November 10: how to make glass and then make it boring

2012/11/10 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1959 US Patent 2,911,759 was issued for the manufacture of float glass.

People have been glazing windows ever since they started making windows.  Don’t let Laugier fool you: that original primitive hut had windows that were not capricious.  People need enclosed spaces to live, since they don’t fare very well in nature, but they don’t want to live in the dark.  Primitive Man carved holes in his walls, then filled them with something that would keep the rain and bugs out and let the light in–maybe a light cloth, or a piece of vellum smeared with animal fat.  Primitive Man thought that was good enough.

Primitive Man, Jr., thought a hard, impermeable material that did not smell of rotting animal fat was a better idea.  Initially, only rich Post-Primitive folks could use thinly cut alabaster or pieces of glass (made necessarily small by the process in which they were cut from large discs created by blowing large cylinders that were sliced on one side and flattened out).  The technology limited the size a piece of glass might be, and meant that they would be necessarily bumpy or wavy.  By the nineteenth century, Industrial Revolution Man figured out how to make longer glass by rolling sheets through a special machine or casting them on an iron surface.  Either way, the glass required laborious (and expensive) polishing–reminding us that a cheap-looking building like the Crystal Palace was really pretty expensive, and reminding us why it was a long time before we see this amount of glass in one place for a long time.  But even when clients were willing to shell out, architects had the good sense to use glass in concert with other materials that were more amenable to aesthetic traditions.

In the early twentieth century a number of Belgians developed methods for drawing molten glass up from a tank, which lowered the production costs dramatically.  Remember that the structural technology required to make glass and metal buildings existed for generations already; it’s only in the twentieth century that architects and their clients decide this might be a thing to try; the sinking cost of glass may have assisted the theory for transparency that becomes more prominent in these decades.  This was just in time for–or maybe prompted by–the new emphasis on glass in architectural design in the hands of the early Modernists, from nutty-but-lovable Expressionist Bruno Taut to the more successful-but-dour Walter Gropius.  Theirs was the last step before the mid-twentieth century breakthrough with float glass.  Sir Alastair Pilkington and Kenneth Bickerstaff (whose names ought to have been written for a Monty Python sketch but are, in actual fact, for real) figured out how to create continuous ribbons of glass on a layer of molten tin, which is the method still used for most window glass in the early twenty-first century.  Finally, super-big pieces of glass, predictably smooth and clear, very inexpensive, and completely void of aesthetic interest without further manipulation.  Glass was already the preferred material for loads of Modernists who were having their way with cities around the world, and continue to do so.  Architects have matched the cheapness and banality of float glass with equally cheap (-looking) and banal buildings.  Behold: Boston, Chicago, London, Dubai, Detroit, Beijing . . . etc., etc., etc.

Back in the day architects understood that the mass of a building should be sculpted to enhance the natural play of light and shade on a facade.  It’s the non-transparent stuff that is fun to look at and easy to live in.  Glass can work with opaque materials in interesting ways, but when it takes over the design, there’s just not much that the building can say any more except “I am a big shiny thing.”  Glass is a convenient way to fill in the necessary holes in architecture to let light in.  Glass is not a building material; it is an enclosure material.  When it takes over, architecture is necessarily thin, brittle, dull.  But it does make a much crunchier setting for, say, Transformers movies–which may be all the evidence necessary to argue for an all-glassy world’s aesthetic and cultural merit.

Image: making cylinder glass, which is, maybe not surprisingly, much more visually intersting than making float glass (from this source)


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