At Marc Jacobs’s spring 2019 runway show, the most quizzical design element wasn’t the designer’s euphoric use of pastels (imagine the Easter Bunny downing cotton candy at her best girlfriend’s baby shower) or the sartorial choices of his celebrity-filled front row (Nicki Minaj in a massive, rose-red ruff and an acid yellow wig). Instead, as the models stomped the runway, it was the backdrop of once hideously uncool glass blocks that stood out. The set left many style watchers wondering if that staple of 1980s suburban shopping malls – the kind of galleria that definitely had a Glamour Shots and the unmistakable scent of Cinnabon – was back.
In fact, like so many things that Jacobs touches, the translucent cubes are, indeed, on-trend again. And not in a kitschy, wink-wink, feathered bangs and acid wash denim kind of way. Some of the world’s most innovative architects, who once considered it the acne of building materials, are re-embracing it in ingenious ways to create surprising storefronts, homes and condos.
There is nothing retro or campy about Amsterdam’s so-called Crystal Houses, a recently completed marvel on PC Hooftstraat, the city’s fashion high street. Rotterdam-based architects MVRDV were commissioned to remodel twin brick townhouses and add a retail storefront at the ground level. But the designers didn’t want to do what almost all the neighbours had done: Leave the classic Dutch gables and pretty masonry ornamentation of the upper levels while inserting a steel box with a giant window for the shop. Instead, they kept all the character of the original structure but recreated it with see-through bricks, allowing passing customers to peer inside.
“It was difficult to build,” says project architect Gijs Rikken. Each handmade Italian slab had to be laid in a hyper-clean, vacuum-sealed construction site to ensure no dust or debris fell into the transparent mortar, lest the desired crystalline effect be ruined by entombed dirt particles. That mortar, a special German adhesive, had to be applied extremely thinly – one quarter of a millimetre to be exact – requiring a nerve-rattling level of precision.
“Not even lasers allow for that kind of tolerance,” says Rikken, who explains that special tools had to be engineered to lay the glass with the necessary exactitude. Fortunately, the client, a real estate holding company called Warenar, was committed. “There were many conversations along the way about whether it was worth following through,” says Rikken. The results, however, could not be more sublime. It’s as though a magician waved a wand and turned a heavy terra cotta wall into sparkly glass. No wonder Chanel was the first retail tenant – the architecture is as couture as its clothing.
In many ways, the Amsterdam project harkens back to glass block’s exciting, experimental past. In the 1920s and 30s, at the beginning of architecture’s modernist movement, glass bricks were valued by innovators such as Le Corbusier for their clean, industrial aesthetic and light-flooding properties.
One of the most notable, early applications is the Maison de Verre in Paris, a three-storey home created in 1932 by Pierre Chareau for a French doctor. Its exterior walls are almost all clad in frosted glass blocks that ensure privacy but fill the fluid, open-plan interiors with warm sun throughout the day (in turn, at night when the home’s lights are on, it glows like a lantern onto its adjacent courtyard). Not only was the design a sensation in its own time – artists Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, as well as filmmaker Jean Cocteau, were among the many avant garde thinkers to visit – but has continued to inspire generations later.
Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, whose projects include Paris’s famed Centre Pompidou, have referenced the work. And it’s hard not to see a parallel with developer Westbank’s upcoming King condos in Toronto’s trendy west end. The Bjarke Ingels-designed project is a Minecraft-like composition that will soar, in four blocky-yet-mountainous peaks, over a streetscape of beautiful, red brick heritage buildings. To add levity to the potentially imposing mass, Ingels is covering his structure in translucent, Maison de Verre-esque glass bricks.
In addition to paying homage to architectural history, there might be a bit of a rescue mission, if not a personal challenge, in Ingels’s plans. “I think there is a lot of meaning in the mundane,” he says. “And I think you can really see that meaning, that specialness, when you take a well-known, normal element like glass block and put it together in a new way.” In a few years, when King is finished, some people might see a reference to dated shopping malls, but Ignels hopes they also recognize that his design application is anything but ordinary.