Glass structures sparkle like gems in the sunlight and stand tall like towers of ice. They can be made up of sharp geometric angles or appear rounded with gentle waves. With its beauty and versatility, it’s no wonder that glass has become such a popular building material. Once, cities may have been filled with gray or brown monoliths in boring box-like shapes, but they now feature an ever-increasing number of glittering constructions.
Image: Thomas Lieser
It almost looks as though this Vienna building is a net, catching fluffy white clouds in a blue sky.
Glass was first introduced into architecture around two millennia ago, although the building technology of the age meant it could only be used to fill small windows and let in a little light. By the medieval period, construction developments meant that glass could be used for decorative – as well as practical – purposes. The large windows of churches allowed plenty of scope for fancy stained glass designs depicting Biblical scenes in a rainbow of vibrant colors.
The many reflective facets of a building in London, UK
Until the 19th century, glass was only used architecturally for windows. However, the 1800s brought the production of larger sheets of glass and better building materials, and this gave architects the scope to branch out and create more imaginative constructions. Entire buildings, such as greenhouses or conservatories, could now be made out of the transparent material.
Image: Aaron Grimwood
The geometric shapes of this structure in New York are impressive.
As technology continued to progress, whole skyscrapers made of glass eventually began to change city skylines. These days, there are glass buildings all over the world, in a myriad of shapes and forms. If a visitor from medieval times visited today’s world, we’re sure they’d be amazed by the sheer variety of glass structures; indeed, they might look like something from a fairytale. Even from our modern perspective, we have to admit that they’re pretty impressive.
The ceiling of the Milwaukee Art Museum resembles a space station.
Having a glass ceiling could be a good thing for a building if it’s as stylish as this one at the Milwaukee Art Museum. That said, a potential disadvantage of a transparent roof might be the amount of cleaning involved to keep it looking immaculate! Above the glass in the Art Museum’s Windhover Hall lie the wings of the “Burke Brise Soleil” – a moveable sunscreen that opens and closes two times a day. This ensures that light remains at its optimum level.
The building on the right could almost be a giant bottle opener.
Glass buildings are now features of many modern cities, including these two in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Both are amazing examples of the kind of architectural diversity that is possible with glass nowadays. The small squares all over these Chinese structures create a metallic-seeming surface.
Image: Anders Bengtsson
This award-winning building in Stockholm appears to be cracked down the middle.
In 2010, the fantastic-looking structure pictured above was the winner of the Stockholm Building of the Year Award. It very cleverly creates the illusion of a building broken in two, with the two halves joined only by a transparent glass wall at the back. The walls inside the split are covered with glass panels in different shades of orange. Overall, the effect makes it seem almost like something out of a cartoon.
The Exzenterhaus in Germany is a serious case of repurposing.
This next building, which resembles a wonky stack of discs, is the Exzenterhaus in Bochum, the highest office building in the Central Ruhr region of Germany. The lower section is actually comprised of the remains of bomb shelters built in 1942, while the glass portion was completed in 2013. The whole structure is around 292 feet (89 meters) high.
Image: Mariano Mantel
The Capital City Towers in Moscow look like they’ve been pushed out of place.
If the Exzenterhaus looks like a stack of discs, then The Capital City Towers of Moscow are a pile of shiny cubes that have been misaligned by a giant toddler. The top floors house apartments – and because of the funky construction, they come in all sorts of set-ups and sizes. We’re sure the 62- and 73-story buildings are much more stable than they appear, but we’re still not sure we’d feel safe inside either of them during an earthquake.
The stunning clear dome of Berlin’s Reichstag
The futuristic-looking structure above isn’t something you’d immediately expect to find in an old building like the Reichstag. However, this glass dome is indeed a part of the 19th-century landmark; it was added to the structure in 1999. Visitors to the dome can enjoy 360-degree views of the area, providing they register in advance.
Image: Daisy Swain
The Sage Gateshead, shown at night
Glass buildings have the wonderful property of letting in light, but at night they can also let light out to great effect, as seen in this picture of the Sage Gateshead in northeast England. The arts center, which also features at the top of this article, cost a staggering £70 million (about $108 million) to build in 2004, which led to some locals suggesting that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. Still, there’s no denying that it’s an amazing-looking building.
Image: Ali Barrett
The roof of the central quadrangle in the British Museum proves that modern architecture can still be classy.
Here’s a section of another old building, The British Museum, which has been retrofitted with modern glass. The central quadrangle of the museum was redesigned with this glass ceiling, and each section needed to be a different shape in order to accommodate the roof’s waves. In all, there are 1,656 pairs of windowpanes. One imagines that putting them up might have been similar to assembling a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.
Image: Tue Jepsen
An inner-city building in London reflects the sky above.
One of the qualities that may make glass a desirable building material is its ability to reflect the natural environment – in this case, the sky and clouds. When viewed in such a way, this structure in inner city London blends easily into the background, with only the metal frame defining it. From this angle, the construction almost resembles a rocket, ready to take off into the blue.
Image: Sean MacEntee
Shimmering in the light of Las Vegas
The buildings in this article have all been striking in appearance, but are they environmentally sound? Some would say yes, citing the quantity of natural light available, glass’ recyclability, and potential climate-control properties. Critics, on the other hand, say that glass buildings actually have higher energy consumption and are not as long-lasting as those built with concrete. In fact, in Toronto, some glass buildings are being “re-skinned” or covered in stucco-like Styrofoam cladding to make them more energy-efficient.
Image: Paul Bica
These towers in Toronto use glass and chrome to striking effect.
Perhaps glass buildings are a fad and will be replaced by structures made of different – and maybe more environmentally friendly – materials in the future. People might one day look back at them the way we now view Gothic or Soviet architecture as a product of a bygone era. For now, though, we can appreciate the elegance and innovation of these incredible buildings and the technology that makes them possible.