To speak about glass in architecture is to speak about the history of architecture of the past two hundred years, and that is a daunting task for an architect who has merely been studying this for a few years. I arrived at this subject almost randomly. My research on the subject grew as a derivative of my interest in the life and work of the Italo-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992), who pioneered in the use of the material with two of her most iconic buildings, her own house in Morumby – today known as the Casa de Vidro (1951) (Fig.01) and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (1968), also known as MASP (Fig.02).
Cover image: Fig. 01: Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro. © Instituto Bardi/Casa de Vidro
I arrived to live in São Paulo in 2011 and these two canonic examples of Brazilian Architecture were my introduction to the city; by studying about them I was able to connect with people and the history of the fascinating southamerican metropolis. These buildings condense the life and work of Lina – as she is locally known – and Pietro Maria Bardi (1900-1999), her husband, journalist and art critic founder of the MASP.
The couple arrived in 1946 from a torn-down Italy to a promising Rio de Janeiro and soon met Assis Chateaubriand (1892-1968), a media mogul who commissioned Bardi to found and direct an art museum in Sao Paulo in 1947, first inside the office building of Diários Associados on Rua 7 de Abril. With his critical eye and knowledge of European Art, Bardi built during the years one of the largest and most important art collections in Latin America with a pioneering educational program that weaved the arts with other disciplines in the style of the Bauhaus. His knowledge and understanding of architecture had been acquired in his years as journalist in Italy, Bardi was an active member of modernist circles and exchanged letters to Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Richard Neutra.
Italy at the time was under the fascist regime that came into power in 1922 and modernism was in a delicate situation, if it enjoyed state sponsorship, it was also being persecuted by opposing factions. As there was no official-promoted art, exhibitions and building commissions were disputed to gain favor with the state. While Giuseppe Terragni was working in his Casa del fascio de Como that became one of the icons of Italian Modernism and of glass architecture, Marcelo Piacentini consolidated through politics his position as leading architect with neoclassicism as the core architecture movement.
The dispute over modernism and neoclassicism would extend even further than Italy. Brazil had open relations with Facist Italy due the populist dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. If Bardi went to Brazil before the war to promote modernism to the Americas, Piacentini came to São Paulo on a diplomatic mission invited by the italo-brazilian industrialist Matarazzo family. Later political changes, such as a surprising pro-USA stance of Vargas in the event of the Second World War, would lead the Matarazzo to a pro-modernist stance with the sponsorship of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo in 1948 at the same building of MASP at Rua 7 de Abril, and later to its location at Ibirapuera Park designed by Oscar Niemeyer.
During the years 1938-1943, in what can be interpreted as one of Bardi’s last contributions to italian critics before immigrating to Brazil, he worked in the magazine Il Vetro (Fig.03); but, he was forbidden by the regime to sign his text and his name wasn’t listed on the credits. Il Vetro was, as the italian name implies, a magazine around themes and uses of glass. In his contribution, Bardi wrote not only about technical uses of glass, but also wrote about glass architecture. Italian facism had tried to incorporate on its rhetoric glass as a metaphor for the State, a metaphor which Terragni heavily leaned on as the new foundation of italian architecture, but ultimately lost to Piacentini’s neoclassicism.
However, Il Vetro was one later addition to the ample debate of glass architecture as modern architecture, if not one of the last magazines to debate glass architecture before and during the Second World War. There is no easy answer for when the concept of glass architecture begins, contemporary critics tend to inscribe the beginning of glass architecture to the first decades of the 20th century; but Walter Benjamin in the 1920s studied a possible transition of glass as material to glass as architecture in the 19th century. On the words of his notes of the incomplete project on the arcades of Paris:
“Glass before its time, premature iron. In the arcades, both the most brittle and the strongest materials suffered breakage; in a certain sense, they were deflowered. Around the middle of the past century, it was not yet known how to build with glass and iron”
Nevertheless, Glass has fascinated men over centuries way before any modern possibilities. Europe was dotted with colorful cathedrals, mirrored hallways and fogged greenhouses, and glass was used in artifacts and buildings all around the world without direct correlation to European arts and crafts. This fascination was always hindered by a limited supply and production of glass, a limitation that reduced the material to a luxury status. The Industrial Revolution unleashed new ways to mass produce glass in panes or common artifacts. Ample supplies and cheap production turned glass in a more affordable material to build even the simplest of structures (Fig.04).
What Benjamin’s research argues is a change in the cultural and popular consensus around the use of glass with the construction and inauguration of Paxton’s Crystal Palace. While the arcades of Paris were a modern life predecessor of the Crystal Palace, It was Paxton’s work to set the material of a modern architecture in Europe, correlated to the industrial progress of its time. Benjamin also argues that the 19th century glass architecture was correlated to velocity and temporary structures, since it was used mostly on railroad stations and exhibitions palaces, while the 20th century glass architecture was seen as stable and solid due a change of social perception of time.
