All-Glass Buildings Are an Aesthetic, as Well as a Thermal Crime

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
World Trade Center

Even the best glass doesn't perform as well as a mediocre wall, environmentally or visually.

After writing about a new wood tower in Toronto, there was some criticism in comments about the fact that the building was "another glass box. Slap some wood on it and its energy sins are forgiven." And, "Who cares about energy efficiency & climate change anyway, we like 'modern design' so we'll just glaze the whole damn box?"

The commenters had a point. I do tend to fall in love with wood, and the architects specifically designed it with all that glass so that people like me could admire the wood ceilings. Furthermore, I have been writing about how bad all-glass buildings are for years on TreeHugger, usually complaining about cheap condo towers, where they are wallpapered with cheap floor-to-ceiling storefront glazing. But even the higher-quality curtainwall glazing is problematic, as John Massengale noted a few years ago:

Hudson Yards from the High Line

Hudson Yards from the High Line/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The modern glass curtain wall on most iconic towers is cheap, for four reasons: the materials are cheap; the fabrication of the glass walls, frequently made in China, is cheap; the curtain walls require little craftsmanship or skilled labor; and the manufacturers take the computer drawings of the architects and translate them into construction drawings, saving the architects work as well.

Architectural critic Blair Kamin is not impressed with all-glass buildings, noting in his review of a new glass tower in Chicago:

To be sure, glass signals modernity, its transparency is irresistible to those who crave panoramic views, and it tends to be cheaper than masonry. Yet is there no room for materials that last longer, have more character and are more energy-efficient?

Witold Rybczynski picks up on Kamin, describing the transparency trap, complaining that our downtowns are now dominated by all glass boxes.

The problem with transparent glass is that it doesn’t hold a shadow, and without a shadow there can be no “play of volumes.” Since minimalist modernist architecture doesn’t offer decoration or ornament, that doesn’t leave much to look at.
77 Wade angled

© Bogdan Newman Caranci

The other problem is that it is never really transparent; at night one might be able to see those wood ceilings if the lights are on and it is brighter inside than out. In the daytime it will probably not be transparent at all. That's why the renderings of the wood and glass building are all modelled at twilight.

I have been decrying all-glass buildings as a thermal and climate crime for years; after reading Kamin and Rybczynski, I should add that they are an aesthetic crime as well.