The innovative proposals by the Glass Age Committee, ranging from inhabited structures spanning across the Thames to the regeneration of entire neighbourhoods in British cities, were published in the AR as advertisements for manufacturers’ products between 1938 and 1963
Adverts are the financial lifeblood of architectural magazines. Or were. Those for building products today don’t occupy anywhere near as many pages as they did. This is a shame: not only were they the only place that colour used to appear, but they read as an architectural historiography from the manufacturers’ perspective. The rise in consumer advertising was followed by a rise in industrial advertising, its apogee coinciding with the height of Modernism in the mid ’60s. The AR attracted more adverts than other British magazines because it was the most read British monthly.
AR October 1963 on Universities, for example, had 82 pages of editorial among 240 pages of adverts, eight of which were for Pilkington Brothers. Few manufacturers spent as much on advertising as Pilkington. Glass was popular in modern architecture, physically embodying the Modernist ideas of space, light, ‘blurring the boundary between inside and outside’, and ultimately the avant-garde desire to rid architecture of material form. But in Pilkington’s efforts to universalise products, they reflected other Modernist desires.
In 1938 Pilkington formed the Glass Age Town Planning Committee to exploit the fact that architectural fashion was turning their way. This first committee consisted of first-generation modern architects Maxwell Fry, R Furneaux Jordan, Raymond McGrath, Howard Robertson, G Grey Wornum and FRS Yorke. Each was asked to ‘suggest solutions to certain problems of town planning in London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bournemouth’, using ‘all the structural and decorative resources of the Glass Age, but [to] produce practical schemes that could actually be built. An imaginative use of modern materials, rather than mere romantic fantasy was desired’. The problems were, of course, entirely contrived and unrealistic. As were the solutions, for that matter.
The designs followed early CIAM ideals in sweeping away historical areas such as The Strand and Bond Street in London, and Princes Street in Edinburgh in favour of extrusions of stacked floorplates walled in glass à la Miesian skyscrapers c1920. The schemes were published as a 16-page advert for Pilkington glass in AR February 1939. The provocative designs were justified by zeitgeisty statements such as, ‘The character of Edinburgh with its colour scheme of soft greens and grey does not, like some modern streets, call for highly reflecting surfaces, and yet this is the age of thin facing materials on steel frame structures.’ Serious material propaganda for a propaganda age.
After the war the Glass Age Town Planning Committee became the Glass Age Development Committee consisting of Geoffrey Jellicoe, Edward Mills and Ove Arup. Their first task set by Pilkington was to redesign Soho, ‘potentially one of the most economically fruitful regions in the West End, and ready for development’. Ads were taken out in the AR from November 1954 to April 1955 explaining the committee’s scheme of six 24-storey Corbusian glass-clad towers of ‘good-class residential flats’ with a three-pointed star footprint and roof helipads. These towers were raised above the existing buildings on pilotis with a garden level established above the existing roofs. However, these ideas were tame compared with the progressive use of glass. The street pattern was replicated at the raised garden level but turned into ‘Canals on glass, spanning the streets below.’ The open-air pool was to be above the central market and to let light through its wavy glass bottom. The architects imagined that ‘From below the bathers will appear like fish.’ An age of naïve optimism.
The second postwar project by the Glass Age Committee was decidedly un-glassy and disappointingly sober. It involved a ‘high market’ in the Midlands, and was published in seven double-page spread adverts in AR between February and December 1956. It looked like Cumbernauld’s town centre might have had it been designed by a mid 20th-century Joseph Paxton.
Had the Glass Age Committee disbanded then, their greatest hits album would not even chart. But their final four biennial projects, between 1957 and ‘63, had a real ’60s confidence. Skyport One, advertised in November 1957, addressed the future problem of city-centre airports and assumed ‘considerable advances in aeronautical engineering by 2000 AD’. The three-pointed star tower reappeared, this time surmounted by three 500ft-high shafts each leading to hexagonal landing decks, united at the summit, under which hung uses such as restaurants, viewing decks and air traffic control. The towers’ roofs also acted as runways for two- to-six seater rotorcraft whose wings folded away to be parked in the ‘“Autosilo” parking accommodation which might be widely adopted’. The facade would have been clad in glass, including lift shafts up to the landing decks. An architecture for the jet age.
The Glass Age Committee’s greatest achievement appeared in ARs October and November 1959 and boasted, ‘Motopia is a town planned to overcome the unhappy effects of congestion by placing the roads upon the roofs of continuous terraces built in great squares.’ The towns were planned to house 30,000 people, and included shops and offices, all behind glass. They challenged New Towns which many thought lacked progressive ideas. The segregation of traffic and pedestrians was a great problem − vehicle numbers in Britain doubled between 1950 and ‘60, and a serious motorway infrastructure was lacking. This megastructure was an imaginative megalomaniacal solution. Instead we built Milton Keynes. An architecture for the age of the internal combustion engine.
Crystal 61 was an aspirational tower of five circular exhibition halls hanging off a central column with Buckminster-Fuller-inspired crystalline sheathing. Perhaps inspired by the Post Office tower started that year, and capped with a roof not dissimilar to Gibberd’s Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, its rocket-like silhouette would have graced St Pancras. Spectacular space-age architecture.
The final report of the Glass Age Committee appeared in that biggest ad-fest AR of October 1963 and had a four-page full colour pull-out of the Crystal Span, an inhabited bridge across the Thames. Like an ocean liner jacked up across the river, the design is inelegant. The innovation in glazing was the zigzag frameless curtain wall but the attraction was the commercial opportunity of ‘the site as free as the air’.
From then, adverts decreased in the AR and the wider architectural press, Pilkington instead initiated technical ‘infomercials’. Ironically, through its 25-year life, the Glass Age Development Committee proved that there wasn’t a definitive Glass Age, but that this optimistic material could be an enabler for a whole series of other modern ages.