Somewhere between 1914 and 1915, Le Corbusier designed the Maison Dom-Ino, a groundbreaking modular structure that replaced the heavy load-bearing walls with reinforced concrete columns and slabs. The open floor plan with minimal thin elements, coupled with large glass facades, would ensure healthy natural daylight for the interior spaces as well as desirable architectural transparency that could blur the boundaries between interior and exterior —at least metaphorically.
After more than a century since Le Corbusier shared his ideas for Dom-Ino, contemporary architecture, in the wake of a lingering modern era, continues to invest in using glass as a solution for walls and facades. Naturally, the meaning of this material has changed a little over time. Transparency was originally used to reveal the structure, making it more comprehensible, but it has become increasingly associated with ideological values and has been used in government buildings because it evokes an idealistic openness that transcends the material world and embraces symbolism. In his book The Art-Architecture Complex, critic and historian Hal Foster comments on an example of this: the renovation of the German Parliament in Berlin, the Reichstag, carried out by Foster + Partners. This project, as well as many others by the same office, and several other firms, aims at an analogy between architectural and political openness, with glass reflecting the transparency and accessibility of democracy.
Another project that explores this analogy is the Bordeaux Law Courts by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Richard Rogers, Norman Foster’s friend and former business associate, shares the same views as the author of the Reichstag, namely that the physical transparency of glass can reflect the transparency of a democratic state —at least this was one of the ideals he tried to convey to European governments, at a time marked by a sense of unification before the 2008 crisis. The art historian argues that projects like this seek to embody democratic values of openness and participation.
This analogy is, however, naive and questionable. Forcing an approximation between physical values, democratic values, and symbolic values can be dangerous and, in some cases, absurd. An example of this is the project for the Supreme Court of Singapore, also designed by Foster + Partners – given the history of that government, the close correlation between the materiality of glass and the symbolic values of openness and transparency makes no sense and seems to be much more tied to the image of a spectacular, brilliant architecture than to an institution created to meet the needs of the people.
This association of a physical characteristic with a symbolic value is explored in other projects by the same office, such as the New City Hall in Buenos Aires, a glass box covered by an undulating concrete surface where “activity spaces are open, naturally lit and visible, ensuring good communication between departments and promoting a sense of community.” Likewise, the MOdA Headquarters of the Paris Bar Association by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, run by yet another colleague of Richard Rogers. With its curious triangular plan and practically all covered in glass, MOdA is “symbolically transparent, the life of the building, its activity, and its comings and goings will be clearly visible through its facade.”
The United States Courthouse in Phoenix, designed by Richard Meier & Partners, is another example of this analogy: a huge glass box on top of which lies a roof built of steel trusses supported by very slender columns. In the center of the plan, there is an atrium – a very well-lit space that provides clarity and visibility in all directions. The Paris Courthouse, in France, another project by Piano, is a tower of stacked glass volumes and, despite the larger scale that is difficult for the people to grasp, the architects emphasize that “the vast concourse is totally visible from the exterior through a crystal-clear glazed facade, reinforcing the building’s message of transparency and ease of orientation.”
Similar strategies can also be observed in the Courthouse Extension in Leon, Spain, by Enrique Bardají & Asociados; in the Westland Town Hall in Naaldwijk, the Netherlands, designed by architectenbureau cepezed; and in the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law in Queensland, Australia, by Architectus + Guymer Bailey Architects. The latter “makes a radical departure from traditional court design, providing open, accessible and transparent spaces designed to express values at the heart of our democratic way of life including fairness and openness.”
Glazed boxes, with or without sun protection, covered by the most diverse structures, seem to constitute a new archetype for institutions and government buildings. The sturdiness and opacity of classic buildings which served the government for many years, not only in the matter of functionality but also symbolically, have undergone an X-ray scan in the 20th century leaving only the image of a structural skeleton with a light, bearly perceptible envelope. The values behind this translation suggest a greater commitment of these institutions to democracy and the people but many well-established examples indicate that this correlation can be questionable or even careless. So why do architects keep designing these buildings this way? Is it because of affection for the ancient virtues of transparency or because of a naive hope that by merely looking transparent, they will become so?
A translucent and cloudy architecture that fails to clearly reveal what is going on in their interiors would perhaps better symbolize the current political scenario. At such a challenging moment for democracy and human rights, there is no doubt that transparent buildings can harbor authoritarian, opaque, and fascist governments.
Picture Courtesy: Lucas van der Wee
Blog Courtesy: Romullo Baratto