Veiled in Brilliance: How Reflective Facades Have Changed Modern Architecture

Veiled in Brilliance: How Reflective Facades Have Changed Modern Architecture

Even as modernism promoted the transparency of glass architecture, many within the movement were conscious of the monotony of large glass facades, with even Mies van der Rohe using elements such as his trademark mullions to break up his facades. But in the years since, countless uniform structural glazing skyscrapers have emerged and bored urban citizens. In response to this, unconventional reinterpretations of facades have gained interest.

Accompanied by the belief that light and brilliance could help in creating iconic architecture and a better human world, glass and metal have been innovatively transformed to create crystalline images. As a result, the locus of meaning in architecture has shifted from the internal space-form towards the external surface.

Celebrating the expressive materiality of transparency and reflective imagery for entire building skins emerged during the early 20th century, when Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut envisioned a new glass culture made of “colored glass” “sparkling in the sun,” “crystalline shapes of white glass” which make the “jewel-like architecture shimmer.” Mies van der Rohe absorbed this vision when he discarded the rectangular tower in favor of a free-form glass skin in his proposal for the Glass Skyscaper in Berlin in 1921. In a 1968 interview, Mies explained his skepticism regarding the urban monotony of glass mirror effects: “Because I was using glass, I was anxious to avoid dead surface reflecting too much light, so I broke the facades a little in plan so that light could fall on them at different angles: like crystal, like cut crystal.” Norman Foster materialized this glass dream with his Willis Faber & Dumas Headquarters in Ipswich in 1975 and SOM presented it in its tallest manifestation with the Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai in 2009.

Glass façade of Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron. Image © Maxim Schulz

Undoubtedly the glass façade at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg by Herzog & de Meuron refers to the visionary glass culture of Scheerbart, and indirectly to the golden shimmering skin of Berlin’s Philharmonic by Hans Scharoun as well. Inwardly and outwardly curved glass elements distort the perception of the city, water and sky. They build a fresh contrast to the uniform plane glass curtains of the International Style. The environment is not appreciated as a clear mirrored picture, but instead goes through a process of modification and reproduction.

Due to the curves of the balconies, the building reflects points or lines of brilliant light streaks. With a blue or diffuse sky the distinctive curves reflect the light as bright lines, similar to the horizontal lines seen in the designs of the automotive industry. Under direct sunlight, bright glossy points appear and evoke a jewel-like shimmer. Additionally, the vertical and horizontal convex curves of numerous single glass elements reinforce the shiny distorted reflections of the sky. Overall the curved façade with its printed dot screens evokes a vivid and liquid image, which expresses a close link to the water around. Built upon the historic brick warehouse below, and with its abstract choreography of complex distorted light reflections, the Elbphilharmonie operates as a magical eyecatcher.

Façade with curved glass elements at Prada Aoyama, 2003, Tokyo. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron. Image © Yen-Chi Chen

The precursor to the Elbphilharmonie, which first showcased Herzog & de Meuron's desire to transform the mirror effects of modernist glass skyscrapers, was the Prada Epicenter in Tokyo, completed in 2003. The glazing shell consists mainly of rhombus-shaped elements, but selected parts create distinct distorted reflections due to the convex exterior shapes of the glass – comparable to a contact lens resting on the façade.

The intriguing imagery of brilliant reflections on transparent glass facades is fortunately not limited to those outside the building; it also offers interesting views for those inside. However, for closed exhibition or concert halls, the concept of veiling an entire building with brilliant reflective effects has been adapted with other shimmering panels.

Reflections on titanium façade at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1997. Architect: Frank Gehry. Photography: Thomas Mayer. Image © ERCO.

The American architect Frank Gehry transferred this aesthetic of brilliance from glass to metal with the titanium cladding of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997. While the connotations range from a ship for the larger form to fish scales regarding the reflective panels, the building as a whole has turned into an urban jewel that kicked off numerous urban redevelopments with its iconic signature. Many an aspiring metropolis assumes that the structural form is the key successful factor in “Bilbao effect.” However, with the sparkling light qualities of the titanium sheets and its changing appearance, Frank Gehry has not only brought a dynamic composition of forms to Bilbao but reinforced his design with a distinctive, dynamic image which varies with every cloud and sunbeam.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2003, Los Angeles. Architect: Frank Gehry. Image © Gehry Partners, LLP

Though they are less than half a millimeter thick, the titanium sheets evoke an interesting, almost corrugated- tactile dressing – an association which the New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp connected with Marilyn Monroe: “Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum is a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium (...) The building is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.” With the Walt Disney Concert Hall, opened in 2003, the lustrous gesture subsequently arrived in the glamorous Hollywood scenery.

