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Painting With Light: The Ethereal Glass Façades of Steven Holl Architects

Steven Holl produces poetic works of architecture that appear to be built of light.

Jon Cornachio Jon Cornachio

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When asked what his favorite material is, Steven Holl responds simply, “light.”

In their 40-plus years of practice, his firm, Steven Holl Architects, has gained a reputation as the masters of this immaterial material, devoting themselves to capturing its ephemeral qualities in their architecture with translucent glass façades that shift subtly throughout the day and illuminate their surroundings in the night. That is why each of their projects begins, not as a digital model or diagram, but as a watercolor in Holl’s signature, five-by-seven-inch sketchbook.

Watercolor painting of Maggie’s Centre Barts by Steven Holl; photo via Archdaily.

The secret to bringing his paintings to reality is twofold. First, the clarity of the glass is obscured with a textured finish, created by scarifying its surface with abrasives or acids. Second, the façades are insulated with semi-transparent fibers or plastic tubes, known as capillary slabs, which absorb light and disperse it more evenly through the glazing. This allows Holl to produce poetic works of architecture that appears to be built of light. As you begin detailing curtain walls for your next project, be inspired by these ethereal glass façades.

translucent glass, IAC VCU by Steven Holl Architects

Photos by Iwan Baan; via Steven Holl Architects.

translucent glass, IAC VCU by Steven Holl Architects

Institute for Contemporary Art, VCU by Steven Holl Architects, Richmond, Va., United States

Translucent glass by Okalux

Steven Holl Architects’ latest building is the Institute for Contemporary Art on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. Slated to open at the end of April, this project will host a fluid program of temporary exhibitions, performances, film screenings, lectures and public events. Like its ambitious program, the architecture of the Institute is in a state of constant flux.

On bright days, the building appears like a collection of metal sculptures with their titanium zinc cladding shimmering in the sunlight. On overcast days, the building becomes monolithic, its cladding suddenly indistinguishable from the acid etched glazing of its curtain walls. At night, these translucent walls are illuminated from within, transforming the building into a beacon of light visible from both the campus and the city.

translucent glass, Nelson-Atkin Museum by Steven Holl Architectstranslucent glass, Nelson-Atkin Museum by Steven Holl Architects

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art by Steven Holl Architects, Kansas City, Kans., United States

Translucent glass by Bendheim and Okalux

The expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art required the addition of 165,000 square feet of gallery space without overshadowing the original, neoclassical museum. To achieve this, the architects designed a long building, notched into the hillside, with five delicate glass structures that reach out into the landscape. As they explain, “the idea of complementary contrast, the Stone and the Feather, drove our design for the addition.”

These new façades, although minimalistic, are actually a complex assembly comprising an outer layer of sandblasted channel glass lined with capillary insulation, an inner layer of frosted safety glass, also lined with capillary insulation, and a pressurized air cavity separating the two. The cavity is illuminated internally by florescent tubes, giving the galleries their white glow.

translucent glass, Museum of Ocean and Surf by Steven Holl Architects

Photos by Iwan Baan; via Steven Holl Architects.

translucent glass, Museum of Ocean and Surf by Steven Holl Architects

The Cité de l’Océan et du Surf by Steven Holl Architects, Biarritz, France

Translucent glass by Okalux

The Cité de l’Océan et du Surf, or the Museum of Ocean and Surf, is an institute dedicated to “raising awareness of oceanic issues” and examining the ocean’s influence “upon leisure, science and ecology.” The architecture, taking its cues from the nearby beachfront, is structured as an artificial landscape of natural stone and acid etched glazing.

Visitors approach the museum across a cobblestoned plaza whose edges rise up like waves to create voluminous exhibition spaces below. These waves of stone seem to crash around two “glass boulders” at the center of the plaza which contain a public café and surfer’s kiosk. At night, their translucent façades are backlit, giving them an apparent solidity. During the day, capillary insulation in the glazing diffuses light deep into the subterranean galleries.

translucent glass, Visual Arts Building by Steven Holl Architects

Photos by Iwan Baan; via Steven Holl Architects.

translucent glass, Visual Arts Building by Steven Holl Architects

Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa by Steven Holl Architects, Iowa City, Iowa, United States

Translucent façades by BendheimOkalux and Wacotech

The new home of the University of Iowa’s School of Art brings together students of all art forms — “from ancient metalsmithing techniques to the most advanced virtual reality technologies” — together in one multidisciplinary facility. The building, modeled after the cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, has been carved into a series of blocks and voids, creating studio spaces with optimal light conditions for each discipline.

The outward façades are clad in zinc panels and feature windows of both clear and translucent glass, depending on the type of artwork being created within. The inner façades are finished in planks of roughcast channel glass, infilled with light-diffusing glass fiber insulation. A screen of perforated stainless steel wraps around the exterior, modulating the intake of natural light while further complicating the play of transparencies and opacities.

translucent glass, Maggie's Centre Barts by Steven Holl Architects

Photos by Iwan Baan; via Steven Holl Architects.

translucent glass, Maggie's Centre Barts by Steven Holl Architectstranslucent glass, Maggie's Centre Barts by Steven Holl Architects

Maggie’s Centre Barts by Steven Holl Architects, London, United Kingdom

Translucent glass by Okalux

Maggie’s Centre Barts, located on the grounds of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, is the latest in a global network of starchitect-designed facilities providing free emotional support to cancer patients. Inspired by its historic surroundings, the façade is organized like a medieval musical score with horizontal bands of white glass punctuated by rhythmic patches of color. As the architects describe, these “colored lenses together with the translucent glass… present a new, joyful, glowing presence on the corner of the great square.”

To produce this effect, Steven Holl collaborated with Okalux to develop a new type of glazing, known as polychrome insulating glass. Each panel consists of layers of colored film, laminated between two sheets of capillary insulation which, in turn, are sandwiched between panes of acid etched glass. Like the stained glass windows of a gothic cathedral, these colorful panels dissolve light into a soft glow, creating a welcoming atmosphere for patients and their families.

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