50 Modern Classics
“Art lives by its skeleton.....grasp the skeleton and you can grasp the art.” - Le Corbusier
Architecture of delicate grandeur is precious. It is the diamond in an often bleak urban experience. Design of real difference can enrich lives in unexpected ways. If we breathe more easily in such places it is because magical spaces possess qualities that heighten our sense of well being. Exceptional architecture rarely surfaces in the metropolis. Or anywhere. Great design is the exception to the rule. Architecture is widely discussed, but the real thing is all too rarely produced. No less exceptional is structure of touch and empathy. But a clutch of absorbing exceptions has emerged during the past few years and these suggest that architecture is as alive and well as ever. The past decade has revealed a new attitude that is less monumental and faceless. The spirit of modernism prevails, but the mood is less prescriptive and one of formula. Space, form, function and materials are being explored at an accelerating rate. With this pioneering spirit, anything is possible.
Glass has become crucial to this architecture of optimism and levitation. If marble and stone symbolises Renaissance architecture, glass is the DNA of the new modernity. In the hands of special talent, glass transcends utility and the mere act of building. It would be simplistic to view the new modernism as merely a preoccupation with transparency. These lightweight, forms and energy efficient solutions can be highly expressive, technically challenging and are frequently audacious. No matter how clever the architecture, it must address the relationship between people, form and spaces. Do they connect?
Glass is gift-wrap and lightweight armour in one. It provides transparency, ambiguity, or opacity, layered with the possibility of intrigue and nuance. This mediation between spaces and environmental zones sees glass as transmitter and insulator. Not all projects of Great Glass Buildings enjoy an Arcadian setting, yet there is an art in finding opportunity in adversity. In the case of a sublime location they fully grasp the possibilities. Many buyers of architecture demand ponderous structures, making weight and size their priority. There is a certain irreverence about building lightly that is lost on those clients and architects who confuse quantity with quality. Modest in size but ambitious in scope, many of these projects are proof that the big idea made small, is far preferable to the small idea blown out of all proportion. Whether exuberant, tranquil, elegantly poised, or heightened by juxtaposition, glass is an essential component in space made magical by light. As our natural environment shrinks and disappears, it is natural that many people should cling to that which remains. There is a responsibility that should partner development and architecture needs to be an active participant in the process. The urban sprawl does not need to be ugly and difficult to negotiate. It can provide a beacon between the natural and synthetic. The soaring office tower can be an inspirational or drab neighbour. Small space can also be thrilling in its generosity and imagination. Do we have an attitude that is open or closed?
The featured projects are hallmarked by a technical and poetic resonance. These are not merely objects to be given the cursory inspection, but are frequently gorgeous to appraise. With this work there is plenty to intrigue. Where materials provide the physical skeleton, a masterly use of glass creates architecture with gleaming eyes and luminous soul. In this regard the new modernism considers space in the three dimensions thereby releasing glass from its stereotypical, planer role as window dressing. Transmission, reflection and refraction generate challenges as well as opportunities, thus the harnessing of daylight remains one of architecture’s greatest challenges. Corbusier’s vivacious form and space-making at Ronchamp (1954) and Dominican Friary at La Tourette (1960) demonstrated the magician’s touch. Even in small measure, Corbusier could telescope enormous energy through glass: “The key is light and light illuminates shapes and shapes have an emotional power.” To design well it is necessary to conceptualise and draw with delicate force. This paradox, that the effort may be great but the touch of necessity light, is easily overlooked.
Two factors have dramatically influenced glass usage since the modernism’s apogee of mid-20th century. Advances in glass-making technology and computers now permit far more complex technical solutions. Such luxuries were simply unavailable when Mies van der Rohe conceived the glass curtain wall for his prescient and elegantly curvaceous Friedrichstrasse tower for Berlin in 1921. This was one of many instances where building technology was unable to match the early modernist vision. None of this daunted the dream of evaporating walls of frameless glass that dissolved into the clouds. By 1929 Mies was already on the ground floor with the exploded space and dissolved boundaries of his skeletal Barcelona Pavilion at the International Exposition.
During the 1990s glass began its re-emergence. It had been relegated to the wilderness during the efflorescence of post modernism. For many, the anonymous glass curtain wall helped accelerate modernism’s demise. But echoes of original ideas are hard to snuff out. Something endured and practices such as Foster Associates, Future Systems and Kengo Kuma perservered with their own brands of humane modernism. They symbolised an intuitive mastery of light and space. This momentum has gathered with the new millennium. The small resonant form are suddenly as important as the towering statement. If nothing else, the new modernism is concerned with habitable, humane spaces. Unlike early modernism, the new incarnation is much less about doctrine and imposed form. These are exemplars that makes the leap from the dreary monolith to sculptured geometry.
