Refraction heroes

Designers are using glass in buildings to stunning effect: manipulating it with colour and texture, opening up spaces, reflecting and playing with light. Emma O Kelly profiles the work and the approaches of three glass designers.

Think of glass in buildings, and dated images of ugly glass-fronted tower blocks or ecclesiastical windows depicting biblical characters probably spring to mind. Glass was also traditionally seen as pricey, dangerous and uneconomical for heating. Yet the development of laminates and hi-tech glass which changes from transparent to translucent at the flick of a switch have opened up new possibilities for the material, in both domestic and public buildings. Proposals for glass bridges have even been mooted in the UK and Venice, and in Moscow a glass living bridge was unveiled last autumn.

Architects are trying out new techniques with glass. Rick Mather and Dewhurst Macfarlane’s glass extension to a private house in Hampstead in 1992 made glass a feasible alternative to brick. Glass beams and cantilevers have been put into action on the Tokyo metro. And glass is being used in a plethora of Lottery-funded projects, such as Cornwall’s Eden Project, The Earth Centre in Doncaster and The Winter Gardens in Sheffield.

There are a growing number of glass artists in the UK – around 450 at last count – and last year the Contemporary Society for Glass was set up to represent their interests. Peter Layton, its chairman, explains: “People have finally caught on to how versatile glass is. Technology means it is easier to use and techniques [for building] have advanced hugely. At last it has been recognised as a powerful material in controlling the way a space is seen.”

Peter Fink

Peter Fink trained as an engineer, a philosopher and a fine artist, and was drawn to working with glass because of his fascination with light. Starting with gallery work in the Seventies, Fink moved into the architectural realm, where he makes large-scale public commissions. He also works in collaboration with performance artist Anne Bean to create temporary lighting installations, which included the transformation of Canary Wharf in 1992.

Fink experiments with both the aesthetic and structural composition of glass, coating it with metals to produce geometric shapes which he then laminates together. This produces sheets of glass with optical depth which produce a variety of patterns when light hits them. He is particularly interested in exploring the potential of glass to become an “intelligent material” and break away from the stained glass tradition.

Fink feels the way glass is used in public projects is “unimaginative” and provides artisans with limited scope. “Although glass is a leading architectural material, it is very under-developed. Interior designers rely on traditional methods of patterning like etching and sandblasting that ignore other possibilities. They go straight to glass factories instead of looking to artists,” he explains.

“Glass is expensive and difficult to work with as it won’t take certain finishes, so it ends up either being used in sheets for architectural purposes, or by craftsmen in the mediaeval tradition. It is also over-used and abused by architects showing a lack of imagination when commissioning pieces.”

Fink believes glass should open up a space: “People like light and glass. Seeing both materials should be like seeing a rainbow in the sky.”

Working with architect Hayes Davidson, Fink was a finalist in 1996 in the international competition to design the bridge between Bankside and St Paul’s Cathedral. His bridge was to use metallised glass, to be a transparent shimmering structure by day and a beam of light over the river by night, linked to electro-luminous materials that would respond to tidal changes. The proposal never went beyond concept stage, and Fink identifies the major obstacle as industry’s scepticism to the safety aspects of glass.

Another exciting project that is coming to fruition is at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket art gallery, built by architect Richard Murphy and scheduled to open at the end of this year. Fink has created an interactive pavement around the gallery and 10m-high spire. The metallised glass structure, called Northern Lights, will reflect light changes throughout the day and, because it is transparent, it will not interfere with the city’s “historically protected skyline”.

For Fink, glass in architecture should be invisible. “I’m happiest when [the designer’s] touch is indistinguishable from the building. Unfortunately, glass is often used to inject personality and ego.” His ideal projects use glass to produce minimal yet startling effects. He is working on the concept of a prism-like canopy to cover railway stations. Optical glass attached to a canopy would create a massive rainbow over any station building and show that there is more to glass design than mirrored walls in tawdry nightclubs and row upon row of laminated windows in offices.

Colin Reid

Trying to get his hands on objects as diverse as nuclear submarine windows or ancient fences from Elizabethan manor houses is central to Colin Reid’s work. By kiln-casting glass to create gallery pieces, he experiments with textures, and he is a natural magpie, always on the look out for objects to make moulds from. Once he has the mould, he casts glass pieces, which range from 15 cm decorative items to sculptures for public places, such as his 2.5m-high piece for Standard Life in London.

Reid exhibits all over the world, and his abstract pieces sell for up to 6000.

