Both Lever House and Seagram buildings are works of highly polished architecture. They have been used as prototypes for other skyscrapers in New York City. This essay analyses their site, volumetric, and curtain wall designs. The essay then equates it to the theory of transparency, as amplified in Transparency: Literal vs. Phenomenal (Collin Rowe and Robert Slutzky). Gordon Bunshaft designed the Lever House. The ingenuity with which he used glass for the ceiling walls is looked at from the point of view of transparency. The same approach is applied to Mies Ban der Rohe, the architect of the Seagram Building. Mies used modern architectural concepts at the time when his peers were divided over the best approach. Transparency theory has two dimensions – actual and conceptual, both of which are elaborated on in the essay.
Transparency in Lever House and Seagram Buildings
Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky have put a lot of effort in order to define what transparency is. From the essay “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal”, the two aspects are described in detail. Their work lays apart the intellectual understanding of the word and its application in architecture. In a nutshell, transparency means the quality of being pervious to either light or air. Intellectually, it refers to something which is evident or clear. Literal transparency can be attributed to the matter or substance. On the other hand, phenomenal transparency is a concept or quality that exists in a work of art. Rowe and Slutzky describe it “…as a condition to be discovered in a work of art…”
Gyorgy Kepes’ definition of transparency is quoted as follows:
If one sees two or more figures overlapping one another, and each of them claims for itself the common overlapped part, then one is confronted with a contradiction of spatial dimensions. To resolve this contradiction, one must assume the presence of a new optical quality. The figures are endowed with transparency; that is why they are able to interpenetrate without optical destruction of each other. Transparency, however, implies more than an optical characteristic, it implies a broader spatial order. Transparency means a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations. Space not only recedes but fluctuates in a continuous activity. The position of the transparent figures has equivocal meaning, as one sees each figure now as the closer one (1). (Kepes, 1982, quoted in. Rowe & Slutzky, 1982).
This means that transparency is brought about by the figures that overlap one another with the overall effect of receding continuously. As a result, there is ambiguity. What was once transparent ceases to exist.
One can, therefore, conclude that literary transparency has more to do with what the eye can see. On the flipside, phenomenal transparency is a concept. Once the eye perceives, the mind interprets. This can further be reiterated by considering that literal transparency involves substance, an actual thing that can be seen. Phenomenal transparency arises out of the abstract. Sol Le Witt defines the two aspects as art that is aimed for the sensation of the eye primarily called perceptual instead of conceptual.” Le Witt further states that conceptual art is made more to engage the mind and thoughts of the viewer, instead of his emotions or eye.” The theory of transparency is widely used in the field of architecture in the design of buildings and other projects.
An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gordon Bunshaft designed buildings based on contemporary American Architecture. His work laid a lot of emphasis on furnishing, interior details and artwork. He steered clear of fashion, choosing instead to stick with conservative designs. The Lever House is one of his signature designs. It consists of two rectangular blocks enclosed in a stainless steel and glass wall. The building spans 20 stories though it was considered small according to standards prevailing in New York at the time.
The main tower stands atop the horizontal podiums, which are detached from the ground. The podium is supported by piloti. On the ground, there is a courtyard with a roofed terrace. Both the tower and podiums are structured in a way that they are concealed by a façade, made of glass. Gordon Bunshaft employed transparency by using the glass and thin skin to keep the building’s structure from direct view. The overall effect to a viewer is that the building floats easily as if there were no structure. To achieve this, Bunshaft’s design had to use structural accommodation that saw the core placed in the back. It was purely for aesthetic purposes, though he had to adjust the structure to enable the towering building to withstand the strong wind forces. This is what Rowe and Slutzky alluded to when they wrote that the transparent superimpositions’ quality often suggested the transparency of the context as well, and revealed the unnoticed structural qualities in the object’ (3).” (Moholy-Nagy, 1982; quoted in Rowe & Slutzky, 1982).
Lever Arch’s enveloping design uses a glass of varying sizes held by ‘mullions’ hanging from its main structure. The mullions are made of stainless steel. They are placed flush with the different glass panes in order to seal the envelope. The entire curtain wall has no windows that can be opened. Such a curtain wall design ensures that there is reduced noise and minimal penetration of dust particles. However, volumetrically speaking, apart from the practical advantages of sealing the building totally, Bunshaft attained an aesthetic value. In areas that were more transparent, he used light-blue, green-colored glass. Apart from its ethereal and aesthetic qualities, it also absorbs heat. For the external surface consistency, wire glass panes were used to glaze spandrels underneath all windows. The entire framework made of stainless steel is held secure by rivets. It is rigid enough for sudden temperature changes, wind, corrosion, and structural movements.