Some forms are exuberant, others introspective. Lightly sheathed, yet deceptively strong, they shape as a potent signatures of the era. The gossamer elegance of glass is seductive. When so much around appears leaden and earth-bound, occupants of the great glass building are illuminated and transported. Ordinary communities are suddenly benefiting from the creation of energised, luminous buildings. The up-front cost of the prototype may appear bad in the eyes of accountants, but the bank-rolling of inventive architecture can pay huge cultural and social dividends. Increasingly clients are looking for function and pleasurable space rather than the mass and status of the fortress.
It is hardly coincidental that glass is a constant in much of the new modernism. Natural light transmission and visual connectednedd can contribute gains in workplace safety, productivity and sense of well-being. Many of those projects with articulated and expressed glass skins arouse a disproportionately strong level of curiosity that is only now beginning to be better understood. Architecture that confronts and contradicts mainstream work needs to withstand levels of scrutiny rarely applied to nondescript and poor design. Elegance and power often attracts attention for the wrong reason. Tawdry buildings are regularly overlooked, forgotten or forgiven more readily than work of dynamic difference. The community can be easily divided by a new neighbour. Real design requires inspired drivers and resolute clients. Architecture is nothing if not difficult in the pursuit of innovative, fresh perspectives.
The emerging aesthetic of the glass skin has a strong humanist element that continues the legacy provided by work of the early and mid-20th century. The influence of the modern masters echoes throughout Great Glass Buildings even if once lofty, Utopian ideals now appear naive and, in many ways, inappropriate. The new modernism is infinitely more complex in conception and a response to humanistic, thermal and environmental issues. Multiple glass facades, metallic glass coating, seraphic finishes and a lightweight armoury of baffles, screens, louvres and scrims are utilised for sun shading, sustainable design and expressed identity. Many building designers treat daylight as an enemy thus relegating occupants to a twilight world of flickering neon tubing. At the other extreme vast, unshaded expanses of glass can create almost incurable glare and thermal management issues. Recent examples retain the drive for a pristine aesthetic, but better bridge concept and reality through advances in glass-making and construction technology. Early 20th century visions of glass towers were impossible to realise because of technological limitations. The advent of structural glazing, fixing systems, glass coatings and waterproof connections allows for a symmetry between ambition and achievement. The building skin is increasingly critical as we strive for more responsible built environments that maximise energy efficiency. Workplaces can be much more productive, comfortable and safer when users are better able to manage their immediate working environment. Other benefits occur. Lower CO2 emissions are being achieved in buildings that cut their reliance on energy guzzling appliances. New glazing techniques and types are making possible many of the new forms, but building materials can only achieve so much. Ultimately energy performance and comfort levels require total design integrity rather than the corrective, applied solution.
Today’s master architect would never attempt to divine a design without exhaustive research into client and occupant aspirations. Great design may be simple but it is never simplistic. True simplicity requires enormous effort. Many of the featured projects illustrate that submission and integration of site is more important than domination. Architecture, in many ways, is an irreducible art. The magical in one place does not necessarily transplant for a whole range of reasons that include culture, environment and climate.
Sustainable design is now an inescapable reality as much as it looms as the cliche. Will design to regulation standard ever produce the epiphany? Incidentals such as tapware, bench tops and joinery while important, are not the central issues vying for their designer’s attention. Smart appliances, furnishings and high-tech gadgets might complement great design but they can also disguise architecture’s lesser achievements. This is one reason many architects prefer to lead their clients towards philosophical design issues. Many featured projects have ambitious form such that their builders and engineers must have had sleepless nights. Such is the contribution of many teams of contractors and materials suppliers to achieve the final vision.
The new modernism explores the oblique and discreet transparency. Flexible outer, inter and inner layers offer the benefits of subtlety as well as exposure. In addition to free spans, glass-clad structures now benefit from technologies that support the trend to sustainable design. New glazing systems and coatings are incorporated in the design attitude towards environmental and climatic response. In this regard glass developments include self-cleaning, photo-voltaic, adjustable transparency, low solar emission and multi-coated varieties. In combination with dual skins, structures that would normally require extensive mechanical heating or cooling provide all of the benefits of natural light with few of the usual penalties. The principles of fresh air being ducted into work or living spaces is essentially the same whereby cool or warm air as required is drawn through openings in the structural walls and into the negatively pressured facade plenum.
Other measures including louvres, mixed-mode ventilation systems utilising natural ventilation and integrated thermal flues are being used to accelerate air movement . Interior planning principles must also be tied into the strategy for maximum cross ventilation perimeter circulation and open plan work areas. Walls of filtered natural light cut the dependence on artificial lighting, cooling and heating for all but the most extreme months. Resistant to high summer sun, embracing of lower winter light and beautifully ventilated, the project embodies the concept of the fit, healthy work-spaces.
