Skip to comments.Enlightenment, wrought in glass
Posted on 04/15/2008 10:25:35 AM PDT by forkinsocket
The story of Western architecture is one of darkness giving way to light. Europe's dour medieval fortresses were replaced by airy Gothic structures and for the modernists, light was an end in itself. Has this tale run its course?
From the beginning, architecture has been embarked on a journey to the light.
That we have arrived is something we now take for granted. But it wasn't always thus.
Indeed, of all the elements that comprise architecture, light was historically the most elusive. For millennia, we lived in shadow. Anyone who has wandered through those 1,000-year-old Romanesque churches around Barcelona in northern Spain has experienced the power of darkness; it is cold, scary, mysterious yet strangely affecting.
It makes perfect sense that these sacred fortresses should be bathed in black. The god being worshipped there was frightening, forbidding and ultimately unknowable. This was a god to be feared. Unforgiving and unrelenting, he didn't offer happiness so much as he threatened eternal damnation.
Gradually, however, as God's image grew closer to that of man's, He became more approachable. At the same time, technical innovation allowed for a new style of construction.
By the time Abbot Suger built his church at Saint-Denis in the 12th century, God had been removed from darkness and bathed in light. The new architecture allowed for enormous windows where before there had been nothing but solid wall. The technology of buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches led to the advent of stained-glass windows and light-filled interiors, all dedicated to the greater glory of God.
It is hard for us moderns, raised in a world of glass houses and transparent towers, to imagine the extraordinary impact Saint-Denis had on medieval Europe. It was not just remarkable, but miraculous. The new style, which would later be labelled Gothic, spread across the continent. It became the language of the grandest cathedrals and, eventually, of everything else from schools and legislatures to train stations and workers' cottages. It is with us still today, though celebrated now more for its verticality, perhaps, than its light-filled spaces.
It's interesting, though, how the beginnings of Gothic architecture were tied to the church. In this way, the connection between God and light was made explicit; the scary deity of earlier times had been replaced by a more approachable personage, someone who revealed Himself through His works, i.e. man's works. Indeed, the Gothic church was a three-dimensional illustration of the new relationship between man, God and nature. Literally and figuratively, the process was one of enlightenment.
But the real move to transparency didn't occur until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That's when steel frame construction relieved walls of the burden of load bearing. Henceforth, walls could be made of virtually any materials, including glass. Since they no longer had to hold the building up, walls could be as light and thin as desired.
One of the earliest results of these new techniques was the Chicago style. Among its main characteristics were rows of large windows organized horizontally. Here the interest in light was not religious but commercial; workers are more productive when they can see what they're doing.
At the same time, however, glass was emerging as the preferred material of a whole new school of architecture that latched on to its spiritual, even mystical qualities. It became in Robert Hughes' phrase "the supreme Utopian material."
It stood at the opposite end of the spectrum from brick and stone. "The surface of the Earth," wrote German architect Paul Scheerbart in 1914, "would change totally if brick buildings were replaced everywhere by glass architecture."
Other architects, most notably Bruno Taut, also extolled the virtues of the vitreous. His most famous building is the 1914 Glass Pavilion at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. On one of its walls, Scheerbart inscribed the following delirious lines: "Happiness without glass What an absurdity!"
By the early 1920s, another, more famous, German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was designing glass skyscrapers that, though never realized, anticipate the corporate and condo towers of today. With the arrival of Mies, contemporary architecture found its form. To this day, Mies' influence can be seen in cities around the world.
Although that has started to change in recent years, the fascination with glass continues unabated. The Modernist era has largely sputtered to an end, but transparency remains high on the architectural agenda. These days, though, its use seems more decorative than religious or utopian. Stripped of meaning, glass is just one of many materials in the 21st-century builders' arsenal. Ironically perhaps, there's glass now that has structural capacity.
In Toronto, as in many cities, glass towers abound, though these days most are residential rather than corporate. People everywhere live in glass boxes. The original glass houses, built by Philip Johnson (1949) and Mies (1951), though acknowledged icons, verged on being follies. Half a century later, the idea is commonplace, so popular that condo towers have come to resemble nothing so much as hundreds of these same glass houses, one stacked atop the next.
Maybe the most telling contemporary instance of architectural glass is I.M. Pei's 1989 pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. It shocked the French when unveiled nearly 20 years ago, but has since revealed itself an indelible image of our age. Though it refers to those indestructible structures built by the ancient Egyptians more than 4,500 years ago, this time around, the form has been emptied of all content. It is hollow, transparent, perfectly meaningless, a mere container of light, but on a sunny day, a wonderful place to be.
The perfect description of modernist architecture.
I'd rather be outside.
Academically, this is probably true. But the Pantheon, pagon origins or not, was/is a magnificent structure, bathed in light. The early Christians made no attempt at darkening it; it just took them (and the rest of known & unknown civilization) a while to duplicate it.
I hate that thing. I'm glad my first trip there was before it existed. At least I have the memory.