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Glass rules our cities, for better and worse

(Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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But pulling a scaleless glass skin from a building's parapet down to a city sidewalk is aesthetically and functionally questionable. The bottom floors of an urban building, those first few dozen feet -- two to three stories -- rising from street level, demand different treatment than the many stories farther up.

Building entrances and canopies, along with storefront windows and doors of retail shops, cafes and restaurants, should occupy and animate the base of downtown buildings. Signage and lighting also must be part of the design of a building's base. Sidewalk level is where the public most directly comes in contact with architecture. This is where pedestrians become most aware of the visual and tactile qualities of a building's materials and details.

Thus to fulfill its streetscape obligations, the taut skin of a glass-clad urban building needs to change near the street level. To a facade's visual transparency must be added transparency of movement provided by welcoming entries. Transformation of the facade and skin may be accomplished using only glass, but it also may entail use of additional materials. In either case, the compositional challenge is making the transformation seem natural and integral to the overall design rather than appearing tacked on or retrofitted.

The quality of a work of architecture ultimately is not assured by use of glass or any other material. Rather it depends on the compositional talent and imagination of the designer and the artistry with which materials, whatever they might be, are assembled to make architectural form.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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