Wrightstyle’s Steel Glazing Retail Eternity
Jane Embury of Wrightstyle, one of the UK’s leading suppliers specialist glass and glazing systems, believes that the architecture of God and mammon is becoming the same thing.
The renowned Swiss architect Le Corbusier, back in the 1920s, commented that the history of architecture is the history of the window. At that time, in the context of what had gone before, it was an apt definition, recognising the fundamental importance of light in building design.
However, it’s now a fairly limiting definition of what modern glass and glazing systems can achieve, with technological advances now allowing for hitherto impossibly large expanses of glass to be used – and in applications that the good Le Corbusier could not have imagined.
There is, however, another defining aspect to glass in modern architecture and how it reflects a new resonance between the conflicting agendas of God and mammon. Let me explain.
Once upon a time, architecture was about balancing form and function and designing a built environment that enhanced its surrounding structures. It was about sensitivity to what was already there whilst creating functional buildings that people wanted to live and work in.
In that respect, the history of architecture – not just the window – is also about buildings that feed the soul; the grandiose and landmark structures that help to define civic or national pride and identity – buildings that are both an ideal and an idea, embracing concepts of nationhood or social progress.
More than that, architecture has also helped to define the infinite: the buildings that represent our relationship between the temporal and the eternal. Whatever God you offer prayers to, He (or She) can be found in a church, mosque, synagogue, chapel or temple near you.
In that sense, religious architecture offers parallel belief structures for its adherents: from the sublime forgiveness of the Cistine Chapel to the bleak rigidity of a Presbyterian chapel. Their architecture says it all and, in a very real sense, the buildings in which we worship reflect our personal vision of the eternal.
The cathedrals of the soul stand testimony to the grandiloquence of religious belief and the ingenuity of architects and builders down the ages to sublimate those shared beliefs into stone and glass.
Now, with religion in decline, the old cathedrals are becoming places to visit rather than places in which to worship. The days of building great religious buildings would seem to have passed. The landmark churches that we have are likely to be the only ones that we’ll ever have. Well, maybe.
But it seems to me that a new form of secular cathedral has been springing up, and quite possibly in a neighbourhood near you; fuelled by relative wealth – current downturn excepted – ease of transport and by a benign, if distinctly secular, form of capitalism.
It is, of course, the ubiquitous shopping centre. Within their hallowed portals, modern building materials have allowed architects to create immense, soaring structures filled with light, and each designed to free the soul and unlock the wallet. Changed days from bland concrete and, well, more bland concrete.
Glass and glazing systems are an integral part of the new secular cathedrals, blending the temporal with the infinite. They provide light, internal temperature control, and modern fire resistance. Couple those advantages with the larger spans that are now available using steel glazing systems, and there are few limits to what can now be achieved using glass within an appropriate glazing system.
Regeneration through retail is a global phenomenon, and one with which we are becoming increasingly associated as architects want large and still larger spans of glass to illuminate their new retail cathedrals. Uniquely, glass blurs the divide between interior and exterior spaces and, in such a large internal space, we instinctively feel ourselves in a new kind of cathedral – a spiritual place that, handily, also sells shoes.
A stunning example of the retail fusion of mind and spirit is Langholm Place in Hong Kong, a HK $3.1 billion development that is already being hailed as a milestone in urban renewal. It includes a 53-storey office tower, a 5-star hotel with 665 bedrooms and rooftop swimming pool as well as a 600,000 sq ft shopping mall with 300 shops.
The 1.8 million sq ft development has helped to transform a rundown area of Hong Kong into one of its most popular visitor destinations, transforming a part of the city that was better known as a red light district into a must-go-and-see destination.
As a shoppers’ paradise, the Langham Place Mall is unique in Hong Kong. Within its 15-storeys are more than 300 shops – roughly the same number as in London’s Oxford Street.
