frampton observes in the chapter listed below, “our society has succeeded in producing glass of such different physical properties that it, as a substance, can no longer be regarded as a singular material having constant properties.” Indeed, technologies such as heat strengthened, thermally toughened, laminated, and/or chemically strengthened glass have come to obviate the need for glass to be hung from a structural framework because the glass itself becomes the structural framework. This has been demonstrated elegantly in projects by Peter Rice, James Carpenter, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. As the structural capacity and behavior of glass evolves, so too can its application in practice.

This reading list is inspired by a recent Design Build course at Stanford which asked students to investigate the use of glass as both a structural system and spatial medium. Following a methodology which we call “Responsive Structures,” students tested the physical and visual properties of engineered high-strength glass, and developed structural systems and spatial configurations to expand our ideas of what glass can do. This process encourages the fluid, adaptive growth of structures from cellular, module-based models to a full-scale installation. The spirit of play and investigation is realized through a series of exercises that began with small-scale modeling and the development of a structural module, which are then grown into larger, more complex aggregations. Students then assemble larger scale prototypes to refine the assembly tectonics, and end with the full scale realization of the design. These investigations are grounded by the readings below, which form a historic, structural, and experiential framework for the practical undertaking of the project.

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