Foam glass is composed of millions of completely sealed glass cells. It was first proposed for construction by the Soviet scientist, Professor I.I.Kitaygorodskiy at the All-Union Conference on Standardization and Manufacture of New Construction Materials in Moscow, 1932, for being light-weight, rigid, durable and for its exceptionally high compressive strength. It is an excellent sound and thermal insulator as well as being waterproof, fireproof, vermin-proof and anti-corrosive. Because of this unusual combination of properties, foam glass is used in harsh environments; those underground, open-air, flammable, wet, or under chemical attack. It is also found in niche areas of construction for highway sound absorption and electrical power and military products or within chemical, cryogenic, and high-temperature technologies. But it is never seen. In Vitro will be the first-time foam glass is used as the finished fabric of a piece of architecture.
In 1921, Mies van der Rohe proposed a glass structure for Berlin’s first skyscraper which he described as a concept of ‘skin and bones’, where the steel skeleton enabled a separation between building structure and surface cladding. The following year he designed a second Friedrichstrasse tower, again, a steel skeleton sheathed in glass. Steel structures clad with sheets of clear, float glass came to define urban structures in the second half of the twentieth century. Consumption and profit were the driving forces that resulted in an architecture of waste and replacement in which issues of sustainability held little or no interest or influence. The glass tower became an icon of the International Style, appearing ubiquitously around the world, with no regard to context or differing climatic demands. Cheap fossil fuels allowed developers and users to either artificially cool or pump in heat to compensate for the inability of their glass skyscrapers to mediate their environments. The drawings Mies produced in 1921 suggested clarity and weightlessness. in 1922 he chose to represent his concept of extreme architectural transparency through opacity and darkness with vertical charcoal extrusions.
The design for In Vitro took this drawing as a starting point to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions about glass. Does it have to be transparent? Can it be structural? Can it insulate against extremes of temperature without consuming energy? Will it last? Could its fragility be a metaphor for the current crisis we are in and lead to something sustainable rather than something ephemeral?
FROM IDEA TO REALITY
From these various ingredients – sand, glass and material transformation, reuse and sustainability, 20th century consumption and 21st century reflection – the idea for an enclosure began to emerge. It was one that had qualities more of a tent than a conventional building; a structure that would sit lightly on the ground with minimal support but maximum cover and that could mediate its environment without a vast carbon footprint. The elegant plan of a typical Bedouin tent was used as inspiration and as a form associated with migration and nomadic movement through the desert. The plan was shifted off-axis and ‘deconstructed’ into a number of linked spaces with a natural flow between them. This was then extruded to create an inhabitable volume and solidified as a motionless structure of black glass. The simple extrusion recalls Mies’ drawings. But while In Vitro is a building also constructed entirely from glass, it is one that is entirely opaque rather than transparent, black rather than clear, closed rather than open.
Bedouin tents, of woven black camel hair, create a distinct visual presence in the desert and are sophisticated environmental mediators. The In Vitro pavilion echoes the tent but transforms it from a structure of softness and resilience into one of brittleness and fragility. The structure explores mankind’s changing relationship to the environment, treating it as pool of potential rather than a natural resource to be consumed.
A perimeter frame and path of black bricks is proposed to contain a bed of pale sand that serves as the pavilion base, visually isolating it from its surroundings and making the conceptual link between the tent, the desert and silicon dioxide in its various forms, as both sand and glass.
The inner surfaces of the two curved seating areas for the Material Sound installations are lined with a layer of acoustic foam to create an interior space that is both soft to the touch and eerily acoustically isolated. By combining foam glass and acoustic foam insulation, all sound and distraction is absorbed allowing full meditative concentration on the artworks.
The In Vitro glass pavilion comprises a steel frame that supports several hundred approximately 400 x 400 mm prefabricated foam glass blocks that fit together in a dry assembly (without adhesives). This means that after the agreed installation period, the pavilion can be dismounted, relocated and reused. A number of different interlocking foam glass block types were designed to meet various edge conditions, curved-surfaces and chamfered ‘corners’ around the pavilion. The foam glass blocks were CNC milled which enabled them to be shaped with the highest precision. The material and blocks are very light weight which facilitates transport and handling on site.
Two mesmerising sound artworks were conceived by Adam Lowe, the result of many years work into the visualisation of sound and material transformation. Working in collaboration with the team at Factum Arte and sound artist Nathan Mann, the works are mesmerising, contemplative and thought provoking.
Inside, visitors enter a lobby where external light falls away and their eyes adjust to the dark. The first space is lit by UV light. UV tubes, following the vestigial geometry of the roof of a Bedouin tent, cause the optically whitened sand of the Chladni Plates to glow, and the mysterious, shifting harmonic geometries appear to float as the brass plates fade into the background. A live recording of the installation is projected onto to the wall above the piece. The rest of the walls and a circular bench are lined with soft acoustic foam. The visitor is encouraged to linger.
IN THE DARK HOURS OF THE SUN
Moving into the central section the visitor encounters the second installation. This contains a machine engineered by Factum to create fulgarites from silica sand; a ‘fulgarite printer’. Also in this section is a display of glass found in nature. These include Obsidian, Impactite, natural Fulgarites, Trinitite and Edowie glass. These are displayed in lit cases carved into the foam glass walls. Moving into the second circular chamber, the visitor finds The Dark Hours of the Sun, a mesmerising and moving installation of lycopodium powder animated by a composition by Nathaniel Mann. The piece is lit with a raking blue laser stripe that gives the space a nocturnal glow.
From here the visitor is able to revisit and linger at each of the installations, or to move forward between two sheets of two-way mirror, creating a separation between the dark interior that focuses on the animated sound installations, and the final space where the walls might contain further displays. A very tall end wall is used for displaying prints made by vibrating aquatint dust into distinct acoustic patterns. This makes the ephemeral sound pieces permanent. This is also the location for a staff presence, catalogues, talks and events.
While there are many patents on foam glass production, some dating back to the 1930s, only a few have been put into commercial use. Foam- or cellular-glass, was originally manufactured using only virgin glass but now a number of production plants use up to 98% post-consumer glass waste.
An immersive artwork by Adam Lowe & Charlotte Skene Catling
Architects – Skene Catling de la Peña: Charlotte Skene Catling
Factum Arte: Adam Lowe
Musical Artist: Nathaniel Mann
Engineers: Engineers HRW
Lighting Designer: Spectron Solutions