A touch of glass

The National Glass Centre is the UK’s first permanent housing for glassmakers’ work, and the building itself showcases the use of glass in architecture. Jessica Cargill Thompson pays a visit

When the National Glass Centre opens on the banks of the river Wear at Sunderland on 20 June, the North East of England will get a new tourist attraction and the UK’s glassmakers will get a permanent showcase for their talents. The centre is dedicated to the celebration of glass in all its applications. It will feature a permanent exhibition telling the story of glass, a temporary gallery showcasing contemporary talent and a factory where visitors can watch artisans at work, all housed in a building which boasts the first glass roof designed for visitors to walk on.

The main attraction will be the Kaleidoscope Gallery, designed by Yorkshire-based PLB Design and billed as “a fascinating voyage of discovery through the world of glass”. Exhibits will include a variety of mechanically and electronically interactive exhibits, video footage and weird experiences such as the hall of mirrors through which visitors enter the gallery through. Throughout the gallery, the ethereal music of Canada’s Glass Orchestra, which creates sounds from glass objects and instruments, will be playing.

“All the way through, we are trying to give people an image of glass and how glass is used,” says exhibition designer David Patrick of PLB. “The message we want to put across is how glass has an effect on our everyday lives.”

The exhibition space is divided into several sections, with something for all ages. There are glasses, periscopes, binoculars and microscopes for looking into other worlds; there is a technical area showing the properties of glass; and an area provisionally entitled “message in a bottle”, where visitors can learn how glass fibres are used in telecommunications or write their own message and float it off in a bottle.

“One of the problems of working with glass is that it is a huge subject,” says Patrick. “It has such an all-pervading influence that the more we researched it, the wider it seemed to get.”

Throughout the exhibition, windows offer views between spaces, serving as a constant reminder of one of the most common uses of glass. Across the end of the gallery will be a vast visual display wall with two large monitors magnifying aspects of some of the exhibits, and a pane of specially created patterned glass that will pick up the colours of what is showing on screen, moving and shimmering like the patterns in a kaleidoscope.

Adjoining the Kaleidoscope Gallery is the Sunderland Room, a dimly-lit space lined with back-lit glass panels, specially commissioned from glass artist Bridget Jones, which tell the story of glassmaking on Wearside. The area has quite a history, including the oldest example of stained glass in Britain, dating back to 674AD, in the tiny St Peter’s Church next to the centre.

From the Kaleidoscope Gallery, visitors are led out on to the factory floor where they can overlook glass artists at work from the safety of a steel mesh walkway which winds round the space. There will also be an opportunity to take part in workshops and demonstrations.

Naturally, the tour ends in the shop, which will sell exclusively British-made glass, from marbles to masterpieces. Established glass makers such as Royal Doulton and Caithness Glass have designed exclusive ranges for the centre. The Royal Doulton Wearside range includes champagne flutes, wine glasses, a decanter, a perfume bottle and, the most prestigious piece, a 7.5cm-high vase featuring traditional and intaglio cutting designed by Terry Rowntree and Toni McEvoy. The centre will also have its own Riverside range of glassware made by the artists working in the factory.

The Kaleidoscope Gallery and workshop tour are the only two spaces that carry an entrance charge (3.50 for adults and 2.00 for children and concessions). The Temporary Gallery, also known as the Glass Gallery, will be free and will be used mainly for exhibitions of contemporary work from the international arena.

“I think the centre can do a lot, not just for the glass world, but for raising the profile of applied arts in general,” says exhibitions officer Ann Fletcher. “I want to show some of the exciting developments that are happening in glass at the moment, such as the way glass is now being used as a sculptural medium,” she adds. ©

As a material whose chief characteristic is transparency, glass is not the easiest substance to display to full advantage. Specially designed cases by Click Systems will use fibre optic cables to control each beam of light, and a hanging system has been erected in front of the large windows for showing architectural glass.

Fletcher’s debut exhibition, Glass UK, which runs until 4 October, is intended to set the scene for forthcoming exhibitions by giving an overview of developments over the past 30 years. The exhibition explores a new wave of British glassmaking which has seen the development of studio glass, starting in the Sixties with US artist Sam Herman, who encouraged a whole generation of Royal College of Art students to experiment with the material, exploring colours, textures and shapes.

Current talent on show includes Neil Wilkin whose Boat (1998) – metal supporting clear glass fins resembling a Viking longboat – will be hung at the end of the gallery, and Peter Layton, who runs the London Glass Blowing Workshop.

