Material Restraint

With any emergent architectural material, there is potential for abuse and over-use. There are a plethora of causes for this, be they economy, durability, or novelty. Something that has potential for careful usage in a unique set of situations may become so ubiquitous so quickly that it burns out like a fad, never to be heard from again.

The Lycurgus Cup, an early example of dichroic glass.

As with a box of crayons, dichroic glass has the ability to easily supply vibrant color in a wide range of applications. Though it was pioneered by the Romans at least dating back to the 4th century, the technique of depositing vaporized metal onto a glass or plastic substrate to create a dichroic film has made this material increasingly affordable. Acting as a filter, the film admits certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others back to the source. Light reflecting off of the substrate can cause both colors and a wide spectrum between to become visible.

Dichroic filters.

With modern dichroic glass originally developed for shielding and optical use by NASA in the mid-20th century, it migrated to theatrical, art, and eventually architectural usage. While its effect is sometimes very tempered and tasteful, it can manifest itself as an unrestrained explosion of opalescent color akin to a Lisa Frank pencil box.

Dichroic glass art (left), Media Plaza by 123DV Architects (right).

How architects choose to proceed with dichroic glass is very important. A material loaded with similar risks, stained glass has established a distinguished legacy, in large part due to its use in places of worship throughout history. Through this application, it has become identified as a tool for illuminating narrative and designating importance. It is now widely regarded as a beautiful and cherished material reserved for elevated uses.
It remains to be seen how the material texts of the future will identify dichroics – as tacky excess, tasteful embellishment, or (more likely) something in between. Stain glass relied on wealthy patrons and the fundraising efforts of entire communities to reach its dignified status. Dichroic glass’s future rests only on the cautious and creative decisions of future designers.

(Feature image: l’Arc en Ciel by I’M Architecten)


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