A guide to the use of glass in architecture and design

Glass in architecture and design
Glass in architecture and design

The idea of using traditional materials with design as the intrinsic component in architecture has found a number of supporters in Italy. Carlo Scarpa stands at the head such a school, with the Museum of Castelvecchio being the best-known example of his work. 

Many other Italian architects of his generation also experimented with the application of traditional architectural materials in such a way that placed design firmly at the forefront of post-war Italian architectural expression. The example illustrated here is by the living architect Ildo Avetta, born Alejandro in Argentina in 1916, and a graduate of the Politecnico di Torino in 1940. 

The work was designed in 1956 and building completed in 1959 on the hills overlooking the Paestum plane in the Province of Salerno Italy. The architectural complex was commissioned by the Fondazione Getsemani (Gethsemane Foundation) to be used as a place of spiritual training. 

The planning and site direction was by Ildo Avetta with structural calculations by the engineer Carlo Cestelli Guidi and construction work by the contractors Giovannini e Micheli from Rome. 

Many materials popular in the nineteen fifties were employed, including glass block-work, open cement-work combined with brick, stone-axed canopies, hot-bent wood furnishings and so on. 

Avetta also however concentrated his attention on the use of glass in the architecture, making it a major feature of six of the twelve gable vaults that characterize the hexagonal star base of the cupola of the church dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. 

This stands above a crypt to the memory of Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane among the olive groves of Jerusalem, visible from above through a wide aperture echoing the star motif of the plan. 

The way each of the materials was used reflected the search for newness characteristic of the post-war years. It is worth noting that Avetta began his professional career around 1945 at the studio of Ettore Sotsass senior in Turin. 

In this building the introduction of the design element is undoubtedly original and evident in the way that glass is employed in the composition. 

Glass, combined with glass-block work is used on large scale in the finishing of the building’s walls, and as a structural element in the church roof where it combines with the reinforced concrete vaults to counterbalance their weightiness in forms that are identical in both shape and size (32 square meters each), but characterized by color and complete transparency to natural light. There were a number of formidable technical challenges involved in the realization of the structure. 

The Barovier e Toso company of Venice would not supply the glass because of the difficulties in guaranteeing its mechanical resistance over such a large surface. A German company, whose name has unfortunately been lost, thus supplied what was required, sending 15 tons of glass from Bavaria to Paestum in the form of 30×40 cm transparent glass tiles (dallas) in a range of color tones and of a thickness of 3 cm. 

13,000 kg were use in the construction of six pictorial glass segments to the design of Prof Enzo Rossi who oversaw their assembly according to methods quite different from those that used for centuries in the assembly of leaded stained glass. 

There was no longer the need for the diamond glass-cutter whose place was taken by the slater’s hammer in the hands of particularly skilled tilers. Instead of the traditional method of joining 3 mm glass with the use of soft lead the pieces from the tilers were laid together with thin layers of reinforced concrete in a series of double bends.

Since the Paestum area was unable to provide such specialized workers a site was set up in Rome where the glass was cut under the supervision of Rossi and Avetta.

The pieces were then assembled with the use of plaster forms that reproduced on the ground the spaces that would receive the finished glass panels within the great parabolic arches created by the supporting concrete structure. 

In a photograph of the time four workers can be seen, overseen by Prof. Rossi, laying out a mosaic of pieces on a model that would later be transported to Paestum. The operation was carried out for 250 such assemblies using 1:1 scale drawings. 

Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.