Mirror Mirror On the Wall

No matter how narcissistic Snow White’s step mom was, modern architecture can top that. Glass facades have plagued cities everywhere with no regard for the climate or context. (Also “modernist” architecture is almost universally ugly?)

It is especially a problem in tropical countries like India. The office buildings who are the main culprits of this are usually centrally air conditioned. The glass traps heat and increases the cost of air conditioning and is really bad for the environment. They also make birds lose direction and could be contributing to the dwindling biodiversity in cities today.

Apart from the ecological impact, the glass facades also lack context (or do they?) Of course, they reflect everything around them- and everything around them is “local” so does it mean that they actually are context-responsive?! This chameleon quality is what makes these buildings so bland. They direct the eye away from the building even if it is 20 stories high. They don’t have any focal point. Genetics of Design actually studied the way our eyes direct themselves around a glass box versus how it perceives a traditional building. You guessed it, a traditional building is way more engaging and for good reason. It has elements and character which draws our attention and makes it more human. Most importantly, it does not go “Oh noooo nothing to see hereeee! Look at everything else but meeee!!!”It has an honesty to it which the modern buildings lack.

Now I am not saying that all buildings should be made of brick and mortar. It is difficult to clean and might even bump up the building cost as brick weighs more than glass. Brick will also give you smaller openings for fenestration. In a multistory office building of current standards, that is not desirable. But why is that?

The huge windows allow ample sunlight to enter and lights up a larger floor area. Offices which are closer to the middle might not be as well lit if the windows were to be smaller. One solution is to make the floor plate smaller or to put the services in the core like Mies Van deRohe did for the Seagram’s building. But it is one of many solutions, we could use tainted glass, composite materials and even reduce the amount of glass used in the building. But it still doesn’t answer the question of why this kind of design appealed to tropical sensibilities in the first place.

One of the first buildings to have a glass facade in India was the Government Press building in Chandigarh designed by Maxwell Fry. But when you take a careful look at this 1950s design you’ll notice that it is not out of context? It was built keeping India’s heritage and climate in mind. It is wrong to blame Modernism completely. Then what is to blame for this glass obsession?

In my opinion, it would be our obsessive westernization. We beg borrow steal everything from a place whose climate is nothing like ours, let alone culture, heritage and the finer details. Glass facades reduce the cost of central heating in a place like Canada but is problematic in a hotter area. It’s not modernist movement that is the problem but what we understand as modernist. Blatantly copying architecture is not the solution! There are architects who are looking at ways to make their designs more sustainable. Architects are also looking at traditional materials and construction techniques to help craft a more environmentally responsive future. But all of it means little if there is no demand for it.

Aesthetic sensibilities are constantly evolving. It is time the consumer and the designer make the right choice. It is not just about the next shiny building down the road but about how it impacts the future of our cities.

N.D

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