06 September 2013
The concave glass walls of Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London focus sunlight so effectively that they melted parts of a parked car, a Jaguar XJ to be exact. Vinoly’s earlier building, the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, singed the hair of at least one visitor by the same mechanism. The fact that nobody in the City of London noticed this in the planning process is a very funny comment on the continued competence of our financial sector.
But the real story here is the glass building. I suspect Vinoly had no choice when he designed a glass-walled block, it is what companies and cities seem to expect. It is, they think, ‘modernism’. In fact, it isn’t. Of the great modernists, it is true that Mies van der Rohe favoured glass walls, but Le Corbusier didn’t and neither did Frank Lloyd Wright. If you close your eyes and think of the classical era of modernism, what you should see is white painted concrete rather than glass. However, the technology of non-structural ‘curtain’ walls, of reinforced glass and, latterly, of computer-aided design all made glass walls seem like the last word in modernity. The ensuing glass towers have become the dominant features in most of the cities of the world.
I am sure there are reasons – financial, environmental – why this should be, though my own experience of architects suggests they have a rare ability to provide almost any practical justification for what is, in reality, a purely aesthetic choice. There’s nothing wrong with that but, when it comes to aesthetics, glass is a limited and now entirely exhausted medium. Vinoly distorted his building with car-burning curves just to add a new twist (literally) to a rather routine office block. Nearby, at 122 Leadenhall Street, Richard Rogers has built his so-called ‘cheese-grater’ which gets round the tedium of glass walls with a strange shape, extravagantly exposed structure and exterior elevators. But the supreme London example of the glass tower is Renzo Piano’s Shard on the south bank of the Thames. This is the tallest building in Europe and it appear to be nothing but glass, even its shape and name signal that this is, indeed, a shard of glass and very little else but glass. It felt outdated before it was finished, the last building of the twentieth century, as Stephen Bayley put it, rather than the first of the twenty-first.
Glass, in short, has become a burden to cities, turning them all into the same city of jagged, twisted, burning, gleaming, sharp towers. From a distance, this is dull, from close-up it is worse. Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of among many other things, the London Olympic flame, explained to me exactly what was wrong with big glass sheets at street level.
‘A building landing on a street with such large singular components reminds human beings how tiny they are. They have very little of human scale and perspective and when you come up close there’s a sterilising effect. You feel you need to speed up to get past something like that.’
Glass, in short, is both deathly and dead. Designers of buildings on a smaller scale are now kicking the glass habit and, slowly, the street level is improving. But, above, the burning glass towers still threaten our cars and our souls.