A Privileged Source of Information


David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang


In 1914, a German writer named Paul Scheerbart published a futuristic treatise of one-hundred-eleven sections called “Glass Architecture”. Scheerbart was a poet and a science fiction novelist. Before becoming a writer, he was an inventor experimenting with a perpetual motion machine. He lived in Berlin, kept an impressive circle of intellectual drinking friends, and since the turn of the century had written an average of a book and a half each year.

“Glass Architecture” was at the same time technical and artistic, dry and fantastical. In the book, Scheerbart described with excitement and urgency the new world that would arise through buildings made of glass. He believed that glass walls were open and liberating. The more glass the freer. Yet the author had a sophisticated understanding of the challenges of the new material. He knew that glass buildings would have problems with condensation and heat-loss. He also knew that there was technical progress yet to be made, proclaiming, “We still have extraordinary marvels to expect from technics and chemistry.”

For twenty years following its publication, Scheerbart’s book was read and referenced by a wide range of European artists, academics, and architects – including Bruno Taut, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Adolf Behne. Although the ground-breaking, glass-encased Crystal Palace had been created near London more than sixty years before, the early twentieth century was a time of fresh and widespread fascination with glass – and with other new building materials such as iron and concrete. It was also a time of new optimistic vision for the way buildings could change society, and “Glass Architecture” was one source text for this utopia.

Sheerbart dedicated “Glass Architecture” to his friend Taut, and Taut dedicated his visionary Glass Pavilion to Scheerbart. The Glass Pavilion – constructed for the German Werkbund Exhibition of 1914 – was a dome of faceted glass on top of glass block walls. The interior featured a glass mosaic, a stepped waterfall, and inscriptions written by Scheerbart: “Glass brings a new era.” “We feel sorry for the brick culture.” “Colored glass destroys hatred.” Scheerbart and Taut shared a romantic notion of the material and favored glass with color.

Mies had more sober tendencies, but historians agree that he too must have been influenced by Scheerbart. Between 1919 and 1921, Mies created a pair of striking designs for glass skyscrapers. His entry in the Friedrichstrasse competition was an angular twenty-story office tower with a skin made entirely of glass, and his project simply known as glass skyscraper was a curvilinear tower wrapped with faceted glass. Both projects relied on a structural frame of steel that freed the building skin of any responsibility to carry the building’s weight. With a transparent envelope, in contrast to the colored glass preferred by Taut, the skeleton of the architecture became clear and evident – a precursor to Mies’s insistence on “clear construction”. Transparency meant revealing structure and assembly.

Meanwhile, Behne picked up on some of the radical aspects of Scheerbart’s vision. He insisted, “It is not the crazy caprice of a poet that glass architecture will bring a new culture. It is a fact. …Therefore the European is right when he fears that glass architecture might become uncomfortable. …The European must be wrenched out of his coziness.” For Behne, glass was uncomfortable, and this was good. Discomfort would necessitate change. Behne understood and embraced the social and cultural impact that buildings – or even building materials – could create.


In the late summer of 2003, the architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake constructed a 384-square-foot pavilion called SmartWrap in the courtyard of Manhattan’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. It was the first of a series of exhibitions by the museum meant to showcase innovative architecture, including new building materials and systems of assembly. The implicit message was that these kinds of experiments could change buildings on a wide scale and thereby have an effect on the contemporary world.

Like the skyscrapers designed by Mies nearly ninety years earlier, SmartWrap consisted of a structural metal frame – in the new pavilion, aluminum rather than steel – and a building skin that simply needed to provide enclosure. But while Mies used glass, Kieran and Timberlake used a thin film polymer called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is the same inexpensive material used for recyclable soda bottles, and it is as transparent as glass but lighter in weight, thinner, and more flexible. It may be the building skin of the future, the new glass. As foreshadowed by Scheerbart, the material is a fulfillment of the extraordinary marvels of technics and chemistry.

Kieran and Timberlake chose to use PET as a new building skin because it can be embedded with electronic systems. By “printing” conductive ink on its surface, it is possible to create different zones of a seamless building skin that harvest solar energy, provide heat, illuminate, and display video. Though only a small portion of the SmartWrap pavilion was functional during the exhibition, it offered a compelling vision for the potential of a new building material.

