Glass as a construction material has been used for many years now. The onset of the Industrial Revolution and mass production of materials like steel and glass in the 19th Century, has made it possible today to create architectural wonders all around the world. From a single type of glass available to the vast range of glasses available now, glass as a material has witnessed constant evolution. It was in the 20th Century when the Modernism movement started in architecture and a vast spread of glass used in buildings was seen everywhere. 

The flexibility and versatility of this material have been tested by various designers and architects, wherein each one has tried to find its new applications to make their structure unique. Glass provides transparency that allows for a view outward as well as inward and also helps natural daylight enter the building envelope to eliminate the use of mechanical ventilation. 

Here is a list of 10 architectural marvels that exemplify the impressive use of glass in the field of design and construction.

1. The Crystal Palace, London (1851)

It would be unjust to not initiate this list by mentioning the first and one of the most iconic glass structures, which is also believed to have started the ‘Modernism’ movement in architecture. The Palace designed by architect Sir Joseph Paxton, has a skeleton weaved out of cast iron and plate glass structure, and was originally designed to host the Great Exhibition of 1851. 

Even though the glass sheet method was introduced by Chance Brothers in 1932, yet its use to such a great extent was first seen in the design of Crystal Palace. The largest glass pieces available at that time measured 25 cm (10 inches) by 120 cm (49 inches), and hence the entire building was scaled around these dimensions only. Sadly, a catastrophe hit in 1936, when a small explosion within the building turned into a massive fire that burned down the whole structure in a few hours.

The Crystal Palace, London (1851) - Sheet1
A painting with the view of the Crystal Palace © en.wikipedia.org
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Interior view of the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851 ©en.wikipedia.org
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View of the remains of the Crystal Palace after the fire incident in 1936 ©en.wikipedia.org

2. The Louvre Pyramid, Paris (1989)

One of the most critically acclaimed and famous works of architect I.M. Pei is the glass pyramid for the Louvre Museum in Paris. Commissioned in 1983, Pei designed this new entrance to the Louvre Museum with the addition of an underground feature that included a system of galleries, storage space, preservation laboratories, and a connection to the wings of the existing museum. 

The main challenge for such a design was not the pyramid shape or the underground layout of galleries, rather it was the type of glass required by the architect for his design. Pei insisted on having a clear glass with total transparency, but it was not available at that time as glass usually had a tint of blue or green. With this idea, Pei approached a French manufacturing company, Saint Gobain, to create a new glass specifically for the project. The result, known as the “Diamond Glass” took about 2 years to get the correct composition. Overall, about 19,375 square feet of glass 6,000 metal bars weighing 200 tons were used for the completion of this iconic structure.

The Louvre Pyramid, Paris (1989) - Sheet1
Night View of the Louvre Pyramid © archdaily.com
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Aerial View of the Louvre Museum Square © archdaily.com
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Inside the Louvre Pyramid © MarkCz.com

3. The Gherkin – 30 St. Mary Axe, London (2003)

London’s first ecological skyscraper which goes by the name “The Gherkin” and designed by Foster+Partners, has a unique identity in the financial district of London. The design is a column-free space due to the use of diagonal bracing and the skin is double-glazed, which helps in enhancing the natural cooling of the building as well as maintain thermal comfort in the interiors. 

Each floor is stacked above the other with a shift of 5 degrees at every level and thus the curved form of the building. Despite this curve shape, it is a fact that only a single piece of curved glass has been used, i.e. at the lens-shaped cap at the top. Whereas, the rest of the exterior cladding is formed of 5,500 flat triangular and diamond-shaped panels of glass.

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London’s first ecological skyscraper, The Gherkin © Londontopia.com
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Interior view from the apex of the Gherkin skyscraper © archdaily.com
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Interior view from the apex of the Gherkin skyscraper © archdaily.com

4. Basque Health Department Headquarters, Bilbao (2004)

The structure is located at the junction of two important streets of Bilbao city and was designed by Coll-Barreu Architects. The most prominent feature of this building is the folded glass facade, which generates multiple visual aesthetics when viewed from different angles of the street. Along with solving urban requirements, the double facade also provides fire-resistance, acoustical insulation and also helps in eliminating the conventional mechanical air-conditioning systems and the need for a false ceiling to hide the ductwork. Thus, such a design fits perfectly for housing a health department inside the building and promotes a healthy environment required by the department. With a total of 7 open-plan office floors, there are three additional levels in the basement as well for provision of parking and an auditorium with its adjoining services. 

Basque Health Department Headquarters, Bilbao (2004)
Interior view of the Basque Health Department Building © miesarch.com

5. Seattle Central Library, Washington (2004)

The 11-story glass and steel structure designed by OMA has set the bar high for library buildings around the world. The Seattle Central Library with its futuristic design has transformed a typical library meant only for books into a building that houses all sorts of information in various forms of media. The unusual shape of the facade is the result of the distribution of the books and their program across five platforms and four flowing ‘in-between’ planes. This ‘Book Spiral’ arranges the book collection in the path of a continuous ribbon, starting from 000 and going up to 999, as one moves to the lower levels. The facade is composed of triple-layered slidable glass panels which are clamped over a cover strip. This helps to disengage the glass panels from the building’s movements, thus, making it more earthquake resistant.