As new materials and structures principles were discovered and pioneered in the 19th century such as the glass curtain wall and reinforced concrete, mostly developed due the zealous work of engineers and pioneer architects, a search for a transcendental meaning for glass architecture pertains to art and architecture debates of the 20th century.
Literature led the way before architecture, German author Paul Scheerbart was one of the first to attribute to glass a new spiritual sense and utopic possibility both in a manifesto and novels. Also the French authors André Breton and Louis Aragon would explore the glass at the arcades in surrealist novels. Scheerbart would be of great impact to Bruno Taut’s early works and publications on modern architecture, Taut’s book Alpine Architecture and the construction of the Glass Pavilion for the 1914 Werkbund (Fig.05) were among the first works to present colorful glass as a medium of modern spirituality, architecture and industry. On the other hand, Breton and Aragon would be the bases of Benjamin’s critics of bourgeois privacity and defense for a transparent glass architecture of the proletariat, one that could not bear traces of ownership.
Another major debate was in the meaning of the American skyscraper and how to translate the typology to Europe. While the USSR saw the skyscraper as a symbol of American capitalism, even with important unrealized projects such as El Lissitzky’s Cloud Iron, the German architects were among the first to correlate the stained-glass cathedral to the glass skyscraper. Be it on Bruno Taut’s Stadkroner, or on Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus Manifesto cover illustrated with Lyonel Feninger’s Cathedral, the skyscraper was understood as a modern spiritual equivalent to the historical cathedral.
In the Americas, Frank Lloyd Wright explored the possibilities of both stained-glass and transparent glass panes, as a medium that could overcome classicism and achieve a true representation of the modern ways of the United States. The Larkin Building, famous for its glass skylights over the atrium, was deeply connected to a religious sense of work with its salomonic floor plan, carved inscription and a pipe organ. The later Johnson Wax Building had a more industrial and practical application of pyrex glass, still the architect had planned the installation of a pipe organ to the main office. On the other hand, Albert Khan was applying glass skylights and glass curtain walls to all his designs of Ford Plants to improve working conditions and reduce operation costs. 20th century industrial plants were almost a new form of architecture in themselves, one that demanded new technologies and material applications. If there was the skyscraper, there were also the industrial plant inserted on the debate of the modern cathedral, it is not casually that Peter Brehens’ AEG Factory was nicknamed “cathedral of work”.
Still, it was transparent glass over its colorful counterpart that became the general norm to modern architecture. As Scheerbart and Taut were both debating over the spiritual sense of modernity, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius were focusing on the technical applications and social benefits. Glass was not only the material to build a new transparent society after the Great War, as Beatriz Colomoina’s X-Ray Architecture attest, glass was a material correlated to new sanitary measures against tuberculosis and other diseases. Sanatoriums were also a modern form where glass flourished, Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium being one of the exemplary cases of the relation of modern architecture, health and glass; however the same could be applied in a private dimension to Neutra’s Lovell House and Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat Villa (Fig.06).
What becomes clear from the 20th century debate is that there isn’t a single common root or a primordial form of glass architecture. Even Paxton’s Crystal Palace, being the most prominent candidate to the position, is a parallel event to the arcades of Paris, which cannot be considered as isolated from the city. However, it is possible to search for traces and correlations between different works in their historical context. As such, the Crystal Palace was a development of the techniques applied on the construction of english greenhouses, and the arcade of Paris were consequential to the urbanization of paris from the late 18th century. While technology can partially explain the development of glass, it lacks means to explain the social reality behind glass architecture. Therefore, a typological study opens the possibility to create a non-exclusionary presentation of glass architecture, one that is capable of a critical reading of most works along a chronological distribution.
Typology dictates both about constructed space and human interaction with space, if typology can be reduced to a list or diagrammatic distribution of spaces, it is meaningful only with human action on the space. Since glass architecture doesn’t have a single theoretical root, it also doesn’t have a single typological origin, opening the possibility to parallel typological developments. While it is straightforward with the arcades of Paris –because they can be traced as a origin point for the typological sequence of commercial galleries, department stores and even shopping centers–, the Crystal Palace, being the first exhibition palace, is typologically in between two distinct functions and spatial dimensions. As it’s possible to trace back the structure of glass and iron to the greenhouse and the later to stone and glass orangeries of royal palaces, from the Crystal Palace onwards there is a development of typologies focused on human interchange such as other exhibition palaces, modern expositive pavilions and convention centers.
