Glass in architecture, potential inherent in glass

Glass in architecture, potential inherent in glass

The abridged version of a presentation about Estonian architectural glass and glass objects in public space. The examples of buildings and glass objects of 21st century Estonia were studied from the point of view of a glass artist.

Presented on the glass conference celebrating the 80th anniversary of Estonian glass art at the Tallinn Creative Hub on 10 November 2017.


Read also about Estonian art glass in New Glass/Neues Glass 4/2017.


Glass is gaining ground, but with little variation

Glass can be encountered in public space more and more every year – façades, passenger shelters, barriers, information boards, art objects, etc. Big glass façades and their sameness evoke, however, the feeling of strangeness in people´s minds. There is the ever-increasing necessity for finding ways to filter light, decrease transparency, conceal something, but also to make glass as building material more versatile, personalised and sensitive.

The way glass artists see architectural glass differs certainly from the glance of other people. Glass is definitely the material we are thoroughly familiar with and therefore able to reflect on glassworking alternatives. We could be more frequently engaged as co-thinkers and co-experimenters. I observe with interest what specific glass (mass tinted, reflective or conventional) is used for one or another building and object. And I become especially attentive when glass has been worked in some way – for example, printed, slumped or laminated. Glassworking possibilities are constantly expanding and artists make an important contribution to the process as experimenters.

In the case of buildings, the most frequently applied method in Estonia so far is silk-screen printing. For example, the Museum of Occupations, the EU House, ERM (Estonian National Museum) and “Super-Ministry” are buildings with various patterns printed on their glass surfaces by means of opaque white colour. All these buildings are eye-catching, but the use of printed glass in these structures is sometimes more, sometimes less successful. The most problematic is the building of the so-called Super-Ministry (2017, R. Parve, K. Süda, Amhold AS). According to the authors, the white building symbolizes honesty, clarity, transparency and freedom of inspiration.

In his article to the web magazine Edasi (Forward) Marko Mäetamm could not give the reason why this building seemed to him “a bit like a black and white printout on a kind of cheap paper, not done with the best printer”. An experienced glass artist would reply to him that it is opaque white (which often seems to be a fool-proof choice) that brings forth dullness and one-dimensionality in glass, turns this elegant material into mute and thin matter. White print also accentuates any impurity present in glass mass, though in this case almost colourless glass with low iron content was used.

The window glass of the building is covered with silk-screen printed raster which becomes denser in the upper part of the window. The printed filter attempts to combine the background-coloured wall surfaces with window surfaces with the aim of achieving as white a building as possible, when viewed from the outside. Gradient transition is rather a matter of taste, but the technique will not work as the anticipated substitute for blinds, at least not on the south side and in full sunlight.

I am convinced that to avoid one or another mistake in the case of this structure or other buildings, glass artists could have been consulted before decision-making. Even if at first sight it is only the issue of simple aesthetic decisions.

Glass artists´ input

Contrary to construction glass, it has already been a tradition that when it comes to filling openings, glass artists have had more chance to give their advice. Nowadays even traditional leaded stained glass can be embedded into glass encasement and so it has a wide range of applications. However, I see different kinds of solutions for the future.

A good example is the work of Rait Prääts in a wine estate´s private chapel Chapelle de Vaissiere in France from the year 2015. The artwork has attained a superb concord between the building, the idea of window design and realization of the idea in material. The glass painting embedded between fused glass layers reminds us, due to its vigorous contour lines, of traditional leaded stained glass, but it communicates infallibly the feeling of contemporaneity as well as accentuates even more the dignity of the 1000-year-old building. It is well-balanced, respect has been shown for the building, and the artwork of glass is present as respectful and independent.

The work of Kai Kiudsoo-Värv (2016) in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Tallinn adds, with a sense of piety, colour into the church interior – warm shades of colour in the south-facing windows, cold shades in the windows on the north side. Reliefs executed by the fusing-pressing method as well as the textures are well-perceived and beautiful. This type of a glass solution could definitely be used in somewhat larger format. A slight optical distortion and partial shading of the look-through is certainly something often needed to be achieved.

Creating glass objects in public space has been made possible in recent years also by the so-called Art of Percentages Act. At these competitions the most successful of artists with glass background has been so far Maret Sarapu, who has made the stained glass window “Flowerglow” for Laitse kindergarten and the glass mosaic “Staircase” on the wall of the news broadcasting building of Estonian National Broadcasting. The object “Iceberg” awaits to be executed for the headquarters of the European IT agency currently under construction.

