Glass in the Built Environment | Glass Design | Corning

Glass in the Built Environment

Glass in the Built Environment

Feature contributed by James Carpenter, founder, James Carpenter Design Associates Inc.

What is the significance of glass in the built environment? Light carries information about the world around us and glass allows us to layer many different components of light simultaneously, augmenting our ability to share a transcendent experience of nature. Beyond the problems defining glass scientifically, I am interested in the simultaneity that glass possesses. It is a dense material with the ability to appear weightless and its mass is literally transparent, but once we understand the full range of optical properties found in glass - transparency, reflection, diffusion, refraction and diffraction – it becomes evident that glass has the potential to capture and represent many levels of light information simultaneously, and that this information can also be deployed across the depth of the glass at all scales.

Often called upon as an interpreter of a site’s inherent natural character, my studio has remained focused on the transformative potential of integrating phenomenal light into the public realm while proving our expertise in both the technical details of glass construction and techniques required to integrate light into the urban fabric. At the same time, the studio has always brought into its practice fundamental concerns with climate engineering and other issues. As a designer, my interest in architecture is focused on the possibilities of creating human environments seamlessly informed by a sense of light and the constant feedback light gives us about our contextual experience.

We have deployed glass in countless ways but we are not limited to any one material or method as our work is primarily a response to the specifics of site, context and performance. As far as glass goes, that range can be illustrated by three projects that deploy glass in very different ways.

Ice Falls

Cast glass is the defining material of the Ice Falls, a water feature, completed in 2006, that defines the entry sequence into the Hearst Tower just below Columbus Circle in New York City. The casting is optimized both for the flow of water and for its optics, redirecting light to the tower’s narrow entry while controlling the flow of water. The water feature is fed by rainwater collected by the tower and is cycled through the chiller system to control heat and humidity.

Gucci Ginza

A custom roller pattern with a deep, highly prismatic tooth was developed for the Gucci Ginza (2006) flagship store. We designed a double skin façade that responds to the corner building’s binary character switching the interior or exterior location of the prismatic glass in relation to the clear insulated glass units. 

Israel Museum, Jerusalem

For the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (2010), we created all glass buildings and shaded them with a second skin of extruded ceramic light redirecting louvers, optimized for their ability to shade the glass while transferring the exterior quality of light on its interior surfaces. As in all our projects that use glass, it is not a formal exercise – it is a performance-driven response to the built environment which simultaneously seeks to embed the observation of light within the urban fabric.

The benefits of density in urban living are well understood and this compressing of private and public space calls for an exceptional approach to activating the public and private realms with light. Since daylight is essentially a public resource, we believe that even as some daylight is lost to the built environment, there is a corresponding opportunity to insert phenomenal light into these contexts. Furthermore, these urban contexts have the full potential of becoming spaces whose beauty can become self-evident. In the 1970s, I worked as a consultant exploring photo sensitive glass and its potential as an architectural application. Incredible progress has been made in terms of glass production and performance since then, yet I still feel that much critical work remains. Glass is ubiquitous in the public realm, particularly in building envelopes and yet it often fails to be articulated in any meaningful way. The range of the material’s responsive potential is untapped. I believe the challenges stemming from dense urban environments need to be considered as opportunities. Glass can be deployed to simultaneously achieve demanding performance goals and the most poetic of resonances. Glass with its structural and optical properties and with the vast range of treatments that can be applied to it, can respond to both the practical needs of a city’s ecology and to the human need for a powerful connection to the presence of nature.



James Carpenter has worked at the intersection of architecture, fine art, and engineering for nearly 50 years, advancing a distinctive vision based on the use of natural light as the foundational element of the built environment. Originally studying architecture before concentrating on the fine arts, Carpenter founded the cross-disciplinary design firm James Carpenter Design Associates in 1979 to support the application of these aesthetic principles to large-scale architectural projects. Carpenter’s work is driven by a deep awareness of materiality and craft as a means of enhancing the individual human experience within the built environment.

Carpenter has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, including an Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Smithsonian National Environment Design Award. He holds a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and was a Loeb Fellow of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and a Mellon Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago.

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