Comparing Glass Houses - The Fascination with the Transparent in Modern Architecture

January 16, 2017

Solid, useful and beautiful - those are the attributes Vitruvius used when he got to be the first one to officially define architecture. The meaning of each of those words kept on changing throughout history, and was finally put to a test in the 20th century. What was once considered solid was challenged by a use of materials that represented the opposite. People’s idea of the purpose of architecture changed, and finally its beauty became dependent on that. If we take Louis Sullivan’s iconic statement "form follows function" as the main principle of modernism, it becomes clear how the useful and the beautiful became interrelated.[1]

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Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Crystal Palace

It was during the period of industrialization that architecture became associated with steel and glass. The first landmark of the age of innovation was the famous Crystal Palace, made out of plate glass. It was originally built in Hyde Park as the venue for the Great Exhibition in 1851, where technological achievements were displayed. After it served its purpose, the building was dismantled and rebuilt at Sydenham, on top of a hill, surrounded by a park that became inseparable from the image of the palace itself. It stood there until it was destroyed in a fire in 1936.

The Crystal Palace became a well-known structure, but also the icon of a revolution. Hereby, it is not only the Industrial revolution that we’re talking about, but rather the radical change of perspective and sort of a “typological” revolution. Because it was made out of glass, and thus transparent, the Crystal Palace was the first building to display the exhibits to the visitors, while displaying the visitors as well, to the world outside the confines of the building. Once the house becomes the glass house, some of its distinctive qualities come into question. How does it remain solid, while being so fragile? How does it remain useful, if it corrupts privacy? At that time, the question was also, how is it beautiful if it is ornament-free?

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Dom-Ino House by Le Corbusier

Domino House Concept

The prototype for a modern glass house was certainly derived from Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino House, a universal model that exemplified the basics of modern architecture as seen by its most notable architect. It displayed an open plan, with no walls and barriers, having the minimal amount of columns instead, symmetrically arrayed around the edges. The stairs are positioned so as to provide access to all four sides of the floor, leaving endless possibilities for interior arrangements. Most importantly, the thin columns (in this example, described as made of reinforced concrete) allow for the facade made out of glass plates, which is exactly what some of the most famous modern architects did.

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The Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, near Plano, Illinois, 1945-1951

Modern Glass House

However, for the way we imagine glass houses today we have mostly German modernists to thank. Mies van der Rohe was one of the main protagonists of the typical glass house typology. Deeply inspired by his work from the post-war period in Chicago, American architect (and German sympathizer) Philip Johnson designed a glasshouse of his own, probably one of the most famous in the world. What you’ll notice about both Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in the suburbs of Chicago is that they are situated in fairly rural micro-environments, surrounded by nature. In both of the iconic examples, the Domino House model is contextualized in a landscape that counterbalances the so-called cold, industrial aesthetics. In such setting, the glass that represents a physical barrier between the inside and the outside shows its unique character, being both transparent and reflective. That makes the house eventually become part of the natural landscape, as it blends into the colors and shapes, mirroring the surrounding while letting it become part of the house at the same time.[2]

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Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, 1949

Reconnecting with Nature

For this reason, it is almost certain that one will not think of the glass house separately from its surrounding. Even the Crystal Palace became known as a unified complex of the building and the park that surrounds it. The way Mies saw it, glass houses were supposed to bring "nature, houses, and the human being to a higher unity". Sometimes, like in the aforesaid house designed for Dr. Edith Farnsworth, van der Rohe went as far as to deliberately allow the house to be endangered by the possible natural forces that might destroy it. Because of the terrain it was built on, the ground level of Farnsworth House was flooded a few times in the past, ruining some of the glass, the furniture and the veneer. This unpredictability that was decidedly made possible by the architect is something that his successor, Philip Johnson, called "safe danger". The house was not there to destabilize the natural balance, but on the contrary, it was made subject to its impact.

Eames House, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, 1949

Programming the Glass Buildings in Architecture

Because of their character, these houses were usually conceptualized as places for relaxation, leisure, inspiration, productivity and enjoyment. Dr Farnsworth went to her mansion when she wanted to translate poetry and play the violin, or simply enjoy the view - she would literally be surrounded by beautiful vegetation wherever she looked. It later became a museum. The reason Phillip Johnson's house became so attractive is the fact that he actually lived in it, for more than half a century. "Johnson's career began when he turned himself into the Man in the Glass House", said Michael Sorkin in 1978. He was a living, breathing example of a man who actually enjoys the utopian modern life - who lives in the incarnation of the Domino house. With minimal materialization and the play between transparency and privacy, Johnson demonstrated that his house had a double facade - the glass one, and the one made out of leaves and branches. Interestingly, in that same year, husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames designed their iconic Eames House, which admittedly had more steel than a typical glass house of that time.[3]

Cartier Foundation in Paris, by Jean Nouvel

Glass Houses and Buildings after Modernism

Glass house remains an inspiration for architects today. These buildings offer the mirage and the experience of spatial continuity that extends beyond the confines of built structure. By interacting with nature, they still bring out the best of what architecture can be. Deriving from the examples of van der Rohe and Johnson, architects find new ways to deploy transparency and to communicate the new notion of solidity, of usefulness and beauty. In many of the contemporary examples, the aim stays the same - the liberation of spirit and mind by challenging closed spaces and what they might represent.

Among the famous glass houses, or semi-glass houses that emerged in the past few decades, there are a few seminal ones. The list begins with Lina Bo Bardi's Casa de Vidro dating from 1951, just two years after Johnson's Glass House was built, on with Kengo Kuma's Water/Glass guest house in Japan, Alberto Campo Baeza's "boxes open to the sky" as he likes to call his projects and Jean Nouvel's Cartier Foundation in Paris. Some of Baeza's houses, such as The Olnick Spanu House in the rural New York area, bare noticeable resemblance to van der Rohe's style. Others, such as Nouvel's Foundation Cartier, represent different approaches to glass houses, expanding the volume of the building and rendering frames of glass as a sequence of layers that perform both as backgrounds and foregrounds. Metal stands are arranged in a rhythmic manner, some of them framing glass panels, and some just remaining empty, like a scaffold. Because of this gradual dispersal of matter, the building seems like a fragment of some invisible order when seen from afar, and appears to disappear into its background, when seen up close.


  1. Sullivan, L., (1924). Autobiography of an Idea, New York City: Press of the American institute of Architects.
  2. Tutter, A., (2016). Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House, University of Virginia Press.
  3. Steele, J., (2002). Eames House: Charles and Ray Eames (Architecture in Detail), Phaidon Press Ltd.

Featured images: The Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, near Plano, Illinois; The Olnick Spanu House by Alberto Campo Baeza in greater New York area; Casa del Vidrio by Lina Bo Bardi in Sao Paulo.

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