Arthur Erickson once famously said, “Modernism released us from the constraints of everything that had gone before with a euphoric sense of freedom.” With that sense of freedom, eventually came the art forms of eventual mediocrity. One can say from a distance now, that an art form eclipsed art by a measure of excess. This is the case of the leviathans of the construction industry- the journey of steel and glass from versatility to a virulent force.

The first major industrial use of glass can be traced back to the construction of Crystal Palace in 1851, by Joseph Paxton. Designed by a gardener, it followed a blueprint of a greenhouse, leading to overheating in the summer. Though multiple shading methods and ventilation principles were adopted, the materials trounced the timid techniques to create a literal greenhouse.

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Crystal Palace, London- The beginning of glass and steel trouncing construction materials. ©

The industrial boom in the Americas was the next phase in the timeline. During the 1880s and ’90s, Chicago master architects such as Mies Van Der Rohe recognized the protean uses of the wonder material as well as the timelessness that glass encapsulated. It is important to note that the climatic connotations associated with glass were not being considered then, but the transparency and visual connectivity it gave were being exploited in designs that dared.

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The heat generated in Crystal Palace since construction. ©Henrik Shoenefeldt

As the use of glass rose, so did the utilitarian aspect of steel. It took place as a catalyst or aid in the construction using glass, it was quick to fabricate and assemble and could be manufactured, cut, rolled, and stressed into various shapes and sizes. Its accessibility made it a construction favorite and very soon, it was the means of one of the largest monopolies for most developing countries in the world.

Quickly shifting into the design lexicon of architects and construction experts, it is important to look at the physiognomy of glass. Easy to manufacture in factories, it is versatile in the thickness, appearance and styles in which it is made. From frosted to fluted, it can be used to floodlight into dark spaces or establish lines of visual connection. Having had one of the most advancements in composition since its invention, glass has been a sample addition in almost all projects in some form or the other.

Steel is another material that echoes malleability. Having the ability to be rolled and bent, twisted and forged in any way desired, steel has high strength and the ability to take compression and tension loads. Like glass, it can be manufactured in various thicknesses and has many applications in the industry. 

Though the intent of these materials remained to be progenies of a shift in the industrial era, a manifestation of progress, it did not take much time to dominate the mainstream of construction with concrete, many opting for the look of their structure to be a glass exoskeleton, and a thriving greenhouse for humans. Master architects and construction experts started to shift away from overuse of the material, while many chose to recompose the design by minimizing the elements itself. It was safe to say that by the beginning of the millennium, the trend was in full form.

Though versatile and easy to use, the drab overutilization of these materials has led to a canvas of repetitive, monotonous monoliths that are unrelatable, in shape or form. Compared to the scaled structures that used the same materials like Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, these mastodon structures quickly found their way as a staple for office, business and other buildings of gathering. The world, staring into another slab of glass, didn’t seem to notice or care.

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The graceful use of glass and steel by Mies. ©

Something Pallasmaa shared in his 1996 book, the Eyes of the Skin, is the loss of tactility, the sensation of human touch establishing a relation between the building and human. This is easier to feel when, as a human, a building shows age- a symbol or representation of mortality- and the scale is one that reverberates with the proportions of the human body. In other terms, buildings began to become clear envelopes that defined space.

Pallasmaa isn’t one of the only architects or thinkers who ruled the decades to come when steel and glass would dominate. Jane Jacobs wrote about the loss of human values of community and relation in an entire continent as it raced into super-industrialization. While wars were being waged, these became pages of history affluent architects at the time did not want to read, for it countered their beliefs and design systems. Though the intention was one, it went against the tide and didn’t gather the force it needed to make a change.

A lot can be said about the writers in the counter-culture during the period then and now. Words failed then and may fail now. What was required was a magnificent yet devastating shift in the way we live, and one came in the form of a time-tilt; courtesy of the pandemic. 

There must be a shift in the culture, for the sake of the changing world. As we question time, energy, and the built world around us, and its purpose redefines itself after half a century, people must realize that the isolation they faced was for an actualization that was imperative. A more together, and connected world- not by the media that so controls us, but by relations and interactions that took place, something that generations before once knew. For this time, we use that glass and steel not to divide the spaces we create, but to unite them.

Nishant Varma

Nishant Verma is a designated college nerd and has been writing ever since you could define the term “bullying”, first to vent out feelings and eventually to an amateur writer. Pastimes include productive activities- reading, writing, movies, the history of music and architecture, with whom he enjoys a love-hate relationship.

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