Recent technological advancements, many first developed for use outside of architecture, suggest that more capabilities are soon to come. Thin film photovoltaics (TFPVs) – also known as organic photovoltaics (OPVs) – are about the thickness of a paperback book-cover and can collect energy from the sun almost as efficiently as standard glass-backed solar cells. New battery technology allows for thin flexible envelopes the size of a wet napkin package to store small amounts of energy. Phase change materials, already used in skiing socks, can be activated by electricity to control temperature. At the same time, electoluminescent (EL) materials allow for energy-efficient illumination within a thin flexible sheet. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) – increasingly incorporated into cell phone screens and prototypes of “electronic paper” – create programmable video displays with the thickness and flexibility of a piece of junk mail. There are countless sensors – including ones for temperature, sound, color, movement, pressure, and carbon dioxide – that can be embedded in thin flexible materials. And perhaps least used so far in large-scale applications are shape memory alloys (SMAs) and electroactive polymers (EAPs), two materials that can be configured within thin flexible sheets to morph and move the sheets themselves – without sound, motors, or mechanical parts – and create a surface that could be considered “kinetic glass”. The literal link between all of these components is found in several current technologies – including Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) and roll-to-roll deposition – for printing custom-designed electrical circuits onto thin flexible polymers. When the various components are combined, they enable the dynamic activation of a building skin. A wall can emit heat and display a movie one minute, and become transparent and open gills to admit fresh air the next.

While transparent glass dematerialized the building skin, electronic thin film polymers materialize it and embed it with new functionality. While dematerialized glass exposed structure and life inside a building, materialized thin film polymers can be activated to expose almost anything, including environmental and cultural forces. In an echo of the early twentieth-century obsession with glass, it has become appealing for architects today to believe that within a thin substrate of plastic, a new architecture and a new world await.


Last spring, in a lecture hall on the second floor of the Whitney Museum in New York, artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko delivered an animated presentation of her recent work. The lecture, along with several projects by Jeremijenko, was part of the museum’s famous Biennial. This was the second time she had been selected for the exhibition.

Jeremijenko stood at a podium and projected onto a large screen from a laptop covered with stickers. The images on the screen were dense and complex, yet self-evident, like the work itself. Jeremijenko launched a dozen windows of live web sites, movie files, and slide shows. She discussed several of her many projects.

For ”BIT Anti-terror Line”, Jeremijenko had set up the infrastructure for citizens to dial a number from their cell phones to record and share audio files of police violations of civil liberties. In “Clear Skies”, she provided urban bicyclists with a method for documenting pollution through the graying of white dust masks they wore while riding. The “One Trees” project involved planting one thousand genetically identical trees around the Bay Area to create a public display of the effects of different local environments on vegetation. And “Feral Robots” taught high school students how to reprogram toy robotic dogs to detect toxins in the soil of vacant lots in their neighborhoods. Each project involved collecting and exposing data about our society and our world. Since the projects required multiple people to gather and interpret the data, they were collective, open-ended, and empowering. In its own way, Jeremijenko’s work is all about transparency, and it delivers a needed plot twist to the story of transparency in architecture.

While Mies started with the new technology of glass and explored transparency of vision, of structure, and of construction, Jeremijenko starts with new technologies of communication and experiments with transparency of information and of cultural and political forces. While Behne advocated wrenching the public out of its coziness to change society, Jermijenko develops the same theme in an updated way. And while Kieran and Timberlake use embedded sensors and displays to create a prototype for a better home, Jeremijenko uses some of the same technologies to raise pointed questions about what makes a better world. Jeremijenko is not an architect, but her projects and her vision of transparency are as essential to the future of the field as new building materials.

In the spirit of architecture and social change, old and new, we challenge ourselves and other architects experimenting with thin film polymers to use the material’s versatility and transparency not merely for making a building skin change and disappear, but for exposing information and making it publicly legible, for generating discussion and engaging politics, and for making visible the invisible.


Quotations for the discussion of glass come from the work of historians Reyner Banham, Kenneth Frampton, and Detlef Mertins.