Missed opportunity for a real glass act

Pilkington is relocating to Europe, leaving behind the new World of Glass. But how can a museum replace a legacy of innovation?
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The Independent Online

Glass is the material of the future, although to look at the World of Glass, a new museum opening at St Helens in March, you would never know it. On one side of the Tottie canal, there's an archaeological dig for the original furnace that made Pilkington a household name around the world. On the other, the new museum, a cluster of windowless brick boxes and a newly built brick chimney. Only nothing burns in it.

Glass is the material of the future, although to look at the World of Glass, a new museum opening at St Helens in March, you would never know it. On one side of the Tottie canal, there's an archaeological dig for the original furnace that made Pilkington a household name around the world. On the other, the new museum, a cluster of windowless brick boxes and a newly built brick chimney. Only nothing burns in it.

More Samarkand than St Helens, the 17-metre brick cone is topped with a glass disc. Light plays upon its bruised plum brick walls. Stand at its core, and sound bounces all around its circumference to come back as sonorously as if a glass tumbler was tapped with a fork. A folly for the post-industrial age if ever there was one, this purely ornamental and contemplative space is a great place to reflect upon the shattering of illusions about the manufacturing industry in Britain.

Inside, the big windowless brick boxes house interactive displays and holograms, and a small collection of glass through the ages, ending in the 1950s, which is the time when Pilkington really took off with the invention of big spans of float glass that changed the facades of skyscrapers all over the world. "Dark and cool, the building works very well for the old glass objects and the new displays," says Gillian Howdle, the curator.

The biggest exhibit is Mr Owen's bottle-making machine, silently invoking an association Pilkington would probably rather avoid: The World of Glass museum opens just as its factory relocates to Holland and Germany with job losses here for 38,000 workers.

The new museum is linked to the original Pilkington great cone furnace on the other side of the canal by a new suspension bridge. Until recently, that canal used to steam in winter with overflow from white-hot furnaces from the Pilkington factory. But no more.

The Pilkington brothers opened a window on the world in 1857 when they discovered how to make sheet glass more widely available, using the swing method: blown, cut along one side and pressed flat. Claustrophobic Victorian houses were opened up with A-frame conservatories pioneered by Joseph Paxton, creator of the Crystal Palace.

Georgian sash window panes were made here. At this time, glass was so precious that the Government introduced a window tax and well-heeled Georgians blocked up windows all over the land. All this changed in 1857. Into a labyrinth of tunnels and flues went sand, soda and lime. Out came glass sheets big enough to change the way buildings were made. The brothers were so worried about rivals nicking their idea that they never gave builders plans of the conical brick furnace, or told them what the building was for. Much the same happened to architects at Geoffrey Reid Associates five years ago when they began to design the new museum. They were not allowed to plan the contents or put glass inventions to the test in their building. It hasn't even opened but already it is a dinosaur.

Glass today is so smart that even your rear car window has thin strips in it to replace radio aerials, and sensors that automatically turn on the windscreen wipers when rain trickles down its face. Astronauts wear glass strips woven into suits, and supersonic pilots at the flick of an eyelid can use glass visors on their helmets to dive and soar. Glass today is so tough and safe that nuclear waste is buried undersea in big glass canisters which won't leak. It repels bullets, you can walk on it and cut it into sinuous chairs strong enough to sit on. But you would never know any of that from this museum, which is stranded in the past. At the site of the original furnace, the architects planned to use toughened glass over the labyrinth of tunnels underpinning the great cone, so that viewers could walk over the archaeological dig. They wanted the glass curtain wall at the entrance, which is plated "like an armadillo", to be a canvas of glass panels to show how glass changes, stealing energy from the air to ripple across photo grids and change from clear to opaque. Photochromic glass has crystals in it doped with a molecular structure to darken when UV light triggers a reaction. Instead of all these chromatic changes,they got greenish Planar glass, that low emissive toughened glass you see everywhere which, while it is low energy, is hardly cutting edge.

They wanted every desk on the mezzanine floor offices to have a switch for its occupant to control their patch of the south facing glass facade of the restaurant below, turning it from opaque to clear, dimming,lightening or colouring it. Need a rose tinted view of St Helens? Suffering a hangover? Forget Ray Bans, there is a glass that would do it. Only they weren't allowed to use it. Just as Pilkington was fighting battles over lamination problems in acreages of glass at Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong, the project was very nearly scuppered.

"At times I was tempted to use St Gobain, the French rival," the architect, Paul Warner, said. But he didn't. Pilkington had put up £1m, alongside Heritage Lottery funding of £8.3m, for the £13.5m project as well as the glass collection. Here are Roman glass jars, Byzantine vessels, enamelled 12th century Islamic beakers, and the 19th century cameo vase that has a relief of opaque white glass over its ruby red clear glass to let whales and dolphins shine through. All very clever of its time but "not a lot", as Howdle admits.

Fairground mirrors, holograms and the optical illusions in Glass Magic, like the floating pig, a farmyard matchbox-sized pig that stands on a concave mirror and will suddenly appear to jump out of the plinth and stand on top of the plinth. And the social lives of St Helens folk are celebrated in a warren of room sets to show front parlours in coalminers' cottages, the pharmaceutical industry that was the backbone of the town along with glass, and Victorian schoolrooms, poky affairs without the translucency of glass.

You get the feeling that the people of St Helens have little to celebrate today. A glorious opportunity to celebrate invention and innovation was missed. Smart architecture needs smart architects, but don't blame the architects this time. They had the ideas but not the backing they needed to show us a glass act.

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