Modern Pavilions are another key typology to understand the development of glass architecture, many were constructed both as synthesis of an ideal and a proof of concept for architecture. All of them were built as temporary structures where architects experimented with new construction techniques and materials. Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion, Le Courbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau Pavilion and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion are some of the most iconic examples that explored glass in relation to architecture; but specially with Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe it is possible to note a development of a language of glass architecture expressed in a synthetic manner on their pavilions. The same can be said of Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa’s New York Pavilion for the 1939 World’s in the context of brazilian modernism while the first major work, the Ministry of Education and Public Health, was still under construction.
In the works of Mies van der Rohe, with both the Tugendhat Villa and Barcelona Pavilion, it is possible to note a correlation of modern pavilion and glass house. This correlation is also present in Le Corbusier and Niemeyer, among other early 20th century architects. As glass architecture consolidated itself as a modern language, the mid-century architects constructed a considerable amount of their glass houses in reference to early pavilions and glass houses. Philip Johnson and Lina Bo Bardi are prime examples of mid-century glass house architects.
Still, this transition from the pavilion typology to the glass house typology is an ample one, the glass house or modern house are both a convergence of the experiences of the modern pavilion with the traditional bourgeois house due the clients’ social status. Therefore, the glass house possesses a social dimension in relation to its owners and easily typological study becomes a biography of the relation of house and owners. While Dr. Edith Farnsworth complex relation with Mies’ Farnsworth House is the most commonly know and well-documented example, here we should turn our attention back to Lina Bo Bardi and Pietro Maria Bardi with their Casa de Vidro:
The Bardi’s history is interchangeable with the Museum of Art of São Paulo, with Pietro being the first director of the institution and Lina being the chief architect of the building at Avenida Paulista. Before the present day museum, Pietro and Lina organized the first gallery of MASP at Rua 7 de Abril, while not in a proper sense a “pavilion” or glass architecture for the matter, it was an important experience on expography and museography, and Lina would adopt some solutions both in her glass house’s bookshelves (Fig.07) and in the new museum main exhibition hall.
The Casa de Vidro was conceived as an extension of the cultural program of MASP, a centerpiece on a network of guest houses to be constructed for artists and curators that Bardi exchanged letters and critical essays. As such, the main hall glass of the Casa de Vidro with its dining room, living room and office was designed as a room for this network of houses, facing with three complete glass facades the landscape of an unoccupied suburb of Morumbi in São Paulo. Lina’s glass house also kept a courtyard disposition of private spaces with a clear division between the owner’s rooms and service spaces, striking an interesting equilibrium of modern lifestyle and traditional praxis.
Even when the network of guest houses was abandoned as a project, the main hall kept its concept as public space inside the private sphere. Pietro Maria’s business as both director of MASP and art dealer made the place a diversified art gallery, and Lina’s collections of Brazilian regional crafts juxtaposed high arts with local craftsmanship. Trees and other plants created a green landscape around the house as Morumbi was integrated in the urban landscape as an elite neighborhood. Glass transparency that was once defined by the hills, horizon and sky became a close shadowplay of trees and nature (Fig.08).
The MASP at the bustling Avenida Paulista also establishes a relation of art and landscape through glass in the main exhibition hall: as the southwest facade opens a view to the top of the trees at Trianon Park, the northeast facades creates a vista to the axis of Avenida 9 de Julho and the historic city center. While most of the time the facades are not completely open to the landscape to protect the art from adverse effects of sunlight, the “glass easels” (Fig.09) supporting the paintings create a “collage-effect” inside the main exhibition hall, with the visual juxtaposition of styles and ages.
Glass architecture came to build not only a new perception of space and art, but a new material reality for cities across the globe. From idyllic houses to monolithic towers, glass became a common shared experience of modern and contemporary lifestyle; but it also became part of a problem as much as a technical solution. As one of its advantages is transparency and heating through solar radiation, its widespread use disregarding local climate leads to an increasing consumption of electricity and resources through air-conditioning machines, and both transparency and reflexivity contributed to the formation of urban heat islands and overall increase of a city’s temperature. For that, the glass and glazing industry offers many technical solutions, and advances are now moving towards the construction of buildings that are energy neutral or even can contribute to the energy grid.