Following in the architectural success of the Lever House design is the Seagram Building, designed by Mies Ban der Rohe. Among its significant features is a curtain wall tower, which bears resemblance to that of Lever House. Towering at 516 feet, Seagram’s elevator core is at the back. Mies uses the “whisky brown” glass with tint. It is alternated with plating made of bronze. Its curtain wall is purely glass, making it the first building at the time to have the floor to ceiling windows. The proportions are elegant in relation to the size. From the street, it sets back 90 feet. While sideways, this building sets back some 30 feet. The tinted glass and bronze beams attached to mullions gives Seagram Building an external character. This conceals the building’s vertical structure. Carter Wiseman in Shaping a Nation, 1988, stated that his main goal was “the stiffening of the each bay’s frame, but even more important was to create a surface texture that could relieve the potential monotony of the smooth facade, when emphasizing the vertical position of the overall form.”
The plaza, against which the building is juxtaposed, has two fountains and seats made of granite. By going against the conventional theories of skyscraper constructions, Mies created a threshold that led users to the building’s entrance. Structurally, Seagram Building is framed in steel and curtained in tinted glass. I-beams, mullions and spandrels were used as the modulation elements of the glass curtain. Travertine is used to line its walls and elevator panels. Mies designed this building bearing in mind that the owners were liquor manufacturers, hence the bronze colored glass. He succeeded in creating an aesthetic structure, though some critics, feeling that had he used the bronze-colored flat plane glass, thought it would have mirrored a whiskey bottle’s appearance. By using the overlapping glass material, he attained perceptual transparency.
Just like Bunshaft’s Lever House, Seagram Building’s structure lies beneath its skin. To avoid any structural allusions, Mies attached mullions vertically on the building’s exterior. At its corners, the skin pulls back, so that columns project out. Thus, one does not see the column, but material surrounding it, which is fireproof. Mies worked at a time when there were different schools of thought on the right architectural style for modern skyscrapers. His design and style defied them all. The use of materials, such as granite and marble to decorate the plaza below, the fountains and low boundary were ironically criticized by pundits. They argued that this was based on illusionism and that Mies’ choice of style, form and function were not an honest expression.
Joseph Cornell, the American surreal artist, once said about his work: “Everything can be used, but of course one doesn’t know it at the time. How does one know what a certain object will tell another?” He was well known for turning discarded materials into impressive pieces of art. Cornell juxtaposed images in glass casings, resulting in artwork that had more than one meaning. Cornell Bunshaft and Mies defied the odds and created designs whose appearance was more or less surreal. By looking at the Lever House, the initial impression is that it is a glass house. Yet beneath the glass layer is a structure. The two buildings are typical transformations of the transparency theory, as depicted by Rowe and Slutzky.
When Mies was working on the Seagram Building, authorities in New York had passed laws on zoning. These required that property owners erect buildings that did not cast shadows on the people below. Architects had to come up with designs where the buildings would appear to recede in the background. This was reflected in the work of Bunshaft, where he used tinted glass, just as Mies did.
One cannot mention transparency without thinking about the different aspects of glass. Prior to the creations of Bunshaft and Mies, architects tended to shy away from experimenting with glass. Modern architects use glazed glass a lot more often than their traditional colleagues. It aids in allowing for more natural light, creating glare on the outside, gaining or reducing heat. Using glass in its plain form is a simple process. This is because of its diverse qualities such as letting in light, heat, and having little thermal insulation. It does not screen ultra violet rays and leads to fading of curtains. Due to these shortfalls, designers had to come up with ways of taming such “harmful” effects. As a result, glazing and shading came into being.
Another challenge that emanates from the use of glass is attributed to an architect’s desire to connect a building’s outside environment with what is inside. Apart from creating an impression on the kind of business the building owners were associated with, Mies was able to kill two birds with one stone. He seized the moment by making use of glass to control light, reflect UV rays away, and trap heat that would otherwise have been lost. Bunshaft was probably thinking along these lines and achieved the desired result. A casual observer cannot detect such coatings. Bunshaft and Mies can, therefore, be credited with opening the way for designers to use glass, either plainly or glazed, without losing a building’s aesthetic beauty.
