How Insulated Glass Changed Architecture: An Introduction to the Technological Breakthrough That Changed How We Live and How Our Buildings Work

When we think of a “mid­cen­tu­ry mod­ern” home, we think of glass walls. In part, this has to do with the post-World War II decades’ pro­mo­tion of the south­ern Cal­i­for­nia-style indoor-out­door sub­ur­ban lifestyle. But busi­ness and cul­ture are down­stream of tech­nol­o­gy, and, in this spe­cif­ic case, the tech­nol­o­gy known as insu­lat­ed glass. Its devel­op­ment solved the prob­lem of glass win­dows that had dogged archi­tec­ture since at least the sec­ond cen­tu­ry: they let in light, but even more so cold and heat. Only in the 1930s did a refrig­er­a­tion engi­neer fig­ure out how to make win­dows with not one but two panes of glass and an insu­lat­ing lay­er of air between them. Its trade name: Ther­mopane.

First man­u­fac­tured by the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass com­pa­ny, “Ther­mopane changed the pos­si­bil­i­ties for archi­tects,” says Vox’s Phil Edwards in the video above, “How Insu­lat­ed Glass Changed Archi­tec­ture.” In it he speaks with archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Thomas Leslie, who says that “by the 1960s, if you’re putting a big win­dow into any res­i­den­tial or office build­ing” in all but the most tem­per­ate cli­mates, you were using insu­lat­ed glass “almost by default.”

Com­pet­ing glass man­u­fac­tur­ers intro­duced a host of vari­a­tions on and inno­va­tions in not just the tech­nol­o­gy but the mar­ket­ing as well: “No home is tru­ly mod­ern with­out TWINDOW,” declared one brand’s mag­a­zine adver­tise­ment.

The asso­ci­at­ed imagery, says Leslie, was “always a slid­ing glass door look­ing out onto a very ver­dant land­scape,” which promised “a way of con­nect­ing your inside world and your out­side world” (as well as “being able to see all of your stuff”). But the new pos­si­bil­i­ty of “walls of glass” made for an even more vis­i­ble change in com­mer­cial archi­tec­ture, being the sine qua non of the smooth­ly reflec­tive sky­scrap­ers that rise from every Amer­i­can down­town. Today, of course, we can see 80, 900, 100 floors of sheer glass stacked up in cities all over the world, shim­mer­ing dec­la­ra­tions of mem­ber­ship among the devel­oped nations. Those slid­ing glass doors, by the same token, once announced an Amer­i­can fam­i­ly’s arrival into the pros­per­ous mid­dle class — and now, more than half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, still look like the height of moder­ni­ty.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

How the Rad­i­cal Build­ings of the Bauhaus Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Archi­tec­ture: A Short Intro­duc­tion

The Sur­pris­ing Rea­son Why Chi­na­towns World­wide Share the Same Aes­thet­ic, and How It All Start­ed with the 1906 San Fran­cis­co Earth­quake

Tony Hawk & Archi­tec­tur­al His­to­ri­an Iain Bor­den Tell the Sto­ry of How Skate­board­ing Found a New Use for Cities & Archi­tec­ture

Why Europe Has So Few Sky­scrap­ers

A Glass Floor in a Dublin Gro­cery Store Lets Shop­pers Look Down & Explore Medieval Ruins

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • bt says:

    While I do agree that new glass tech­nolo­gies have dra­mat­i­cal­ly altered build­ings, there are a few points I would tem­per:

    1. Most all mod­ern build­ings in the 50’s 60’s used sin­gle-pane glass. It was cheap and ener­gy was cheap, so was the think­ing. Dual-pane glass is very hard to work with because you can’t just cut to fit dur­ing con­struc­tion. Dual-pane real­ly only became stan­dard after the 1970’s ener­gy shock. And a lot of time it was more or less the same design, just using dual-pane instead of sin­gle-pane.

    2. The glass tech­nol­o­gy that more dra­mat­i­cal­ly altered design was tint­ed / absorb­tive and reflec­tive glass and that’s more about air con­di­tion­ing than heat­ing. That’s when build­ing forms were stripped of sun shades, over­hangs, oper­a­ble win­dows and all the oth­er things peo­ple did to keep the sun out / keep cool. Just look at mod­ern build­ings in the 1950’s and then in the 1980’s. It changed most­ly because of the new types of tint­ed and absorb­tive glass­es that were avail­able.

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