So, If Walter Benjamin argues that in the first half of the 19th century it was still known how to build with glass in the heights of the Industrial Revolution, today one could say that in the first half of the 21th century we are undoubtedly expanding the knowledge on how to build an environment-aware glass in the age of climate changes. Glass architecture goes beyond the debate of ethics and aesthetics, it is the practical reality of cities and can be an integral part of an environmental solution to contemporary challenges. The International Year of Glass presents this unique opportunity to recapitulate the past two hundred years of glass architecture and think of a new future for the city of glass, to overcome its challenges and create new social perspectives. It allows architecture to go beyond the traditional constraints of the disciplinary field and be part of a coordinated debate about glass. To a certain degree, the International Year of Glass reinserts the debate of glass architecture in the 2020s and opens up the possibilities to review what was discussed only as utopies in the 1920s, perhaps even speculate what new typologies could develop from contemporary glass and new technological means of production. If there is urgency in solving pressing matters today, glass architecture should also concern with what comes of tomorrow as once it was seen as a clear future in itself.
This article was originally published in the International Year of Glass 2022 book entitled “Welcome to the Age of Glass”. The book is written by glass industry pioneers and leaders and ties the wider glass industry firmly to UN sustainability aspirations. Some 13 chapters place glass at the center and edges of human activity.
Read the full book here: www.saco.csic.es/index.php/s/XcPeY6mxGPGs8jy
Benjamin, W., & Tiedemann, R. (1999). The arcades project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.
Benjamin, Walter. (1929) “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of European Intelligentsia”, in Critical Theory and Society (1986), edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Mackay Kellner, Routledge.
Benjamin, Walter (1933). Experience and Poverty in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 2 (1999). US: Harvard University Press.
Colomina, Beatriz. (2019) X-Ray architecture. Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers.
Esmeraldo, Eugenia Gorini. (2020) AMER – a primeira América de Bardi : diário de bordo de P.M. Bardi (1933-1934). Unicamp, Tese Doutorado.
Gropius, Walter (1965). The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. Cambridge, US: MIT Press
Le Corbusier, Sirton P., Berton T. (Fall-Winter 2012) Glass the Fundamental Material of Modern Architecturein West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Vol. 19, No. 2
Le Corbusier. (1964) When Cathedrals were White. US: Mcgraw-Hill Paperback.
Tafuri, Manfredo (1987). The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Cambridge, USA: MIT Press
Taut, Bruno. (2015) The City Crown. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing
Taut, Bruno. (2004). Bruno Taut, Alpine architektur : eine Utopia = a utopia. Munchen, Germany: Prestel. Wright, Frank. (2008) Modern Architecture: being the Kahn lectures for 1930, Princeton, USA; Princeton University Press.
 Assis Chateaubriand owned and directed the media conglomerate Diários Associados and was a pioneer entrepreneur with the TV Tupi, the first TV in Brazil.
Piacentini designed for the Matarazzo family their corporate headquarters in Vale do Anhangabaú and their mansion at Avenida Paulista. The corporate headquarters was later acquired by the state and since 2004 is São Paulo’s town hall. The mansion at Avenida Paulista was demolished to give place to a shopping mall.
 TENTORI, 2000, p. 150-152, apud ESMERALDO, 2020.
 Benjamin, W., & Tiedemann, R. (1999). The arcades project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press. p. 150
 Benjamin, W., & Tiedemann, R. (1999). The arcades project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press. p. 154
. Other famous palaces of glass and iron besides the english Crystal Palace were the french Galerie des Machines and Grand Palais
 Taut, Bruno. (2004). Bruno Taut, Alpine architektur : eine Utopia = a utopia. Munchen, Germany: Prestel. p. 36
 Taut, Bruno. (2015) The City Crown. Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing
 This argument is better developed at Tafuri, Manfredo (1987). The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Cambridge, USA: MIT Press p. 125
 Wright, Frank. (2008) Modern Architecture: being the Kahn lectures for 1930, Princeton, USA; Princeton University Press. p. 38
 Colomina, Beatriz. (2019) X-Ray architecture. Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers.
 The second concrete-enclosed gallery of MASP at Avenida Paulista resembles to a certain degree the space Rua 7 de Abril gallery with a museographic approach varying with curatorship.
Author: Sol Camacho
Sol is an architect, urban designer, and curator leading RADDAR [www.raddar.org], an innovative practice of architecture, research and design that operates in São Paulo and Mexico City. Among the most outstanding projects that Sol leads are the Project for the Restoration, Adaptation and New Building of the Pacaembu Stadium, in São Paulo. In 2018, Sol was the curator of the exhibition Muros de Ar for the Pavilion Brazilian from the International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Since 2017, she has been Cultural Director of Instituto Bardi/Casa de Vidro [institutobardi.org], where she is responsible for exhibitions, cultural events and coordinator of Lina Bo Bardi’s archive. Camacho has taught, written and lectured internationally on architecture, urban design and conservation at institutions such as PUC de Lima Peru, FADU de Montevideo Uruguay, Cornell, YALE, Harvard GSD, UMichigan en USA, among others.