“Architecture is the product of a way of thinking. If the problems of architecture are to be traced to their roots, then attention needs to be focused on the tinker and considerations that inform its production” (Leach, 2005, p.11). Dominic Stevens, an Irish architect, believed that in order to make a great place to live and work in, the power of good architecture can serve the society. Much like Pierre Chareau, Stevens prefers to collaborate with his clients to co-create architecture that fits the client’s purpose. Stevens successfully demonstrated his belief into creating the Mimetic House.
3.1.1 The effectiveness of Glass houses in rural settings
Located in the rural countryside of Co. Leitrim, the part of the house which is projected above ground level is masked by the reflection of the surrounding landscape bouncing off the mirror finish of its exterior glass skin. Amidst passing by it on foot or by vehicle, it sits in the landscape like a passing shadow; a momentary deformation of the never-ending green landscape. Due to the mirrored glass used for the facade, the house does not alter the landscape rather, the changing landscape alters the house. The aspect of privacy has been fully entertained in the design of the house. The whole residential structure is broken up into two parts. The visible top half with the mirrored glass facade has the social areas – living and kitchen for general living and accommodating the client’s guests. From the outside, it is impossible to see the interior, only the reflection of the landscape can be seen. The other half of the house is buried within the ground; spaces are more intimate, given to the parts of the house which require more privacy (Dominic Stevens Architects, 2018).
3.1.2 City living versus country side living
The Mimetic House was built for Ms Weir and Mr Walker, who lived in a Dublin apartment for five years as artists. They decided that urban living was not for them anymore and wanted an escape from the bustling and hustling city streets. They purchase the plot for the Mimetic House in 2001 and “wanted to build something ambitious and counterculture” (Gardiner, 2007). The brief was to get away from the confined boarded up spaces of the city to a home that is private but open to the landscape of the countryside. In these type of locations, the conventional model for a rural house is thick- walled, pitched-roof cottage. These attributes have been set by Jack Fitzsimons in his 1972 book, “Bungalow Bliss” and have become a bible for developers and architects (Archiseek, 2011). This took a hurdle in the initial design process of the house. Stevens came up with an idea to make the house ‘disappear’, hence the concept of the Mimetic House.
Glass is an endlessly dynamic filter for light and colour. The mirrored glass facade exemplified nature; the unkempt grass and florals convert the glass to active material. This is the same even from standing on the inside looking out. A small drawback to this is as the lights drop outside, you get to see into the interior and through the building beyond the landscape. Nevertheless, this has not become a hindrance as the house is located off the beaten track (Dominic Stevens Architects, 2018). The great blending qualities of the house have certainly gained a lot of fascination and allure for both the clients and outsiders. The building becomes playful both inside and outside. Even without experiencing the picturesque views, framed by the windows from the inside, the exterior facade almost provides the same theatrics. “It took us 15 minutes,” Mr Walker said and comparing it to”a bad photoshop job”, as Mr Weir put it when trying to find it on Google Maps (Gardiner, 2007). Being in the house induced a lot of positive health and creative benefits for Ms Weir and Mr Walker. The landscape views provide calmness and openness that is lacking when living in the city. There is also lots of sunlight, and as the sun moves throughout the day, the room changes simultaneously with respect to the light. It provides connection to the outside world and can give reference to the time of day. “In the city, you don’t notice the summer, not like you do here,” commented by Ms Weir (Gardiner, 2007). In addition to the subconscious benefits, the Mimetic House of 1300 square feet was built for €120,000 – as cheap per square metre as a one-off bungalow (McManus, 2018).
3.1.3 Glass technology
The Mimetic House proved to be a glass residential house that is liveable and also exceeded beyond the clients’ and the architects’ expectation, especially with the use of a new technologically treated glass material. The house as a whole did not pass the sustainable test, but then there are many qualities that are sustainable. Glass can only be sustainable in conjunction with other materials that are one. Still, the Mimetic House’s design has satisfied the client’s requirements successfully and allowed “ways of enabling the new vernacular to become something that is liveable, meaningful and something worth celebrating” (Tipton, 2016). The project has proven that building glass houses does not have to be expensive. As long as research in the type of new glass materials and proper planning is done, the triumph that is the Mimetic House can be replicated.
3.2 Alto Vetro, by Shay Cleary Architects
Privacy is easily provided by the rural environment of the countryside. In contrast, it is a challenge in urban areas to have the same joys and benefits of sizeable external glazing while still having the comfort of privacy. Alto Vetro, situated in Dublin city was designed to get around that issue. Alto Vetro is a sixteen storeys residential building with its facade fully enveloped with glazing. It comprises of 26 apartments all with panoramic views of the city of Dublin – 24 of them are two-bedroom apartments of 74 square metres. Monthly rents for them are between €1400 and €1900. The remaining two residences are a three – bedroom triplex penthouses of 183 square metres. For the uninterrupted views, they cost €3000 each per month. Like Ms Weir and Mr Walker of the Mimetic House, people in the city yearn for the mixture and benefits of openness and privacy, thus, the long waiting list to rent the apartments in this tower (Fagan, 2013).