“In this exhibition, there will be everything from the traditional to more challenging pieces.” says Fletcher. “But in the future I hope to be able to look at more conceptual work and installations, to show people who are used to seeing vases and homewares that glass can be used in many different ways.”

Future exhibitions include shortlisted entries for the Jerwood Prize, (an annual award made by the Crafts Council in a different medium each year, which this year fortuitously happens to be looking at glass), contemporary Danish glass, and recycled glass.

The centre is expressly not a museum. Displays in both the Glass and Kaleidoscope galleries are about glass today and the centre will not have a permanent collection. Where necessary, pieces will be borrowed from other museums such as London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which opened its glass gallery last year.

A few permanent installations have been commissioned, such as the panels in the Sunderland room, a cast glass sculpture by Zora Palova which will stand outside the centre, and a multicoloured piece by Laura Johnston which consists of shards of dichroic glass hung above the entrance foyer which swoop round and out into the void over the restaurant like a shoal of fish.

Although the space seems relatively small for a centre dedicated to such a broad subject (Kaleidoscope is essentially only three rooms, the glass gallery just two), a lively exhibition programme and a thriving local glassmaking community (not to mention the novelty of the glass roof) should inspire the 100 000 visitors which are expected annually.

GRAPHICS

NE6 in partnership with WAM Advertising

The aim of the centre’s initial set of leaflets and posters was to set the scene for its opening on 20 June.

The image that sums up the message with the greatest impact is WAM’s grainy photograph of a bottle-opener on a white background with the words, ‘National Glass Centre. Opens June 20th’. It says it all. Glass. Opening. Got it.

Another range of posters and leaflets has been designed to let people know the attractions on offer in the centre. ‘The purpose of the more informative posters and leaflets was to raise awareness to the public and schools that glass, which is largely taken for granted, is actually a very historic, diverse and exciting material,’ says NE6 creative director Alan Whitfield.

To do this, images of the traditional (glass-blowing and stained glass) have been juxtaposed with the scientific (fibre optic threads) and the creative (Zora Palova’s striking sculpture Curved Bridge). The dark background that is necessary to show up the illuminated glass adds to a sense of discovery and exploration. Minimum description, sans serif fonts and highlighting of essential information mean potential visitors will learn what they need to know at a glance.

For those in the industry, it’s worth getting on the National Glass Centre’s mailing list, if only to receive its Christmas card, with mirror writing reflected to form a Christmas tree (a simple, but apt trick) – it has won the Roses Silver Award 1998 for best promotional graphics.

ARCHITECTURE

Gollifer Associates

The 7.4 million Lottery-funded National Glass Centre, designed by London architect Gollifer Associates, has a striking position on the banks of the Wear and is built back into the side of the valley.

The main feature is the 5000m2 roof which rises gently out of the landscape towards the river. It is one-third glass, designed to be walked on, and can support the weight of 13 000 people (top tip: don’t wear a skirt). As visitors walk out over the roof they can look down through the glass at the activities below, with views becoming increasingly vertiginous until the roof passes right out over the 10m-high café space and beyond the edge of the building, where there is an exhilarating view down the river to the North Sea.

The glass panels have a non-slip surface, contain a UV screen to reduce solar gain, and are opaque or translucent depending on the degree of privacy wanted below. Chimneys, canopies and ventilation towers give the roof its own landscape, creating more interest than a sheer plane.

Down on the quayside, a 10m-high and 55m-long glazed facade, supported by glass fins, overlooks the river, creating a bright open space for diners in the centre’s restaurant, Throwing Stones (as in what people in glass houses shouldn’t do). Overhead, bizarre pods (which are used as meeting rooms) crash through the walls and hang over the high space. Quirky steel brises-soleil shade the glass on the upper storeys to prevent overheating.

When Gollifer Associates and engineer Techniker won the international competition in 1994 to design the centre, their intent was to use the building itself as a showcase for glass. Hence, glass pops up around the buildings in many forms: the structural glass walls of the restaurant, the roof, glass blocks to let light into the education room, industrial-looking glass lamps over the factory, and frosted glass vanity units in the toilets. The colour scheme, too, is derived from shades associated with glass, from the greeny blues of the gallery walls and the sandy tones of the restaurant.

However, budgetary constraints meant many of the architect and engineer’s more innovative ideas were lost. For example, original plans included translucent concrete panels with crushed coloured glass, glass that changes from transparent to dark when an electric current is passed through it, glazed walls to allow views into the factory from the entrance walkway, more internal glass walls allowing views between spaces and giving a layered effect, and at least two-thirds glass on the roof.

Consequently, although the centre that has been built is fun and eye-catching, there’s the feeling an opportunity to create something really exciting has been missed.

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