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View of the Seattle Central Library from the street © archdaily.com
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Interior View of the Seattle Library © oma.eu
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Section of the Seattle Library showing different functions on various levels © oma.eu

6. The Sage Gateshead, United Kingdom (2004)

The building located at the banks of the River Tyne, England is now an important landmark as it tends to fill a void for musical events in this part of the city. Inside that curved glass shell, are three separate performance spaces which are acoustically independent of each other. This division of spaces is also evident on the outside and expressed by the undulation of the roof. 

Reaching a maximum height of 40m, the facade which merges with the roof is made up of 3,500 square meters of trapezoidal glass panels and some 3,043 panels of stainless steel. The key concept of this structure as mentioned by the architect’s team, Foster+Partners, was to make this building an “Urban Living Room”. This concept echoes the vision of designing a place for all people and to make this public gathering space unique and more vibrant. 

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View of the Sage Gateshead from the Tyne River © en.wikipedia.org
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Interior view of the Foyer of the Sage Gateshead
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Laying of the Corrugated steel panels during the construction of Sage Gateshead © tonyjollyimages.com

7. Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop, Tokyo (2008)

This studio cum workshop designed by Japanese architect Junya Ishigami with its floor to ceiling glass on all sides offers a variety of experiences within the single open-plan volume. The key idea of this design was to blend in the exterior and interior spaces and create a connection between the two by using complete transparent glass on the facade. 

The interior working space is formed by a random arrangement of columns, thus accommodating spaces of varied sizes and offering more flexibility to the user. The glass used for the structure’s skin is just 0.39 inches thick with additional glass ribs required to support it vertically. 

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Floor to Ceiling glass wall on all sides of the KAIT workshop ©morewithlessdesign.com
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Interior view of the workshop showing the randomly placed columns ©morewithlessdesign.com
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Small working spaces formed as a result of the arrangement of columns in the KAIT workshop ©morewithlessdesign.com

8. Aldar Headquarters, Abu Dhabi (2010)

It is believed that the design for this structure was developed keeping in mind the importance of clamshell in Abu Dhabi’s heritage and hence the similar-looking form of this building consisting of two giant curved walls of glass portraying the opening of a clamshell. The use of a diagrid system for this building was the first seen in UAE, which allowed for greater stability and structural efficiency for the circular form. 

The complex geometry of the facade is solved by using triangular pieces of glass combined to form diamond-like shapes, which along with the diagrid come together like a puzzle. Another unique feature of this design is that unlike the typical four-sided buildings, this structure does not have a well-defined roof and hence only three faces having a zipper-like element between the two huge curved glass walls. This acts as a structural band that knits together the two main glass faces and is considered the backbone of the structure. 

Aldar Headquarters, Abu Dhabi (2010) - Sheet1
View of the Aldar Headquarters from the street © glasspaint.com
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Conceptual sketches prepared by the Architect’s team © archdaily.com
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The zipper-like element that knits together the two curved glass walls ©archdaily.com

9. Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2014)

Frank Gehry is known for his unique architectural style and with the creation of this design, the structure itself becomes the first work of art for Fondation Louis Vuitton. The building sits on the edge of a water garden, created specifically for this project, and is composed of white blocks or called “icebergs” by the architect which are placed asymmetrically on top of each other. These blocks are clad in panels made of fiber-reinforced concrete, surrounded by glass walls or “sails” as they call it with the support of wooden beams. 

Despite the unique form of the roof, the glass structure allows the building to collect and reuse rainwater. Certain steps like these involved in the design process have helped it achieve certification from Paris which is considered equivalent to LEED Gold building certificate. The design program includes 11 galleries of various sizes, an auditorium with 350 seating, and roof terraces on multiple levels to host events and showcase art installations. 

Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2014) - Sheet1
Aerial view of the Fondation Louis Vuitton designed by Architect Frank Gehry © zoontjens.com
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3D rendered view showing the steel and wooden framework for the structure © archdaily.com
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Detail of wooden beams used for framework © archdaily.com

10. Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg (2016)

The new cultural center added to the city of Hamburg by architects Herzog & de Meuron, goes by the name Elbphilharmonie, which not only provides attractive architecture but also provides a multitude of urban uses for the public. These include a huge philharmonic hall, a music hall, few restaurants, bars, an open terrace with views of the harbor and the city, a hotel, and parking facilities. 

What catches the eye is the contrasting image created by the existing red-brick structure of Kaispeicher at the base, with the modern all-glass block resting on top of the Kaispeicher. This glass mass has an undulating tent-like roof structure composed of 8 concave surfaces forming peaks and troughs. The complete glass facade is made up of curved glass wall panels which gives it a crystalline look, and this appearance changes with the change in time during a day. It is also interesting to note that each glass pane used in the facade has a different curvature depending on where it is particularly placed. 

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View of the Elbphilharmonie above the existing red-brick structure of Kaispeicher © archdaily.com
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3D cross-sectional view of the Elbphilharmonie © wallpaper.com
Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg (2016) - Sheet3
Closer look at the curved glass panels used in the façade of the Elbphilharmonie © archdaily.com
Author

A recent graduate who is always looking for creative opportunities and has a strong passion for writing. She is also a firm believer that in times like today, we as architects must show our creativity not by demolishing old structures, but rather adopting the old ones with new uses.

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