Later Paul Andreu covered the monumental dome of the National Grand Theatre of China with a shiny titanium skin and heightened the effect with a surrounding reflecting pool to stand out against the nearby ancient red walls of the Forbidden City. But continuous glossy skins do not present the only option for sparkling jewels in the city.

Aluminium discs at Selfridges Birmingham, 2003. Architects: Amanda Levete and Jan Kaplicky (Future Systems). Image © Ken Lee

The play of elegant veils in fashion and shiny cladding in architecture combined in a Paco Rabanne dress for a British retail temple. Future Systems stylishly covered the Selfridges Birmingham department store, opened in 2003, with a dense mesh of 16,000 anodized aluminium discs. The store was able to avoid attaching any logos to the building due to the fact that the building itself was turned into a sign. Its sensuality immediately spurred the marketing world to utilize the sensational setting for advertisements. The glistening net creates a fascinating feeling for scale: Small discs generate a haptic, human feeling while the overall form offers hardly any clues about the building's number of stories or size. The diffuse reflections of the façade cladding leads to an abstract transformed image, which is primarily determined by the brightness and colour of the sky and neglects any clear mirror effects of the neighborhood.

Messe Basel - New Hall, 2013, Basel. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron. Image © Hufton + Crow

In contrast to the shimmering disc dress at Birmingham, the stretched metal gesture at Messe Basel New Hall by Herzog & de Meuron introduces a linear interpretation of light reflections. The building's twisting bands of aluminum avoid the well-known monotony of windowless exhibition halls. The homogeneous but stretched aluminum modulates the building in a light way. When oriented towards the sky, the surface gives brightness to the building which is set in stark contrast to the dark perforations and areas where the bands leans toward the ground.

Aluminum sunshades at South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, Adelaide. Architects: Woods Bagot. "South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute" by Jackstarshaker is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 . Image

For an Australian science facility the veil has even fulfilled the task of protecting against the harsh sunlight. The architects Woods Bagot erected an urban icon with enveloping the entire building with aluminum sunshades, each individually computer modeled, for the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide.

Some forms of sparkling reflective patterns are even able to initiate political discussions and influence the names of buildings. The “Fernsehturm Berlin” is an excellent example of this, with its reflection in the form of a cross emanating from the sphere. Built in 1969, the socialist and atheist party of the German Democratic Republic erected the tower to resemble the Russian satellite Sputnik. Located in the historic center of former East Germany next to a medieval church, the tall tower was intended as a political statement addressing the deconstruction of the old city. But the selection of pyramidal stainless steel panels led to an unintended effect: The reflections of the sun create a clearly visible cross pattern on the sphere. Thereby, the communist regime had accidentally installed a highly visible Christian symbol in an ostensibly atheist environment. Hence, the people in Berlin nicknamed the lighting effect the “Pope's revenge.”

Glass façade of Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron. Image © Maxim Schulz

These strategies with shimmering veils have significantly increased the relevance of the surface as a carrier for the meaning of a building. The International Style has come to a point in façade design where the uniformity of mirroring cubes has begun to erode a sense of human scale. Consequently, concave and convex building forms, reflective curved façade elements, or a mixture of the two, have opened another set of options, generating more multifaceted images for the city. Furthermore, the interest in complex reflection patterns has swept aside brutalism with its raw concrete dualism of dark voids and light surfaces. These shimmering facades have also superseded Kahn's monumentality, where the material’s purpose is primarily to cast a shadow. Neither shadows nor simple mirror effects seem to evoke enough attraction for our spectacle-oriented society today. Therefore, new landmarks will continue to reach for innovative combinations of material and form to create brilliant veils and a bright urban future.

Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works as an editor for the lighting company ERCO. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the books “Light Perspectives” and “SuperLux”. For more information check, or follow him @arcspaces.

About this author
Cite: Thomas Schielke. "Veiled in Brilliance: How Reflective Facades Have Changed Modern Architecture" 12 Oct 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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