Many commercial projects allow employees to select air-flow with pinpoint accuracy through floor and window slots. Such flexibility offers a multitude of energy saving and comfort benefits over standard air-conditioning practice. Major urban power failures highlight the failure level of dependence on energy guzzling devices and the need to explore alternative energy sources in the face of Greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Despite anxieties about global terrorism, there is usually no need for higher, stronger and bigger walls. In all but extreme cases, transparency opens the way to engagement. This can say a great deal about an organisation. Modern management is only just coming to grips with the benefits of employees empowered by choice. Instead of a soporific, one-size-fits-all, workplace, an imaginative strategy generates improved comfort, safety and productivity levels.
There is an optimism when bold ideas are married with new technologies. Great Glass Buildings speak of today but shape as talismans for tomorrow. It is architecture that refers to the past, but points towards the future. The work appears futuristic because, like its modernist precursor, it rejects the conventions of spatial clutter and hierarchy. Yet old-fashioned values of craft and tradition inevitably prevail. Direct expression and appropriate technology count for much. This new modernism varies from being overt in its expression to flirtatious when the subject is hardly more than a floating veil.
The distilled clarity of glass can startle as well as tantalise. Many of the projects on wider public view generate debate and attract notice. They are challenging and different. Criticism of glass as skin often results from misunderstanding or ignorance. Issues such as thermal and noise management as well as privacy have created doubts among those who see such creations as fish-tank or peep show. Many of the projects are contentious because they challenge perceptions about privacy and personal space. At its best the new modernism achieves a fully three dimensional quality that is difficult to replicate and franchise. The selected projects are an acute response to place. They are purpose-built and achieve a rare serendipity.
Architecture can never exist in a vacuum and this is especially true of its relationship with big business. Pressure for increased levels of financial propriety is adding to the groundswell for greater levels of transparency, openness and disclosure. Corporate malpractice and collapses have done little for levels of public trust and confidence. The mood for positive revelation is also a response to doubts aroused by misadventures within the edifice. Privacy and confidentiality are a necessary part of business, so a balance must be struck to help create a culture a trust and confidence. Governments, instituions and organisations are increasingly obliged to reassess their public face as open or closed, friend or foe. The benefits of a more connected and accountable management and workforce should be obvious.
Perception of big business is changing in other areas. Banks and insurance companies no longer store huge reserves of hard currency. The transfer of funds is now essentially electronic and transactions occur more often via credit card and computer thereby freeing companies to adopt a more liberal, transparent position. Top heavy management and overweight, overbearing institutions seem to have much in common. Hopefully example, and better education, ensure more appropriately tuned forms prevail.
The invitation to read architecture as more than mass and motifs represents a powerful opportunity. Almost two decades ago Australia submerged its new national parliament in Canberra underneath a hill as an expression of democracy. A more recent, and entirely different response is the glass cone of Germany’s Reichstag Parliament, now a most potent symbol of transparency. This is an era where architecture can reflect an abiding sense of democracy that is no less considerate of the principle to lead and bind rather than dominate. Great Glass Buildings reflects an evolutionary leap of faith. Many of the architects and clients are fearless, not because they risk un-tested theories, but because they challenge zealous planning authorities vigilant to maintain anachronistic and flawed building codes.
X-ray architecture is hardly a risk-free strategy with failures and faults easily magnified and revealed. This partly explains the faux modesty and preference to cover up and dress the jig-saw of construction. Nevertheless glass provides a palpable substance lost on those who see building through the eyes of a merchant as a transferable commodity. There can be poetics of assembly where elegance is revealed by windows treated as much more than the hole left over by the builder. This is the language of the new modernism, notable for allowing a view into, or through the object of desire rather than simply looking at an object. Modernism cracked the code and created an entirely different perspective and dimension. The turn of the new millennium seems to have triggered a re-discovery of the poetry in technology. So much so that glass based structures are rapidly emerging as its own genre. Big or small, public or private, the desire to link with other spaces and fabric, natural and synthetic is increasing.
Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace should be a dignified memory, but once the genie was released, return to the lamp was impossible. This hasn't been altogether a good thing. Imitators of such prodigious talent have clung shamelessly to his coat-tails ever since. And grubbied a fine garment in the process. Paxton's epoch-making was not a bad effort for gardener turned architect. The soil taught him more than an understanding of parsnips and petunias. He was the pioneer of pre-fabrication that ushered a new vocabulary of material and connections. In 1853, the year of the Crystal Palace’s completion, the writer John Ruskin observed: “No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect.
If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only bee a builder”.
All great design is seized upon, but 120 years passed before commerce saw opportunity in his soaring glazed vaults. Paxton suddenly provided a light shaft in the gloom of city-making. The crystalline envelope was franchised as big top for a cocoon of velvetine upholstery, floral sprays and piped music. So began pay day for hotel chains, casinos and shopping malls. Prophet one day, profit the next. It shouldn’t require architecture of any quality to make the jump of more than a century, but it does in this instance, because Paxton was destined to be a time-traveller.
