Luxury glazing challenged architects and fabricators to innovate. Are wealthy clients ready for the next trend?

Blurring the boundary between inside and outside has been a central aim of modernism since 1929, when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed one face of the Tugendhat House in Brno to slide down below the living area’s floor level. Recent developments in glass and construction technologies, including almost tintless glass products like Starphire from Vitro (formerly PPG), and similar products, have made that ideal ever-more attainable—if you have the funds. Architects around North America are using floor-to-ceiling telescoping, accordioning, and even simple sliding doors to open the already expansive, loftlike living areas for the minus-one-percenters to deliver the spectacular views their often seven-figure homes command. Is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per wall worth it?

Certainly, the results are dramatic. Seeing a whole wall disappear with the push of a finger, either through the use of a well-balanced slider or electronic controls, elicits gasps even from those used to the effect. Some architects think that the opening achieves a more fundamental good. The Tugendhat House itself was designed for a client who had asthma; the opening, as well as the house’s hidden filtration system, was in service of the client’s health concerns as much as Mies’s idealization of “almost nothing.”

Tugendhat House
Early modernist homes popularized the ribbon window. (Thomas Ledl/Wikimedia Commons/HOMAS LEDL/CC-BY 4.0)

“If we have blurred the line between the inside and outside, we will have achieved something,” Las Vegas architect Eric Strain told AN. As well as designing homes with budgets of multiple millions, he has been the architect for schools and community centers that have very restricted budgets. “For years, Las Vegas schools did not have windows, mainly because of cost, but also supposedly because of security. Since using large windows in some of our schools, we are getting reports that students there are less stressed and more productive, and absenteeism is way down. I think the same is true in homes. You don’t feel as confined and stressed, you can breathe, you feel the space around you.” Moreover, Strain explained, the connection “helps change the attitude toward living with, not away from, the outdoors and climate.” As an architect, Strain believes that he demonstrates that with proper shading you can open up a house and enjoy the outdoors even when it’s 110 degrees.

In a completely different climate, architects Lisa Bovell and Matthew McLeod open the homes they design in North Vancouver to views of the Burrard Inlet, the Strait of Georgia, and the downtown skyline across the water. Here, it’s not so much the tinting and shading that is an issue as the frames of each window. Framing must be able to withstand the bite of the sea air over time, as well as the frequent storms that sweep through the area.

For McLeod, it is all about what makes the opening possible. He told AN that “we are actually more interested in the reduction of the reading of the window details and materials associated with glazing.… Most of the frames end up ‘buried’ in ceiling, walls, and floors.” he said. As a result, McLeod has also experimented with eliminating the frame (and window frame supplier) altogether. “By making our own enclosures out of industrial aluminum or GRP [fiberglass] profiles for simple fixed units, they are then completely buried in adjacent assemblies.”

residence by Jonathan Feldman
Jonathan Feldman’s glassy facades make a fast impression. (Adam Rouse)

Jonathan Feldman, working in the temperate climate of the San Francisco Bay Area (though also with its strict energy and earthquake codes), similarly aspires to the fluidity that large and operable windows provide. But he’s slightly more nuanced in his approach. “While we do consistently create designs that emphasize indoor/outdoor connections, which typically translates into large areas of glass walls that open or retract, we have come to realize that many architects overdo glazing as a default strategy,” he told AN. “It’s often the contrast between solid and void, with carefully considered choreography, that creates a more dramatic and controlled effect.”

residence by Assemblage Studio
Assemblage Studio’s residences seamlessly transition outside. (Stetson Ybarra Photography)

Max Strang, whose practice is producing multiple large homes across Florida, often designs living areas along the coast or inland waterways. An openness to the water and its breezes is central to the design process—as is the requirement to lift buildings off the ground. In coastal and low-country regions, local codes tend to prohibit building permanently occupiable rooms on current or future floodplains. These constraints mean Strang’s designs have a spectacular sense of continuity, which he admits “comes with a pretty decent price.” He has recently sensed a reaction against these kinds of reductive structures: “I think the pendulum might swing back to more punched openings and enclosure.”

With a single double- or triple-paned window and its enclosure often costing well over $10,000, a whole assembly, including reinforcements that allow for the spans, can claim up to 15 percent of a total (multimillion-dollar) budget. As an observer, I have to wonder whether it is worth it. The effects can be spectacular. That designers can do so while still answering to ever stricter energy codes, and perhaps even reduce reliance on heating and cooling because of that fluidity, is certainly laudable. But with the effect coming at a cost that only few can afford, and that also depends on manufacturing processes that use ever more steel, glass, and chemicals, the achievement becomes more questionable.

Throughout the modernist period, the single-family home for the wealthy client on a privileged site has allowed architects the chance to experiment with new techniques, forms, and materials. Whether there will be a trickle down from the suburbs of Las Vegas, the hills of Napa Valley, the seaside of Miami, or the rocky shores of the Georgia Strait to the places where most of us live will be the real test of whether the ideal of a physically, as well as notionally, open architecture is possible.

Aaron Betsky is a critic of architecture, design, and art who lives in Philadelphia. His book Don’t Build Rebuild will be published by Beacon Press this fall. 

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