In 1913, Walter Gropius completed an unusual shoe-last factory in the sleepy German town of Alfeld-an-der-Leine, and ever since, architects have been obsessed with building glass boxes. Alfeld is where glass-wall architecture quite literally turned the corner, dematerializing what had always been the most solid part of a building into ethereal lightness.
Gropius’s factory wasn’t the first glass box, of course. Long before came London’s vast Crystal Palace, built at Hyde Park for the Great Exposition of 1851. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, was a landscape gardener already known for his innovative cast-iron framed conservatories.
With the exposition short on time, Paxton ingeniously conceived the 990,000-square-foot building as a gigantic prefabricated greenhouse.
Thereafter, others used glass in innovative ways. But it was Gropius who showed architects just how much fun they could have with it. Alas, the real brilliance of his design — its elegant juxtaposition of solid mass and transparent membrane — was lost on the many who simply declared glass the quintessential modern material and began using it by reflex.
The postwar era brought many more famous glass boxes. In Chicago, there was Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments of 1949, and nearby his Farnsworth House of 1951. There was Philip Johnson’s own glass house of 1949 in New Canaan, Conn.
Glass boxes took commercial architecture by storm with two New York office towers, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Lever House (1952) and Mies’s Seagram Building (1958). Thereafter, it became the accepted norm that a modern high-rise building should be sheathed in glass.
The trouble is that, as much as architects adore glass boxes, they simply don’t work as buildings. There are many subtle reasons — privacy, maintenance, people throwing stones — but the most obvious one is the sun, which rather unavoidably warms up our world in the daytime and lets it cool off at night. This makes it impossible to comfortably live or work in a glass box without having to pump in or out huge amounts of energy in the form of heating or cooling.
Ancient cultures, who lacked our modern expedient of mechanical air conditioning, had the good sense to design and orient buildings in passive synergy with the sun — a basic intelligence that many of today’s architects seem to lack. Flying in the face of the green movement, they remain obsessed with building glass boxes. What’s more, computer-aided design has actually made the problem worse: Slick digital renderings of buildings with acres of sparkling glass invariably look stunning in renderings, where they’re forever immune from the exactions of actual use. For eventual occupants, however, the reality is quite different.
Not far from my office is a civic building recently designed by a prominent modernist firm. It’s yet another iteration of the tired glass-box formula, devoid of any architectural response to solar orientation or practical comfort.
The predictable result: On the south face of the building, hapless employees tape newspapers to the windows to avoid being broiled at their desks, while on the north side, which faces the street, they do the same to avoid being displayed like dummies in a shop window.
Modernism may claim the phrase "form follows function," but for any kind of life beyond the vegetal, the typical modernist glass box is the least functional form possible.