At the top of the shopping centre, reached via one of the world’s largest unsupported escalators, is the Ozone, complete with an indoor waterfall and – another unique feature – a Digital Sky. This enormous rooftop screen spans the entire length of the ceiling and broadcasts continuous overhead visuals, and which attracts large crowds (congregations?) to celebrate festive events – turning the shopping centre into an important civic space.
For us, it was a challenge. The stringent fire safety specification for the project, which has three towers from 13 to 53 storeys, and with two link bridges between the retail and hotel areas, covered several international standards including British Standards (BS) for fire resistance, American (ASTM) for mechanical strength and German (DIN) standards for material qualities.
In addition to meeting the fire performance specification, our high-performance curtain walling system, protecting vital walkways between the main building and the shopping area, also had to accommodate large unsupported spans of glazing and still comply with the high wind load criteria associated with a typhoon-prone part of the world.
Closer to home, another retail cathedral is Ocean Terminal, on the seafront at Leith, Edinburgh’s port. This shopping centre is also host to the Royal Yacht Britannia and the famous ship’s visitor centre, making the development an international attraction as well as Scotland’s third largest shopping centre.
The 440,000 square foot complex, which cost £120 million, is part of the overall regeneration of Leith, itself one of the largest waterfront developments in Europe. Like its Hong Kong counterpart, the redevelopment of Leith is also transforming a red light district into an attractive leisure, residential and retail area – and bringing in thousands of jobs, including the HQ of the Scottish Executive.
Once again, glass was fundamental to the design concept, incorporating a frontage that is one of the UK’s largest free-spans of curtain walling. The overall glazed span at Ocean Terminal is over 16 metres in height, with the largest individual free span over ten metres with grid centres of four metres. Each piece of glass accommodated within the system weighs a massive 450 kg. In total, our system covers 1130 square metres of façade.
A third project with which we were associated is Midsummer Place, a £170 million project in Milton Keynes that covers 450,000 sq ft, and is built around a 150-year old oak tree that started its sapling life in the reign of Queen Victoria. Like many shopping centres, Midsummer Place also uses art as a means of engaging with its local community – including a stained glass window by the renowned artist Ann Smith. Stained glass? In a shopping centre?
The aesthetic advantages of glass are obvious, and how glass can transform the ambience and functionality of interior space is now well understood. The challenge for us is to now keep pace with architectural evolution – from providing unrivalled performance against fire, or acoustic and weather performance, to combating terrorist attack.
That last challenge is perhaps the biggest one that we’ve met, successfully completing UK high-pressure blast-resistant testing, underlining our system’s performance against explosive risks. In today’s uncertain world, designing in safety has become an integral part of retail therapy – itself a key component in regenerating our towns and cities for the decades to come.
Once we bartered our goat for a handful of corn; we thought that the folk down the road lived on the other side of the world. Now we can worship afresh in the new architecture of the shopping centre – the modern cathedrals that fulfil our flights of retail fancy.
So next time you visit a large, modern shopping centre, have a good look around you. In these vaulted palaces, God and mammon now share the same space – fuelled by glass and glazing technologies that have allowed architects to find new ways to express our innate sense of shopping heaven.
The fact is that we can now do so many different things with glass: Low-E, insulation, noise reduction, tints, large span – the list is growing all the time. We can make glass solutions work in places where many designers still specify concrete, and all made possible by high-quality steel glazing systems.
Le Corbusier was right, but only up to a point. His comment, made some 80 years ago, saw glass only in terms of the aesthetics of the window. Now, we can use glass on floors, walls, ceilings and everywhere in between. It can be used to let in heat or light, or keep it out as well as providing the highest levels of fire and blast resistance.
The history of architecture as the history of the window? Maybe, but a far better definition for the 21st century might be, simply, that the history of architecture is the history of glass.
Your local shopping mall and a great cathedral may not be on an architectural par but both are designed to appeal subliminally to our instincts. A loaf of bread or bread of Heaven? You decide.