In all the industries that thrived in the 19th century, glass manufacture was considered the last to attain mechanization. This was as a result of its highly demanding nature. A high level of judgment coupled with manual skill was needed. Before mechanization, sheets of glass had to be blown by hand into long cylinders. They were then split and flattened manually. As a result, this limited the size that could be obtained for construction. The reality of this can be understood by looking at the task that lay ahead during the construction of Crystal Palace. Charles Dickens wrote, “The glass maker promised to supply, in the required time, nine hundred thousand square feet of glass (weighing more than four hundred tons) in separate panes, and these the largest ever made of sheet glass; each being forty nine inches long.”
With the developments arising out of the industrial revolution, mechanization of glass industry was finally attained in USA by 1928. Modern architecture owes a lot of gratitude to these technological developments and their creativity. Actually, the automobile industry fuelled the demand for glass. There was no much activity involving glass in the nineteenth century. Mies and Bunshaft must have been too brave to experiment at a time when the general consensus was that glass ought to have been conservatively used. In the early 1950’s, most buildings had clear glazings. This transmitted 80-90% of radiation. The glazing consisted of a single glass layer with an approximate R value of 1. To counter the effect of cold climatic conditions, another layer of clear glass was then applied on the outer part of a building.
Did Bunshaft overcome the conception that literal or perceptual transparency was difficult to attain? The answer is yes. To the naked eye, a clear glass pane reveals too much and lets in a lot of light. Occupants of such buildings are faced with the task of installing curtains. The curtains have to be drawn and pulled back every now and then. Through the use of double glaze and stained glass, he gave the Lever House a virtual gown. In the end, perceptual transparency was achieved. He managed to separate the outside environment from the inside in a perfect way, much to the amazement of his critics. Riding on the acclaims Lever House received, this was what prompted Mies to use the same approach when designing the Seagram Building. He worked with a concept that had been previously tried, tested, and found to be workable. Today, one will hardly come across a skyscraper in New York or other major city where glass has not been creatively used.
Other buildings where glazed glass was used to create a curtain wall include the Hallidee Building in San Francisco and the Barcelona Pavillion in Barcelona, Spain. However, Lever House is the only one credited with being the first skyscraper to make use of tinted glass for environmental control. Bunshaft inspired other architects through his striking design of Lever House. Even top critics agreed that what was hitherto thought to be a daunting task had at last been cracked. Hence, the boldness with which Mies applied this concept in designing the Seagram Building attests to this.
It was not until the 20th Century that glass was accepted as a major component in the construction of tall buildings. Traditional buildings consist of a large proportion of solid material and less of glass. As a result, it was difficult to attain perceptual transparency created through glass panes. After the industrial revolution, the construction industry witnessed reduced solid masonry and increased use of glass. Changes in technology practically gifted designers with enhanced creativity.
Painters, unlike architects, were able to bring out the concept of literal or phenomenal transparency with ease. An architect cannot suppress transparency, whereas a painter can move from one to the other. In Transparency: Literal vs. Phenomenal, Rowe and Slutzky reiterate the fact,
Literal transparency…. tends to be associated with the trompe I’oeil effect of a translucent object in a deep, naturalistic space; while phenomenal transparency seems to be found when a painter seeks the articulated presentation of frontally displayed objects in a shallow, abstracted space. (48)
Photographs taken in the 1950s reveal the contrast brought about by use of glass. By comparing the Lever House and other surrounding buildings on Park Avenue during this time, one could tell the difference between the glazed curtain wall in Bunshaft’s masterpiece and the 19th – 20th century buildings. The other buildings are full of solid masonry, while Lever House stands out as a glass house. Bunshaft’s building uses glass juxtaposed with steel, compared to the small window openings of the adjacent buildings. The way the tower is placed further enhances the contrast. A large space next to the glazed façade has the effect of allowing sufficient light to reach all the building floors.
Phenomenal transparency is achieved by assessing how the human eye perceives the building during the day and at night. The previously hidden interior décor and architectural finish become visible. Past designers would hide this under wooden frames and masonry walls. As a result, only the inward expression of a designer is exposed. Yet, a lot of people appreciate the building’s aesthetic beauty from its outward appearance. By using glass so vividly, Bunshaft ensured that the entire expression of his architectural and creativity skills came out in the open.
Commonly referred to as Mies by his peers, writers and students, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is another widely acclaimed architect. Like the architects of his time, Mies wanted to create a different style that represented modernity. He was regarded as a pioneer of modern architecture together with others, like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. His style involved the use of materials like steel and glass plate to define the interior space. He fondly referred to his buildings as “skin and bones architecture.” He is known for the aphorisms “God is in the details” and “less is more”. Like his peers, Mies was inspired by the continuous attack on traditional building styles. Critics of modernism argued that traditional designs were restraining modern technology from being manifested.
