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10 glass ‘Marmite’ buildings

We move on to the fifth blog of this light-hearted series on different types of buildings and structures, this time round looking at glass as our chosen material; and one which despite its frailties is often still the subject of successful repairs by Plastic Surgeon’s Finishers. Amongst my chosen Top Ten are some which have been as controversial as Marmite – “Love it or loathe it” – and a couple that have not stood the test of time so well.

Well, we had to start with Kew’s Palm House, which experts see as the most important surviving Victorian iron and glass structure in the world. It was designed to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe during the early part of the Queen’s reign. The project was pioneering, as it was the first time engineers had used wrought iron to span such large widths without supporting columns; while it also uses pre-stressed bars inside tubes that run between the main frame members which mimic the hull of a ship. It boasts 16,000 panes of glass, and is most definitely a ”Love It” building, though the humid atmosphere has ravaged the paintwork again following a full refurbishment in the late eighties.

The Crystal Palace, although it doesn’t exist anymore, must surely be one of the most memorable glass structures in history, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. More than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world gathered in the Palace’s 990,000 square feet (92,000 m2) of floor space to display examples of the latest technology developed in the Industrial Revolution. Although metal framed, laminated glass can nowadays be specified to resist immense heat as well as high calibre bullets; sadly the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire.

There are, however, no excuses for the technical problems suffered by 30 St Mary Axe (widely known as “the Gherkin”) after it was opened in May 2004. With 41 floors, the tower is 180 metres (591 ft) tall, and proved a nightmare for the contractors who had to replace dozens of glazing units which fractured around its tapered, curving elevations in the first months. Chips and scratches we can deal with but, spontaneous cracks are beyond our Finishers’ capabilities.

Despite its name, The Shard appears to be all in one piece, though we have been called in to polish some scratches out of a stone floor with a glassy surface reflectance. It is the tallest building in Western Europe, its crystalline façade transforming the London skyline with a multi-use 310 m (1,016 ft) vertical city of high quality offices, restaurants, the 5-star Shangri-La hotel, exclusive residential apartments and the capital’s highest public viewing gallery: The View from The Shard, offering a 360° panorama.

The Louvre, in its successive architectural metamorphoses, has dominated central Paris since the late 12th century. The dark fortress of the early days was transformed into the modernized dwelling of François I and, later, the sumptuous palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV. But it is the 20th century glass Pyramid that is of interest here, being the focal point of the museum’s main axes of circulation and also serving as an entrance to the large reception hall beneath. To me, it’s a bit of a carbuncle, though it has attracted attention from film-makers and story writers, so pass me my summer reading – The Da Vinci Code.

Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelonia Pavilion is as elegant and understated as The Shard in design. Although completed in 1929, Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs would describe it as “cutting-edge” or an “ultra-modern design.” In fact the glass, steel and stone building was from the Modern Movement which peaked in the twenties and thirties, but seems to remain the default setting for designers who decry any other period of architectural retrospective.

Boots D10 in Nottingham is another iconic building from the Modern Movement, which opened in the 1930s. Six decades later it was necessary to replace 36, 000 square feet of external glazing with Crittall’s Corporate W20 windows, replicating the old Crittall curtain walling. It is not a generalisation here to have mentioned Crittall – the company’s Universal Suite and W20 products have become synonymous with that era, and steel windows as a generic term – just as a vacuum cleaner will always be referred to as a Hoover, or yeast extract will always be called Marmite.

Moving on, the Hoover Building in West London, designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, is a fine example of Art Deco architecture, with massive façades of glazing and curved dome-shaped windows on its corners. Despite being utilitarian, the structure deserves its place amongst our pantheon of glass paned properties.

Designed by Foster and Partners, The Sage Gateshead perches high above the River Tyne, enjoying spectacular views towards Newcastle. Despite a very articulate glazed roof, this performance venue has made it onto our top ten for the way in which glass has been used in several aspects to control acoustics. We’ve all heard about sopranos being able to shatter a wine glass with their high notes, but so far The Sage is still standing.

Finally, the beautiful world-famous Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, complete our top ten for this week. They were completed in 1998 when, standing elegantly side by side, they held the title of the world’s tallest buildings; before being ousted from that position by Taipei 101. I love the grace of these buildings, and indeed top my “Love It” list.

Our top 10:

Palm House at Kew Gardens

The Crystal Palace

The Gherkin

The Shard

The Louvre

Barcelona Pavilion

Boots D10

Hoover Building

The Sage

Petronas Twin Towers

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