A Look at (and Through) Architectural Glass An Aesthetic and Engineering Evolution

Take an architectural tour of just about any major U.S. city, and you’ll get a sense of how trends and tastes in building materials have changed over time.  Limestone, brownstone, brick, and terracotta were the earthy materials of choice during the first half of the 20th century, with glass being used almost exclusively as windows or skylights. As time went on, fashions changed, and craftspeople who specialized in creating the ornate hand-carving, casting, and other structural and decorative elements of older architectural styles began to fade from prominence. Aesthetic preferences, as well as advances in material engineering, made glass and steel the exterior building materials of choice in most new construction. Along with the obvious allure of light-filled interiors and stunning views as selling points in many city and coastal environments, exterior glass is durable, economical, and incredibly versatile – but it also has unique considerations in terms of upkeep and maintenance. 

Why Glass? Enjoying the View

While it may not have been as ubiquitous then as it is now, exterior glass has been a key element in architectural stunners for centuries. The popularity of Victorian greenhouses and conservatories led many late 19th-century architects to feature glass as a dominant structural component. For example, San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers located in Golden Gate Park opened to the public in 1879, and features iron-and-glass construction innovations that were state-of-the art at the time. 

Architectural glass exteriors would take on a much bigger role in the landscapes of 20th-century urban American architecture – both commercial and residential. To name just one example, Mies van der Rohe completed his Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago in 1951, which remain a manifestation of the architect’s signature glass-and-steel construction.  

“Glass skins on buildings began in the 1950s, with buildings such as the United Nations, Lever House, and Seagrams,” says Michael Lentin, owner and president of CitiQuiet Windows in Long Island City, “but it wasn’t until the 1980s when we started to see more buildings designed with glass skins. Now, as you know, glass has experienced exponential growth.” 

Why did glass rise to the popularity we see today? Lentin says that initially, “It was more about aesthetics than cost. Coming out of the ’70s, glass allowed light, openness, and a curb appeal – more so than concrete and windows.” 

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