Looking Through the History of Glass in Architecture

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Glass makes up a lot of the ornaments, kitchenwares, and equipment that we use. From vases to windshields to industrial materials and technology, glass is a flexible and versatile material needed in plenty of things. Glass is formed through the rapid cooling of molten non-crystalline matter. It can be naturally occurring such as volcanic glass and synthetically manufactured such as the silicate glass that we know of today.

The first use of glass

Before people in the past learned how to make glass, they relied on naturally occurring glass such as obsidian and fulgurite. Obsidian is also a volcanic rock formed through the rapid cooling of molten lava while fulgurite is formed when lightning strikes sand. Both were used to create weapons, arrowheads, jewelry, knives, and currency.

The emergence of man-made glass

According to archaeological evidence, man-made glass was supposedly founded by 3500 BC in Eastern Mesopotamia (which is now known as the Middle East, including parts of southwest Asia and nations around the Mediterranean Sea). The glass industry experienced frequent fluctuations due to manufacturing constraints at first.

At that time, glass-making was a slow and difficult process. Glass-making techniques were still experimental and equipment was inadequate since furnaces that were used to melt glass were small and not hot enough to melt glass. After 300 years since it began, the glass industry declined.

But in 700 BC, glass-making was revived in Mesopotamia while in Egypt it was revived by 500 BC. Still, they used old and slow-going techniques to manufacture glass products. By 100 BC, Syrian craftsmen were the first to invent the technique of making glass products by using a glassblowing pipe. This technique was proven to be a faster and cheaper means for glass manufacturers, revolutionizing glassmaking as a whole.

It was pivotal in reinventing architecture and culture

With the convenience of new glassmaking techniques, the glass industry thrived in the Roman Empire and cascaded into all the countries that were under its rule. In the first century, glassmaking rapidly spread across Europe. Alexandria, Egypt became the capital of glassmaking by 1000 AD.

In architecture, glass debuted in the form of glazed windows on cathedrals dating back to the late 6th and early 7th centuries. Glass was first used in window installation projects for churches, banking on the symbolic principle of “letting light into the darkness”. Some of the earliest uses of glazed windows are found in the Cathedral of York (669 AD) and the Abbey of Monkwearmouth in Sunderland (7th century), both of which are in England. Over time, various techniques were developed to control how much light passes through glass by adding monochromatic colors (seen in grisaille windows) and incorporating geometric or pictorial designs as well.

During the time of the Crusades, which lasted through the 11th to 12th centuries, glassmaking traveled through Venice where they perfected the technique of making window glass, also known as crown glass at the time. When all glassmaking equipment was transferred to the island of Murano in Venice, which later on became the center of glassmaking in the western world, it was there where glassmaker Angelo Barovier created transparent glass.

The use of stained glass dates as far as the 4th century, beginning in the Roman Empire where it was first used in crafting glass ornaments. This is done through painting over a glass or adding chemicals to it during the cooling process to change its color. Its first integration into architecture was seen in cathedral windows as well during the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Stained glass windows were popularly used throughout the history of gothic and baroque architecture from the 11th to the 18th century.

In The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, Joseph Paxton was the first to exhibit the potential of glass in infrastructure through showcasing The Crystal Palace whose facade was primarily made of steel frames and glass. This revolutionized the use of glass in not just windows and doors, but in the construction of a building itself. However, the use of glass was still a form of luxury due to its expensive and extensive production. Furthermore, the problem of optical distortions present in glass was still unsolved.

But when Sir Alastair Pilkington introduced the technique of making float glass, now known as the Pilkington process, which can mass-produce transparent and flat glass without optical distortions, glass became a more accessible commodity for use in architecture.

Glass in modern architecture

Thanks to technology, the use of glass in buildings has expanded from mere windows to the entire structure itself. Glass such as shatterproof and chromatic glass could be used for both the interior and exterior of a building. Many skyscrapers and towers also use glass. Not only does it make a visual statement, but it is highly considered in the construction process due to its multiple technical functionalities.