3.2.1 Unconventional ways of privacy of high-rise residential buildings
Although Alto Vetro has a fully glazed facade, the sense of privacy and enclosure has been addressed. There no way to install curtain poles but stainless steel screens placed on the outer skin can be adjusted to the user’s preference. Inside, blinds that run on a continuous track throughout the apartment can be drawn open or close for extra shading and privacy (Kennedy, 2017). Some people can argue that these methods of confidentiality are sufficient enough but traditionalist who takes comfort knowing that they can draw their curtains at night may say otherwise. It is plausible to say that since none of the apartments is within ground floor level where people may be able to look in directly, the tower’s privacy measures will suffice. Also, Shay Cleary Architects who designed the building titles the tower as a “pristine glazed rectangular free standing building.” (Shay Cleary Architects); a free-standing building with no other residential building adjacent to it. It is primarily surrounded by commercial office buildings who have no direct view into the apartments of Alto Vetro (Towhig, 2014).
3.2.2 Fire safety and ventilation in high-rise residential buildings
People question if high-rise residential buildings give the option of opening windows to allow for fresh air. Alto Vetro was designed to have glass patio doors that open out to balconies in every single apartment, adding to the ventilation features. Fire safety and accessibility could also be an issue with glass walls. In an interview with Des Kennedy (Appendix 1), one of the architects involved in the project, glass wall can only last for 20 minutes maximum. To meet fire-safety requirements, Alto Vetro has devised fire-escape plans for residents and fire-breaks in walls for each apartment. Like with the question of sustainability of glass in the Mimetic House, additional measures, for example using timber framing, have to be taken to ensure fire safety in a high rise residential building with large numbers of floor- to -ceiling glass walls (Kennedy, 2018).
3.2.3 Success of glass facades for high-rise residential buildings
Given that Alto Vetro has been awarded by the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) a Silver Medal for Housing (2007 – 2008), this proves the liveability of the apartments. To add to its credibility, “the Silver Medal for Housing promotes the best housing in a two-year period and is awarded three years after the completion so that the building can be evaluated in a mature setting”. (RIAI.ie,2018). Alto Vetro’s good balance of ingenuity, sustainability and value have been praised and not left unnoticed by the awards jury of RIAI. They glorified the tower as of “high-order – thoughtfully mediating between the dwelling unit and its social and physical setting” (RIAI.ie, 2018). Alto Vetro came at a time when housing was booming in Ireland. A lot of commercial residential buildings that have been built since then came with structural problems because of the speed of construction, as in the case of Longboat Quay, Dublin. Longboat Quay of 600 residents had to pay a large sum of money to rectify the building’s shortcoming with fire safety of the building (Gleeson, 2015). Ironically, one of the best high rise residential building that stood the test of time and the property crash in 2007, is a stand-alone with a fully glazed facade, that is Alto Vetro. Alto Vetro cost €13 million to build, but that has been reimbursed by people who are willing to pay rent and craved for freedom, access to natural light indoors and openness granted by Alto Vetro’s glazed apartments. It is apparently evident from the success of Altro Vetro and the Mimetic House that there is a high demand for these type of buildings but with the reassurance, they would be deemed habitable and meet the basic needs of comfort and well-being of its habitants (Fagan, 2013).
Successful glass house design is an amalgamation of understanding different psychological factors like what Maslow imposes in his theory of hierarchy of needs and not be dependent solely on design elements. Safety, privacy and comfort are the most important characteristic every home needs.
No matter how attractive glass houses can be, it is still imperative to consider the life-long effects it may have on one’s well-being. In this digital age when nearly everything in people’s lives is documented and exposed to the world through social media, people still covet for that ounce of privacy, albeit, overseeing what and what doesn’t need to be shared or for most people, privacy through the walls and comfort of their own home. Though at the same time, people like to practice and test their freedom. Unlike any other construction material, glass allows people to have a choice to be seen or not. That gives people satisfaction, knowing they have control over something in a world that is very unpredictable.
To some extent, glass walls open our eyes to look deeper into our surroundings. With glass houses set in the natural landscape, the framework of glass facades converts into a looking-glass that magnifies and highlight the beauty of nature – attributes that we usually miss when we look at the vast landscape as a whole. Furthermore, you can bask in the ambience without being exposed to exterior elements. Glass walls gives you protection but with a restricted sense of openness, being able to view what is outside even from the comfortable concealment of a home. This perk entices many homeowners especially people in the city who have been disconnected from their environment of their boxed off houses of proximity to other properties. Consequently, glass houses similar to Mies van Der Rohe’s, the Farnsworth House or Dominic Steven’s the Mimetic House can only work in rural settings. People in urban areas might result in high-rise residential buildings similar to Alto Vetro that concentrates on promoting purity and scenic views provided by the glass skin design. An alternative to building a glass house in the city is taking Maison de Verre as a precedent; having the house’s private rear facade made of glass and the front that is exposed to the public be as solid walls. Herewith, the combination of privacy and openness is achieved.
Conventionalist might say that glass buildings may not be the future for residential houses taking the Farnsworth House and the Glass House as firm examples. It is very easy to be convinced by this in a cost-effective world. Accessibility, minimalism and low maintenance of buildings is the mainstream encouraged by social influences and our hectic lives. Though, glass as a building material seems far too delightful and expressive to overlooked.
An architect’s ideology might hinder the effectiveness of glass house design depending if their design vision does not meet a client’s criteria. Similar to Mies who accomplished what he set out to do, but did not set out to do what his client commissioned him for. Architecture varies due to many factors; the client’s criteria, location or the aesthetic vision of the architect. Over the years we have seen many trial and errors with glass houses. Through embraced failed creative experiences they can lead to more in-depth exploration that can shape outstanding glass house design. Glass as a construction material transcends many possibilities that can increase the well- being of residence ergo the allurement with “goldfish” living.