Billowing clouds of glass are the next holy grail in architecture. Keep your eyes lifted and alert: The race is on to achieve visually ephemeral buildings that look as if they might cleanse your mind while they float away.
Frank Gehry has been hired by luxury titan Louis Vuitton to create a luminous vessel within Paris's Bois de Boulogne. If the Verrière glass, half of which will be ceramic-white frit, is manufactured to exquisite levels and the craft of its assembly is superb, the forest pavilion could resemble a great white heron in flight.
Gehry has long imagined epic possibilities for glass. His first contribution to the New York skyline was a glass vessel blowing, it would seem, at full sail toward the Hudson River. The headquarters for IAC/InterActiveCorp. was accomplished with a gentle luminosity and low-key, nine-storey profile. It billows alongside a hit parade of architecture that now flanks the High Line (though none of it approaches the high gloss of Gehry's perfectly turned-out meringue).
While construction of the Vuitton Foundation advances, a Canadian-designed piece of architectural daring in cast glass is taking shape. Starting this week, at the Gartner Steel and Glass testing facility in Bavaria, Germany, translucent panels of cast glass will be mocked up. Artisans at Toronto's Jeff Goodman Studio, working in close collaboration with Toronto's Hariri Pontarini Architects, have produced the thick, milky glass for a Baha'i temple on the edge of metropolitan Santiago, Chile.
The protective embrace of the domed temple, to be defined by nine petals (or veils), will be fabricated of myriad shapes in cast glass, with 25 per cent of them noticeably curved. Luminous and white is what design lead Siamak Hariri had in mind; seen up close, they look like streams of milk frozen in place.
It took years of testing and the rejection of hundreds of samples at the acclaimed Goodman Studio (which typically makes chandeliers or small-scale screens of glass) to arrive at the 32-millimetre-thick cast glass with matte finish. "That the design is finally being mocked up in Germany represents a major milestone," says Hariri. Now, thousands of completed pieces are sitting on slats in Toronto waiting to be shipped for assembly to Germany, and eventually Chile.
The project is unique in the world, says Gartner's managing director, Armin Franke, from his office in Germany. Hariri's exacting specifications have presented many challenges. For one thing, the architects want only the most minimal silicon joints between the heavy cast-glass panels. The panels – made from countless glass rods laid on a sheet and baked at Goodman Studio – are stronger than stone, according to tests, to satisfy a Baha'i requirement that the building endure for 400 years, and to survive one of the most active earthquake zones in the world.
The structural ambitions of the project are formidable: The glass serves only as the exterior skin of the temple. On its underside, the dome is to be clad in translucent Portuguese marble. All fasteners will be hidden. "The idea is that this is a veil of light," says Hariri, "with a very soft glow on the inside and the outside."
The Gartner test facility – a European leader in the supply and assembly of complex glass structures – has previously worked for several luminaries of design to create stunning innovations in glass. For New York's Rafael Vinoly Architects, the company has specified the glass and assembled a study/living room at Claremont McKenna College, outside of Los Angeles, with glass walls strong enough to hold up a steel roof. The German company is working on a glass convention centre in Doha, Qatar, for Murphy/Jahn Architects, which will use a rare system of horizontal cables rather than steel mullions to hold the panes of glass in place.
These days, much of Gartner's work is being generated by the relatively robust Canadian economy. There's the epic skylight and glass bridge at Calgary's Eaton Centre; and, in Toronto, the glass walkway at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and the Shuter Street pedestrian bridge, designed as a tube interwoven with a steel structure in the form of a double helix, by Diamond Schmitt Architects.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, conceived as a cloud with a tower rising through it, has also been an important commission. Gartner worked with the museum's architect, Antoine Predock, to simplify a design that had originally featured curved panels of glass for about 40 per cent of its surface.
Unless an architect is actually engaged in the fabrication of curved glass, as Hariri has been with the Goodman studio, an exhilarating idea on paper tends to stretch beyond most budgets. "It's always a conflict that architects have complex ideas and the customer doesn't have the budget," says Franke, summing up a global point of tension with typical understatement.
Using highly sophisticated computer software, a curve can be broken down into a series of flat panels, which explains how the Winnipeg museum has managed to build a series of curved bands from regularized glass. The glazing has a permanent frit pattern applied to an inner surface of the 1,640 glazed panels, diminishing undesirable heat gain. Construction will be mostly completed by end of year; the inauguration is scheduled for 2014.
If it could mean stemming the onslaught of frigid blue or sterile green glass that dominates the current trend in condo and office towers, I'd like to see a whole lot more milky white clouds on the horizon. Expect more curved-glass facades in Toronto, starting with sultry luxury offices to open in 2014 at 7 St. Thomas, just south of Yorkville.
"If you want white, frits and coating – if that's what the architect is specifying – you can fabricate any kind of glass," says Franke. "The main issue is how much the client is willing to pay." That, and how quickly the Chinese will figure out how to make glass clouds on the cheap.
For more on great design from around the world, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org.