Saturday, 16 January 2010

Seeing through glass

"Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall", ran the Elizabethan rhyming jibe when Bess of Hardwick's palatial country house was built in Derbyshire in the 1590s. There's a hint of envy in it, of course. Large windows were and are functionally desirable in the dull English weather but glass was expensive in the late sixteenth century so having lots of it, and displaying it ostentatiously, was an assertion of status and a public reminder of personal wealth. (Bess was England's second richest woman). These days, the reverse is just as likely to be true. The expense of cladding a large building in something other than glass can be prodigious - it has been said that the British Museum's recent concession in sinking below ground one of the pavilions that forms part of its planned Exhibition and Conservation Centre was prompted at least as much by cost considerations as by heritage-based ones. Yes, excavation is expensive, but the savings on above-ground cladding make it potentially cost-neutral. At any rate, glass is now ubiquitous; tediously so when handled by lesser architects, to the extent that one cries out for something richer and more rewarding such as Alan Short's School of Slavonic & East European Studies in Bloomsbury (pictured). Notice how, paradoxically, the interior hierarchy of the building is differentiated much more clearly by this largely opaque facade. An all-glass facade, for all its apparent transparency, would have made it harder to read the interior, partly because (as the picture shows) glass actually reads as a dark mass for most of the time. The Georgians understood that - take a look at Vitruvius Britannicus and you'll see that all the windows are drawn in black. We're now so conditioned to vast expanses of glass in new architecture that buildings like Short's elicit a gasp of delighted surprise in much the same way that an innovative glass building such as the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool must have done when it appeared in Water Street in 1864. And it's unsurprising that one of the most uplifting pieces of English architecture in the past fifteen years is, ironically, underground: Michael Hopkins's Westminster Jubilee Line Station, where windows weren't an option. These days, old-fashioned solidity is startlingly novel, and pleasurably so.

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