After graduating with a degree in fine art from Central St Martins

College in London in the early-Seventies, Reid saw an ad in Brixton job centre for courses in glass design. “Ceramicists in the US had started experimenting with glass. It was becoming studio- rather than industry-based. No one in the UK was really casting glass – because of its technical associations, glasswork was being done in factories by teams of artisans. I thought it might be interesting to get involved.”

It took Reid about five years to start making a living from kiln-casting (until then he made a living by blowing glass). “The development of glass in the UK is limited and held back by the market. Collectors have the wrong perspective; they compare us with ceramicists. If we relied upon selling only in the UK, we would [only] be producing wine glasses and stuff.”

Not surprisingly, then, Reid’s big break didn’t come in this country, but through a gallery in Los Angeles in the Eighties.

“Glass is an international material, and once your name is known you’re approached by galleries worldwide. In the UK, we never see glass from around the world, so people aren’t aware of what is really happening in studios.”

Reid has been one of a handful of pioneers in kiln-casting. It is a technique which can be carried out using little more than the equipment found in most potteries. “It’s an accessible technique. Unlike blown glass, you don’t need to spend years acquiring the skills to create a successful piece,” he says. Reid finds glass the perfect sculptural medium, as malleable as plastic. The trickiest part is “getting the firing and cooling process right to stop the glass cracking, and even then you never have complete control”.

Two of Reid’s pieces can be seen in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and his work is to be displayed in the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. This summer, he is exhibiting in the Gallerie Internationale de Verre in Biot, France, and at Galerie B in Baden-Baden in October.

He is also working on a project with the new National Museum of Scotland, which opens in November in Edinburgh. As the first museum of Scottish heritage, it will include an exhibit of 36 standing stones from the Highlands and Wales for which Reid is creating glass plinths.

He has just completed a sculpture for the new library in Shanghai, the third largest in Asia, which opened in December. His 3.5 m piece, based on the idea of ancient Chinese books which were made from strips of woven bamboo, will stand in the atrium. It is the first piece of glass sculpture in China.

Alexander Beleshenko

“Everyone is seeing the potential of glass now,” says Alexander Beleshenko, gleefully. Like Peter Fink, his agenda is to create art in architecture through the medium of glass.

He recently completed a 14m-high glass wall at the Jubilee Line Tube station under construction in Southwark. Triangular pieces of glass interlock to form a faceted wall, and the end result is a cone-like structure which lets light through. He has been involved in the project for four years, and because of industry’s reluctance to employ artists, architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard had to take him on board in the guise of a “cladding consultant”.

After working with glass for 16 years, Beleshenko feels its potential still hasn’t been fully realised. “Glass was once prized and valued for its transparency – stained glass windows which let the light of God shine into churches were revered. Today the use of glass is anything but spiritual. Designers use it in a rather kitsch and tacky way. Machines can cut difficult shapes, but the end result is often crass,” he says.

This is not helped by the fact that glass lamp-workers in every tourist town from Brighton to Blackpool, blowing cutesy animals and brightly coloured tack, are often unfairly grouped with professional studio workers.

The lack of innovation in glass is due to industry’s reluctance to take chances, says Beleshenko. “There is very little crossover between art and industry when it comes to glass. Industry doesn’t care what glass looks like. I really had to fight to get the Southwark project to work as I wanted it to.”

Like all glass artists, Beleshenko is fascinated by the way glass reacts with light. He creates textures and colours by acid-etching and painting surfaces in enamels to produce opacity and transparency. “Glass is hard to control. Much of what you produce is down to chance,” he says.

Beleshenko takes a fluid approach. “The play between structure and chance is a recurring feature in my work,” he says. “People are aware that the quality of architecture depends on light. We have learnt from the disasters of the Sixties, when people lived in deep, dark spaces. Glass, once considered a material only for windows, is today an important part of the building envelope.” But attitudes only develop with commissions, and these are few and far between.

Wales-based Beleshenko works on around three large-scale projects a year. In January, he completed windows for Munich exhibition hall the Neue Messe. And he has recently completed the glass screens which sit at the entrance to the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University, taking an ancient daguerreotype of St Marks Cathedral and printing the image on to the glass.

One of his most exciting projects to date is working with a group of young German architects to build Herzjesukirche, the Heart of Jesus Church, in Munich. The building, made entirely of glass, is opaque at the altar and transparent at the entrance, with the congregation housed in a slatted wooden box. This comes closest to Beleshenko’s idea of the perfect project; a building made entirely of glass, right down to the walls, playing with opacity and transparency.

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