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History & Uses of Glass in Architecture

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

It is as clear as a bell, or in this case glass. Glass lets the sun shine in, protects us from the weather, helps us to see better (glass lenses), gives us containers to cook foods, and allows for dramatic architectural use.

Who Made the First Glass?

There is little known about where the use of glass came from or who made the first glass. There are two kinds of naturally occurring glass; obsidian, which can be found around volcanos where the molten lava cools too quickly to crystallize, and fulgurite, which is formed when lightning strikes sand. It is thought that glassmaking began in Mesopotamia, over 4,000 years ago. There are no records to tell us how people first discovered they could make glass but there are many myths. Most experts believe that glassmaking as we know it developed over a long period of time.

How is Glass Made?

Glass is a basic mixture of 70 % silica, or sand, 18% sodium oxide, or soda ash, and 12% calcium carbonite, or lime. The soda ash lowers the melting point of the sand and refines it while the lime acts as a stabilizer. Regular sand may have impurities that can color the glass. The addition of manganese dioxide, an agent that removes color, can be added to counter the impurities, leaving the glass clear. Other ingredients can be added to the recipe to give specific properties to the glass. The lenses in your eyeglasses contain lead oxide, barium, and lanthanum oxide to increase the refractive ability. If you add boron oxide, you get Pyrex, just like those clear baking dishes in your mom's kitchen.

After working with glass for a time, glassmakers began to figure out how to control the color of the glass. If they wanted red glass, they added gold. For blue glass, they added cobalt; green glass they added chromic oxide and various copper compounds create variations of blues, greens, and reds.

Stained Glass Window
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Soon, glass would become more than just a way to close up a building while still letting light in. New processes and new glass compounds would make glass a major type of construction material. From energy efficient, double paned windows for your home, to super strong laminated and chromatic glass to skin entire skyscrapers, glass makes architectural history.

A Little Glass History

Glass blowing is thought to have begun in Europe in the 1st-century. However, windows made of cast glass, glass created by pouring molten glass into a mold, have been found in important buildings in Rome and Pompeii. Glassmaking spread through Europe and by the 17th-century colored glass was being used in churches and cathedrals.

During the 11th-century, the crown glass process made sheets of glass. In this process, a glob of molten glass was put on the end of a rod. The glassmaker then spun the rod and glass until it flattened into a disk, like a pizza. The disk was then cooled and cut into square or rectangular panes. This manufacturing method created a lot of optical distortions but was used to make glass until the mid-19th century.

Colored glass, also created by the crown glass method, was used to create dramatic stained-glass windows during the Gothic and Baroque periods that spanned the 11th through 18th-centuries. Once considered a luxury only for the wealthy due to its manufacturing costs, glass began to be used more frequently in windows of buildings.

In 1958, a revolutionary method for making sheets of glass was introduced by Pilkington and Becker: the float glass process. This method allowed glassmakers to make sheets of distortion free glass that could vary in thickness. In this process, molten glass was floated on molten tin, pulled through rollers to flatten, and allowed to cool. The time it took to cool the glass affected its durability. If it cooled too quickly, it became brittle. Using a longer, slower cooling process called annealing made the glass stronger.

The Industrial Revolution brought, even more, methods of producing and using glass. The production of stronger types of glass, as well as the development of new construction methods, allowed for the use of glass for things other than windows. Glass was no longer used just as a cover for openings in walls but for the walls themselves.

Glass in Architecture

The first large-scale glass construction was The Crystal Palace, begun in 1850 in Hyde Park, England. This 992,000-square foot building was designed to house The Great Exhibition of 1851. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, a gardener, and designer of greenhouses, and was constructed with 300,000 pieces of glass. The design incorporated modular sections, a method that was innovative at the time resulting in the structure being built in record time. Walls and ceilings were created out of iron frames set with the largest panes of glass used to that point. The Crystal Palace was moved after the Great Exhibition to Sydenham Hill where it remained until a fire destroyed it in 1936.

Exterior of The Crystal Palace
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Interior of The Crystal Palace
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