Glass shatters architects' egos

Marcus Fairs
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:00

TOP ARCHITECTS' obsession with all-glass buildings has caused the biggest wave of structural failures since the 1960s when flat roofs were in vogue.

Spectacular new buildings around the world are breaking down at huge financial cost, embroiling some of Britain's best-known architects in disputes. The past 12 months alone have seen problems at Bordeaux's new law courts, designed by Richard Rogers, and Hong Kong's gigantic Chek Lap Kok airport by Norman Foster. Both buildings underwent expensive emergency repairs after their glass facades failed.

In the latest high-profile case, Eurostar, the owner of the glass-roofed Waterloo International station in London, is to sue the building's architect, Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, and construction team after safety experts discovered some glass panels were in danger of exploding. A fault with the glazing used on the five-year-old building's roof has left Eurostar with a bill of up to pounds 10m. The row is expected to reach the High Court next spring.

"In the past, there were huge quantities of flat roof failures. Now it's curtain walling [all-glass facades] and glazing problems that we see," said Barry Josey, a building failure expert at Bickerdike Allen Partners.

Architects are pushing glass technology to its limits to come up with ever more spectacular buildings, he said. "You're working at the limit of people's knowledge. Today what people want is an all-glass facade which also keeps out the sunlight and maintains the temperature of the building," he said. "In a way the two ideas are in opposition."

The glass-loving architect Norman Foster has had more than his fair share of problems. At his pounds 12bn Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong, every single section of the terminal's 70ft high glass walls are being replaced at a cost of around pounds 13.5m. Mysterious bubbles were found in some laminated glass panels, while others looked as if someone had thrown a brick at them.

Another Foster building, the Business Promotion Centre at Duisburg, Germany, suffered glass problems following its opening in 1993, and the opening of the architect's new social studies faculty at Oxford University has been delayed after a window mysteriously fell out. Most embarrassingly of all, the floor-to-ceiling windows at Foster's own offices leaked during torrential rain this autumn.

But Foster is not the only cutting-edge architect having problems with glass. The entire pounds 2m glass facade of an office building at Stockley Park, near Heathrow, had to be replaced earlier this year when panels shattered in the high winds. Arup Associates, the architect, is footing the bill.

Even the National Glass Centre in Sunderland is not immune. The building, designed to promote the use of glass, featured a glass roof, which visitors could walk across. But it had to be closed when the glass started to chip.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments