Material Investigation Looks into Glass

Architecture students Olivia Arcara and Timothy Ruhl created a self-supporting wall of curved glass blocks that obviate a common sticking point in architectural glass – the joint. Photo by Olivia Arcara

Glass in architecture is ever-present, yet largely in the background. The light passes through, our gaze looks out, but rarely is the glass itself an element to engage. Architects, engineers and material scientists have begun to push the architectural possibilities of this versatile, amorphous solid, yet the material’s predominant uses in buildings remain flat – rain screen, façade, fenestration. 

School of Architecture and Planning faculty members Georg Rafailidis and Stephanie Davidson have launched a material investigation in search of new expressions for glass in and as architecture. The two recently completed their initial glass fabrication study with a group of pioneering students and the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG), world renowned as a center for education, design and research in glassmaking. 

“Glass is typically used in architecture for its invisibility and flatness,” says Rafailidis, assistant professor of architecture. “It is applied so as to disappear through transparency or reflection. We wanted to explore glass as an active rather than passive component — to turn it inward. For instance, what are opportunities to distort light and color if you curve glass? And what are the material’s structural capabilities?”

While CMoG frequently collaborates with practicing architects and designers, it had yet to work with architecture students. The industry leader embraced the opportunity. 

“We’re evangelists of glass,” says Steve Gibbs, senior manager of hot glass programs at CMoG. 

“Glass is an ancient material that holds many possibilities for architecture.”

The research consisted of two parts that worked together, the first a technical methods seminar focusing on mold-making and casting a variety of materials. This investigation was led by Davidson, clinical assistant professor of architecture. The students simultaneously worked in studio with Rafailidis for design work that would culminate in a prototyping session at CMoG’s Amphitheater Hot Shop.

The results were provocative and playful – a stackable, self-supporting glass brick; a “pick-up-sticks”-like enclosure of varied light, shadow and depth; and a system of conical glass walls that dance with light and sound.

The studio commenced with a visit to CMoG, where students met with the master glassmakers who would serve as their design collaborators for the semester. They also explored CMoG’s renowned Rakow Research Library and glass artifact collection that spans 3,500 years. 

One of the studio’s first moves was to buy a specialized glass kiln that heats glass to a “warm” or softened consistency for casting in molds. While the studio awaited its shipment of glass pieces, the eager students ran preliminary studies in the kiln with glass-like substances such as ice, sugar and paraffin wax. 

Under Davidson’s continued direction, the students became adept mold-makers, using slip and refractory clay to make molds which responded to and provoked the students’ evolving glass designs.

Transparent and colored glass softened in a kiln “slumps” into star-shaped vessels, cast in refractory clay by students Kimberly Sass and Steven Smigielski. Photo by Georg Rafailidis

Kimberly Sass (MArch ‘15), and design partner Steven Smigielski (MArch ‘15) created around six mold sets for their project, a branched system of glass rods. What began as a simple vessel mold morphed into a formwork of star-shaped cups. Heated glass rods “slumped” and sintered in the mold to form a twisted canopy of glass. 

Sass, a student in the Material Culture Research Group, says she appreciated the opportunity to get close to a medium whose complexity can make it impractical at this level. “This class in particular was revolutionary…in that it offered the chance to explore and manipulate a material that seems to be absent from most architecture programs.”

The final prototyping session at CMoG’s “hot shop” brought the group’s experimental work to fruition. Students worked on the floor with glassmakers as they shaped molten glass with torches, cutters and molds specialized for hot-worked glass. 

Olivia Arcara and Timothy Ruhl, both MArch students, came in expecting one prototype of their modular glass bricks, designed to stack and lock into place without fasteners or glue. Instead, they got five. Arcara says the yearlong research was “a great hands-on experience” that put her and her classmates on the forefront of architectural glass alongside leaders in the field. 

“We found we came up with a lot of questions we were answering together. The ability to experiment with different types of materiality and then work with a manufacturer was an amazing research experience.”

Steve Gibbs, who assigned his entire staff of glassmakers to the project, says CMoG values the knowledge exchange. “The making is the end for CMoG,” he said of a process that saw glassmakers and students in constant contact via Skype and digital drawing exchanges. 

The glasswork is part of the School’s broader investigation of refractory materials, including ceramics. It’s also one of the program’s many research-to-practice endeavors with industry partners that include Boston Valley Terra Cotta and Rigidized Metals Corp. 

Davidson says the initiative has expanded the School of Architecture and Planning’s capacity and facilities for a promising new field of research. “It’s a totally new branch of material possibilities for the department, and our students are the trailblazers,” she says. 

CMoG’s master glassworkers use a range of hot glass techniques to create full-scale prototypes of the students’ designs. Photo by Georg Rafailidis

“It’s an exciting energy in the studio.”