Giorgio Marfella
University of Melbourne, Melbourne

The history of curtain walls overlaps with that of tall office buildings of the post-WWII era, a period characterized by groundbreaking innovations that continue to underpin construction and architectural practices today. Tall buildings with glazed curtain walls are so widespread that they have become a staple of different architectural styles around the world.

Using the introduction of new glass products as a criterion for recognizing cultural significance and drawing evidence from the historical archives of a major American glass manufacturer, this presentation identifies a critical moment in the evolution of skyscrapers. By analyzing the transition from single- to double-glazing and from heat-absorbent to reflective glass, there are several plausible “first” moments of progress associated with the tall buildings of the 1950s and 1970s.

The analysis of the adoption of glass innovations in tall buildings reveals a picture that challenges a post-modern myth that persists into the present, which paints modern American skyscrapers as energy-guzzling monsters entirely indifferent to environmental concerns. In the context of a general response to advancements of glass manufacturing that affected an entire generation of tall buildings, there are several examples worthy of mention, some of which may be unexpected. One of these examples is the Libbey-Owens-Ford Building in Toledo, Ohio, an unassuming office tower built in the International Style that, upon close inspection, exemplifies performance-based design strategies.

Ultimately, the use of glass in skyscrapers reinforces the idea that often times the final steps in a sequence of innovations are a matter of equal, if not superior, relevance to that of initial experimentation.