How insulating glass changed architecture: an introduction to the technological breakthrough that changed how we live and how our buildings work


When we think of a “mid-century modern” home, we think of glass walls. In part, this has to do with the decades after World War II promotion of the Southern California-style indoor-outdoor suburban lifestyle. But business and culture are downstream from the technology, and in this particular case the technology known as insulated glass. Its development solved the problem of glass windows that had haunted architecture since at least the second century: they let in light, but above all cold and heat. It wasn’t until the 1930s that a refrigeration engineer figured out how to make windows with not one but two panes and an insulating layer of air in between. The trade name: Thermopane.

First manufactured by the glass company Libbey-Owens-Ford, “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 an architectural historian Thomas Leslie, who says that “by the 1960s, if you put a large window in a residential or office building” in all but the most temperate climates, you were using “almost standard” insulated glass.

Competing glass manufacturers introduced a myriad of variations and innovations, not only in technology, but also in marketing: “No home is truly modern without TWINDOW,” stated an ad in a brand’s magazine.

The accompanying statues, Leslie says, were “always a sliding glass door that overlooked a very green landscape,” promising “a way to connect your inner and outer worlds” (as well as “being able to hold all your stuff”) . But the new possibility of “glass walls” brought about an even more visible change in commercial architecture, as it was the sine qua non of the fluidly reflective skyscrapers rising from every American downtown. Today, of course, we can see 80, 900, 100 floors of pure glass piled up in cities around the world, glittering declarations of membership of the developed countries. Those sliding glass doors once heralded the arrival of an American family into the affluent middle class — and now, more than half a century later, they still look like the pinnacle of modernity.

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Colin Marshall, based in Seoul, writes and broadcaststs on cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema† Follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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