Architects Guide to Glass, USGlass

Europe Through a Glass Eye

I have been lucky enough to spend a good bit of time this month traveling throughout Europe.  And hidden among the typical tourist sights–monuments, cathedrals, museums, little cafes with potent espressos and flaky pastries–came some lessons for a lifetime. Seeing so much rich and long history reminded me how “new” we, as a country, are. No wonder the rest of the world looks at the U.S. as its impetuous teenager, combining a lack of substance and context with unbounded energy and optimism. The biggest thing this trip did was bring history alive. It moved what I had learned through books and in school from one dimension to high definition 3D, and that was illuminating. It was also a stark reminder just how little I know about so many things, and that was humbling. For me though, the primary story is always in the glass. During the next few weeks, I will also offer a view of some of the cities I visited through a glass eye. So let’s start with London. Here’s my top five glass landmarks in London:

The Shard in the London skyline
View of the Shard from the bottom up.

1.  The Shard: also known as 32 London Bridge Street in London, is one of the most controversial buildings ever erected there. When the innovative design by Renzo Piano was unveiled in 2008, it was greeted with disdain. Many were concerned it would destroy the London skyline by obscuring the view of Saint Paul’s Cathedral while being visible from the Tower of London. It has 1,389,987 square feet of total space with 576,784 devoted to office space. The glass façade, completed in 2012, features 11,000 lites of glass totaling 602,779 square feet of glass weighing 18,000 tons. The building remains controversial but has become a skyline marker for the City of London.

2.The Selfridge Windows—Selfridge Department Stores are as well known in the UK as Harrods or Harvey Nichols. But the famous Mr. Selfridge’s store had something none of the other department stores had. Seems the cunning entrepreneur was concerned that people weren’t shopping in his stores during the War because, let’s face it, no one wants to shop when they are afraid of being bombed into oblivion. So Mr. Selfridge’s solution was to “bomb-proof” his stores by removing the windows and covering them with cement during the war, thus creating the first “bomb resistant” windows by having no windows at all. Once the war was over, both windows and window shopping returned.

walkietalker 3.  The Walkie-Talkie: You gotta love how Londoners name their buildings. This newly opened one at 20 Fenchurch St: City was design by Rafael Vinoly Architects and has become its own sight to see on the hop-on, hop-off buses. That is because the building is credited with melting at least one car earlier this year. This is a result of the shape of the building that creates a convex mirror out of the façade glass which concentrates the sun’s rays. Gotta love the English sense of humor, too, because parts of the building are now covered with an anti-reflective film … in the pattern of a walkie talkie.


4. The Parliament View Apartments—were designed to give renters a great view of Parliament but with that view came the reciprocal giving Parliament, and all of London for that matter, great views of the renters. The building is wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass  and is located less than 20 yards from a major exit ramp in the city. Those riding by can peer right in and with everything from coffee cups, toothbrushes and bed sheets so close you could touch them. “It takes a certain type of person to live there,” said our guide dryly. Indeed.

The Parliment View Apartments by night. The complex could also be nirvana for exhibitionists.


5. The Gherkin—Even more controversial than the Shard when it opened in Spring 2004, the Gherkin is located at 30 St. Mary Axe. The 41 story edifice resides on the spot where the Baltic Exchange was until its demise as the result of a bomb placed there by the provisional Irish Republican Army. The 591 foot high building was designed by Sir Norman Foster and Arup Group and was built by Skanska. Today, it is one of the city’s most recognizable buildings and a symbol for the London skyline.It was incredibly fun and meaningful for me to see how much of London’s skyline blends the very old and new and what an important role glass plays in that skyline—and in the tourism that comes to the city.

(Be)Hold the pickle that towers above London.
(Be)Hold the pickle that towers above London.


I’m back in my office now, but for the next few blogs, please come with me as we visit a few other European cities where the story is in the glass. And, please feel free to share yours with me. Have you visited any place or seen any buildings that remain etched in your mind for their use of glass? Please let me know. Cheery ho!