Groundbreakers such as Paxton, Mies, Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames were among those prepared to challenge standard practise. There is a great joy in generous space-making and considered detailing that speaks of a love for their calling.
These were among the masters of material subtraction. They saw condensed energy when others could only see only clutter. This set new benchmarks for spatial continuity and re-defined the elevated floor slab, pre-fabrication, floating stairs, slender mullions and frameless glass. They all understood the skeleton of art.
Each and every masterpiece spawns counterfeits thus his apothegm Less is More did not take long to sour into the handy convenience store of More or Less. Subtraction quickly becomes poverty in the wrong hands. Copyists adapted and borrowed with a fervour impressive for its opportunism. Towards the end of the 20th century modernism had run its course. Something was missing in the mechanical response and imitation of the masters’ voices. Mies’planar cubism, Corbusier’s elemental constructivism and Wright’s organic energies were being squandered in deals over which the originators had no control. Ultimately this paved the way for the speculative impact of post-modernism. Relief in burlesque and often high-camp pastiche of post modernism, provided an un-satisfying antidote for moribund business precincts. Architecture of the future will reflect many modernist preoccupations of structure stripped of arbitrary language that functions as the sustainable object. Architecture has an obligation to resist the temptation to constantly replicate its own creations and trade on successful patterns at the expense of creative risk taking. Prototypes can be time-consuming and expensive. Good reason then to respect rather than imitate the original ambition.
Great Glass Buildings is a distillation of outstanding contemporary architecture from around the world. It is evidence of a positive information transfer. There is an often overlooked aspect of globalisation that involves the shared idea. Evidence perhaps, that the trend is not wholly bad or negative. Good ideas travel fast too. Glass offers refuge and prospect. Its environmental flexibility connects most directly to the invisible qualities of place such as breezes, scents and sounds. This selective connection to place can heighten the positive experiences and modify the unappealing. If we have learned anything from modern architecture, it is the importance of humane, habitable space. Wholesale transparency isn’t for everyone. Hermits and Howard Hughes types need not apply. Selective transparency considered as part of a bigger whole can transform space, light and life. There is one argument for the clever diagram, elegant drawing and sharp aesthetics, but safe, comfortable, conditions is something else altogether.
Architecture is at its most potent when people become self aware. Good design fundamentally exists on an emotional plane and good design brings those emotions to the surface. Architecture that promotes an emotional and spiritual awareness is inevitably good architecture, irrespective of style. Shining examples are not necessarily the heroic, blockbuster variety. Some are found tucked away in unlikely parts of city and country. Often highly unlikely, they juxtapose and respect the existing built fabric or connect mellifluously to their place. They convey an optimism and exuberance. They may even inspire. Not all are expensive prototypes. Many use simple, off-the-rack, materials and prove that not every detail needs to be customised with capricious spending to achieve a high plane of architecture.
The great modernists could only hold centre stage for so long, but they proved that architecture could be made to appear effortless and an entirely appropriate response. Architecture has a metaphor in ballet. The great modernists were equivalent to the sensual power and technique of ballet’s superstars Nijinsky, Barishnikov and Nureyev. Whether coiled to spring, or floating, here was architecture of the sky rather than the earth. No longer rooted in the past, architecture had a new point of reference. Filigree structure and glass created the dissolving assembly of light, lighter, lightest. This was architecture that danced. There was no looking back.
The new modernism is no less aspirational or talented. Great Glass Buildings reveals delight in the illuminated, magical form and space. Whether private or public, these projects trigger a strong human response to the temporal, spiritual and physical worlds. Work as diverse as tea house, private residence, public spa and grand civic gesture indicates new modernism’s sudden, yet enduring appeal. There are countless obstacles to the achievement of great architecture and this, quite simply, explains its short supply.
Architecture schools around the world produce a seemingly endless supply line of new practitioners. In the end it is an alchemy of vision, client, site, persistence and relevance that allows dreams to materialise. There is something utterly irresistible and cathartic about the dream transformed. Art, engineering, science and the human experience become one in Great Glass Buildings. All the more reason to celebrate those who light the way. None of these architects should fear or fret about falling behind. They are already light years ahead.
Peter and Jennifer Hyatt
Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.
I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.
- Bio 21
- Britomart Station
- Clement Meadmore
- David Ming-Li Lowe
- Ed Lipmann
- Glass House
- Glenn Murcutt
- Great Glass Buildings
- John Demos
- John Lautner Review
- Julius Shulman Review
- Malcolm Carver House
- Masters Of Light Intro
- Pete Bossley
- Peter Cook
- Peter Stronach
- Queensland Gallery of Modern Art
- Sidley Residence
- Steel Profile 100
- Sydney's Olympics
- Yve Apartments