Monday, May 06, 2013

Book Review: Translucent Building Skins

Translucent Building Skins: Material Innovation in Modern and Contemporary Architecture by Scott Murray
Routledge, 2012
Paperback/Hardcover, 200 pages

The history of modern architecture can be written by its materials and effects, especially glass and transparency. From Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (1851) and Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion (1914) to Philip Johnson's Glass House and Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (1951), there was a direction toward more glass creating apparently invisible enclosures. Yet historians and others have questioned the transparency of even the clearest float glass as well as the preference for blurring the boundary between inside and outside through glass surfaces. That modern architects in the early to middle of the 20th century also designed buildings with translucent enclosures, something explored in this new book by University of Illinois' Scott Murray, is but one sign that modern architecture was varied in terms of motives and effects.

Murray's book is neither simply a history of modern architecture nor a collection of recent architecture; it could be seen as the latter framed by the former. Murray presents case studies of seven buildings completed within the last 15 years, pairing them with relevant buildings from 1903 to 1963. This tactic roots buildings like Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus Bregenz (1997) and Frank Gehry's IAC Headquarters (2007) with buildings that fit into a different strand of modernism—MoMA's 1939 building and the Johnson Wax Company Tower (1950), respectively. But more importantly, it allows Murray to explore seven effects in the pairs: Solidified Light, Art House Cinema, Crystallization, Compound Lens, Geology, Bioluminescence, and Fade to Black. Not surprisingly, given that translucent surfaces are notable for spreading light and blurring images, these effects are visual. But the variety of effects shows that, like transparency, translucency varies depending on a number of factors: design, material, orientation, lighting, etc.

Within each pair Murray gives equal weight (in terms of words, photos, and drawings) to the modern and contemporary case studies, though sometimes he starts with the older building and sometimes with the newer one. This fact may not seem important, but it helps to keep the book from following a formula for each chapter—modern case study, contemporary case study, discussion of relationships between the two, for example. Instead, each chapter is laid back in its structure, weaving the two projects together to some degree and inserting other buildings with similar effects into the mix. Like Murray's previous book on Contemporary Curtain Wall Architecture, axonometric details are especially helpful in understanding how the designs work as enclosures. By combining modern and contemporary precedents, Murray shows that today's popularity for translucent surfaces is hardly novel, even if materials allow for a greater range of effects. Murray's solid case studies and illustrations make a case for other explorations that pick up on trends but delve deeper into histories and ideas.