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Radical glass technology has far-reaching implications for churches, says John Graham

New Glass Architecture by Brent Richards, Laurence King Publishing £35

The world's newest and most radical buildings rely on the innovative use of glass. One has only to think of 30 St Mary Axe ("the gherkin"), Cesar Pelli's International Centre in Hong Kong, or Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower to accept this thesis. This is as true of sacred, ecclesiastical buildings as of others. Developments in glass technology have meant that churches and other places of worship can be designed in radical new ways.

The beautiful Church of the Sacred Heart in Vienna is actually one vast rectangular glass box. The glass is held in place by almost invisible steel stanchions, with the wall at the furthest end from the altar divided into two enormous glass doors which can be opened, weather permitting, using a pivot mechanism and crankshaft, so that the church and courtyard become one seamless whole.

Those outside can participate in the liturgy, since they have a view of the altar. Such a function would not have been possible even 15 years ago, but the development of loadbearing, lightweight glass has made this feasible. The fact that the church itself is glass on all sides gives it an atmosphere of luminosity and incandescence.

In New Glass Architecture. Brent Richards, Head of Design at St Martin's School of Art and himself an architect of all-glass structures, attempts a detailed analysis of how these developments originated and advanced to produce these and other architectural effects.

This is really two books in one. First, there is a detailed and scholarly history of the architecture of light, from the stained glass of Chartres, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire with its elevations "more glass than light", Versailles and the progress in the technology of production, to Chatworth Conservatory and the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851, the famous "lantern of pure light", to Otto Wagner, Mies van der Rohe and the present-day ultramodernism. This section also discusses the phenomenology of glass, and why it is a truly radical development in modern architecture.

The second part of the book allows the author to discuss in detail 30 or so examples of how glass can provide solutions to difficult architectural and engineering problems.

The canopy over the Great Court of the British Museum was designed using complex mathematical models to generate the wave-like geometrical form.

Not one of the thousands of glass triangular pieces in the filigree canopy is the same size: each is designed to create this construction which allows light down into what is Europe's largest enclosed public space, and also into the adjoining rooms And galleries.

The very radical design by Norman Foster which is 30 St Mary Axe, known as "the gherkin", uses the principle of spirals which allow natural light and ventilation through the middle of the building, . reducing energy consumption by pacing the usable space around the outside of the cone where complex multi-glazing absorbs and then seals heat within and also provides protection from solar glare and cold weather.

Even more artistic and imaginative use of glass is now perfectly feasible. The Church of St Ignatius for the Jesuit University of Seattle, designed by Steven Holl, uses "bottles of light", powerful, coloured lenses through which light from skylights and clerestories is refracted to produce shadings in different parts of the church. At night these same lenses refract light flowing from the church to cast these same colours across the University campus. Moreover, the glass in the church apertures is slightly translucent or opaque, creating what might be called a "crystalline materiality", a lambent, luminous glow similar to vast banks of candlelight.

In New Glass Architecture Richards has succeeded in analysing a complex but very interesting development in architecture which can easily be approached by both professional practitioner and lay person, so free is it of technical jargon and arty gobbledygook. The many photographs are taken by the renowned architectural photographer Dennis Gilbert and are quite simply excellent. There are fine plans and drawings to accompany each of the studies in the second part of the book, and they are very well reproduced. This is a serious, substantial and spectacular monograph on glass architecture.

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