Saturday, October 16, 2010

Towers of power

click photo to enlarge
Some architectural historians would have us believe that the first building with a glass curtain wall was Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, built in 1864 by the architect Peter Ellis. Others point to the large Victorian conservatories and glass buildings such as the Crystal Palace. But, whilst some of them may technically exhibit the features of such a design - a metal frame from which the windows hang, and external walls that are not structural entities supporting the building  - the first archetypal glass curtain walled building was surely Walter Gropius' Bauhaus at Dessau, Germany, built in 1925-6.

One of the things I've always found interesting about the arts and crafts institute that was the Bauhaus, is the fact that it was peopled by staff who were labelled subversives, Communists and anti-Germans. In fact, it was on those grounds that it was closed down. The truth is that the Bauhaus staff didn't support the neo-realism and imperialist style (a sort of stripped down classicism) that was favoured by the German state of the 1930s. Consequently, many dispersed across the world, to Britain, and more especially, to the United States, where they could build in the way they wanted. And it was there that the curtain wall really took off. Not, however, as an architecture for liberal, left-leaning, social democrats, but as the faceless monoliths of "red in tooth and claw" capitalism. The rest, as they say, is history. Today the glass curtain wall is found in the centre of every major city of the world, its reflective surface symbolizing power, wealth, and the discreet anonymity of the people who drive our financial and commercial empires.

The example in today's photograph is in Canary Wharf, London. I came upon it towards the end of the day as the sun was setting behind patchy cloud. As I looked up at it the building revealed nothing about who worked there and what they did. The visual connect between those inside and passers-by was one way only: they could see me but I wasn't allowed to see them. We used to think that the "iced cake" style tower blocks of the old Soviet Union, with their endlessly repeated window bands epitomised anonymous power. However, I think buildings such as the one in today's photograph do it so much more efficiently. And they do it whilst wearing a reflection that makes them  look like they are part of our world.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 12mm (24mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/500
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On