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Building Walls of Light: The Development of Glass Block and Its Influence on American Architecture in the 1930s

Fagan, Elizabeth

Glass block, a widely used building material in American architecture during the 1930s, is made from two molded pieces of glass that have been annealed together and contain a hollow center. Glass block became a fixture in Streamline Moderne buildings, often comprising entire walls or dramatic curved corners, and also was used for planar, infill material in Modern buildings. The Owens-Illinois Glass Company was the first to begin mass production of glass block in the U.S. in 1932, and its competitor, Pittsburgh Corning Corporation, began large-scale production of glass blocks in 1938. The material was featured at the 1933-1934 Chicago Century of Progress International Exhibition, and later at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Glass block was a well-marketed product which boasted numerous qualities, including light transmissivity, multitude of patterns and styles, insulation properties, strength, and adaptability, to name a few. The thesis will discuss a history of glass block, how the material was used in buildings, and examine the influence of the material on architectural designs of the 1930s and later. The purpose of this work is to expand upon an under-researched building material, and how its history fits into, and impacted, the larger history of American architecture. A chronological timeline of glass block development and some of the most influential buildings and events related to the material will provide the framework for the thesis. In addition to this chronological framework, a discussion of important themes, ideas, and trends in glass block will supplement the history. Some important themes include: glass block’s ability to build walls of light; glass block as a symbol of progress and modernity; the two aesthetic paths of the glass block use in the 1930s; the illumination of glass block and its use as advertisement; and the material’s rise and fall in popularity.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Bollack, Francoise A.
Degree
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
July 20, 2015
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