The above listed works are vivid examples of how the experience of artistic creation gained through the years provides an assurance to move forward with the acquired technical solutions on a larger scale.

Tighter cooperation between architects, designers and glass artists could start with smaller outdoor objects. It might even be a bus shelter where we can often notice scratched-off signs made of adhesive film.

Glass artists have, however, made experiments in outdoor conditions with their own efforts. For example, the “Monument of Simple Values” in front of Türi Cultural Centre, master´s project of Sandra Allemann, who graduated from the Department of Glass Art of the Estonian Academy of Arts in 2013. The object features multi-coloured stripes and a text communicating life values of the local people is inserted between the stripes. I consider it a successful experiment of the young artist in testing glass techniques in outdoor conditions and coping well with larger forms.

There is the installation “Imaginary Space” in the park of Frauenau Glass Museum in Germany since 2010, created by Eeva Käsper and by the author of the article. The installation is composed of twelve two-sided mirror panels located on a circle. The object blends with the landscape, offering children joy of playing, and for those interested a chance to relate to space in a metaphysical way – by moving through the mirror circle you can see your own recurring images, but walking to the centre of the circle you will be among mirrors, yet without finding your own reflection.

The joint work of Ivo Lill and Eve Koha “Iceberg”, composed of fused glass, has withstood our weather well for eight years in Ivo´s own garden.

Miserable cross

The largest and most important sculptural glass object in Estonia is definitely the Cross of Liberty (2009, authors R. Sternfeld, A. Laidre, K. Kiho and A. Savi). The initially planned stone structure would have been more neutral when realized in stone. By implementing glass instead, it was hoped to make the object more modern. Computer rendering and a small model might have looked charming, but the “dress” suggested by the Czech company San Souci – layered panels made of safety glass and acrylic that cover the concrete structure – is not.

There were several shortcomings related to the glass panels. The statement that the glass changed colour sounded most weird to the ears of glass artists. Evidently it was the bubble filling between the glass layers that changed colour. It may be nice to look at the illuminated object in the dark, but in daytime the greenish-grey monument with a ragged look is rather melancholy. Disintegration can be traced in the section of the cross as well as in the panels´ silicone joints and heads of fasteners. I agree with the proposition made by architect Karli Luik to remodel the monument – whether every year or not, but the object needs to undergo some radical alteration.

The Cross of Liberty dedicated to the War of Independence, set up hastily and as a result of forceful pushing through, brought along both direct and indirect damage.

First, the plan initiated by the Estonian Reserve Officers´ Association to erect a so-called resistance monument in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a memorial to the people who fought for Estonia´s independence during occupations by foreign powers – remained unexecuted. The competition organized in 2006 was won by the work “Broken Wall”, authors glass artist I. Lill, artist K. Vahter and architect A. Rööpson. It was a monument of 5 metres in height and made of sheet glass, with extracts from documents determining the historical events of Estonia, photos and posters illustrative of the era printed between its layers. Ivo Lill conducted thorough preparatory work, he had also reached an agreement with the Finnish company which would have executed the structure. Unfortunately, the monument dedicated to the War of Independence with its faux pas caused by pushing things on, got ahead of the “Broken Wall” and the result was that the contractors of the latter did not have any interest in the glass monument any more. It is an example of the waste of talent and work, resulting from the forceful pushing through of ignorant decisions.

Second, the miserable monument gave rise to the decline of the reputation of glass as art material. I dare to affirm it as a long-standing professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts. The number of applicants for glass specialty dropped and the necessity of the department of glass art is up in the air to this day. The unfortunate object intensified the image of glass as, first of all, a complicated, expensive and problematic material. We can just imagine what kind of impetus the erection of an artistically and technically succeeded glass monument would have given to the development of both our public space and the specialty of glass art.

The strength of Estonian glass art lies in the personal hand-writing of artists, in terms of technology it is above all the mastery of fusing techniques. We have learned a lot by working in rather small format, and the know-how is there to apply it on a much larger scale. Cooperation between glass companies, architects and artists would give ample opportunities for realizing the potential inherent both in glass and in creators.


Translated by Margit Sepp