By setting up the Seagram tower away from the property boundary, Mies was able to sneak in a fountain and forecourt. Today, the style is adopted in many urban skyscrapers. By so doing, Mies achieved literal transparency by having a tall tower with an open space at the ground level. This served to enhance the building’s presence. It is sad that few architects could continue his legacy. As a result, his Modernism theory died with him. However, Seagram building continues to serve as a leaning point for many upcoming designers. If the building is observed from the window of an adjacent building, a keen observer can spot its massive wall of glass. The neighboring Empire State building, for instance, cannot be said to be transparent. Mies was able to create an architectural ornament rather than a piece of art. It could be described as a “building dressed in a suit.”
Literal transparency as defined by Rowe and Slutzky refers to the ability of one to see through or into a building. This is why Seagram building is an example of how architects can attain this quality. Mies designed it using a glass wall to act as the building’s skin. Had he been an 18th century designer, probably he could have used a solid concrete wall. The entire wall acts as the window through which a building can be seen. His predecessor, Bunshaft applied the same concept, though for a different purpose. Both attained transparency in unique ways.
Phenomenal transparency, as used by Rowe and Slutzky, refers to the space between solid objects, as is found in paintings. As it can be noted elsewhere in this paper, such transparency is difficult to discuss architecturally. It describes readability within a building. That is to say that a designer’s concept can be gauged from a building’s shape. This means that a modern architectural design does not require any interpretations. The meaning is clear and anyone can see it. By looking at the work itself, one can arrive at a conclusion. Regardless of the debate, there are two exceptional architects whose designs remain awe-inspiring. Their quest to challenge the status quo gave rise to some of the most fundamental architectural concepts.
In a literal sense, a transparent material is that which transmits light, thus enabling the eye to see. From an architectural point of view, it translates to designers using glass as the main material and other minor materials like crystals and lattice screens. The other meaning is the ability to make an interior and exterior space appear continuous. In other words, this is also called literal transparency. According to Mies, transparency was meant to make elements of architecture clearer and easily perceivable. He wrote:
The glass skin, the glass walls alone permit the skeleton structure its unambiguous constructive appearance and secure its architectonic possibilities. (…) Now it becomes clear again what a wall is, what an opening, what is floor and what is ceiling. Simplicity of construction, clarity of tectonic means, and purity of material reflect the luminosity of original beauty. (Mies, quoted in Roest, 2008).
From an architectural point of view, literal transparency is achievable, while phenomenal transparency is difficult to attain. Generally, transparency is associated with the aspect of materials. For example, the quality of glass to be either transparent or opaque makes it a unique choice for a designer. Gyorgy Kepes considers transparency to be found in plastics and glass. He states that this state is only achievable through a haphazard superimposition of these materials. Siegfried Giedion has a similar perception. He contends, “the presence of an all glass wall at the Bauhaus… permits ‘the hovering relations of planes and the kind of ‘overlapping’ which appears in contemporary painting’…” (Giedion, 1982, quoted in Rowe & Slutzky, 1982).
It is interesting to note how architects have to balance between creating real transparency and virtual transparency. They have to inculcate the concept into reality, something they have achieved with considerable success. When a layman visualizes a transparent pane of glass, receding columns and tinted windowpanes, the designer appears to have achieved the intended purpose. This can be said to be the case in both Lever House and Seagram buildings, respectively. It can be concluded that the term transparency is deeper than one could imagine. Architectural students use transparency to describe a building’s material condition “literally.” The way people read and interpret a design is what becomes phenomenal. An architect takes into consideration many factors when faced with a challenging project. Materials to be used, size of the land, topography and the wishes of the soon to be constructed building are some of them.
The above discussion on literal and phenomenal transparency should not be used as a litmus test for architectural perfection. Neither is it intended to act as a guideline on architectural concepts. All the same, it helps fuel debate. Every designer must identify ways to express the concept behind what they create. Magnificent architectural structures not only reflect creativity, they should also be used as symbols of culture and learning. Neomodernism has taken over from where the likes of Mies and Bunshaft had propelled the dynamic world of architecture and structural design. Glass will for a long time remain one of the most sought after materials. One thing is certain though, transparency maintains a top position as a concept worth utilizing in modern designs.