Binocular House

Michael Bell


The Binocular House embodies a set of attempts to measure flatness against a precipice of deep space by way of removing the middle ground. The layering manifests a tension between the foreground and the implications of a distant background; of depth pushed to troubled limits; and its visual compression layered against close and distant surfaces with no in-between. Also, the Binocular House is literally Miesien in its origins. The client sought a house in dialogue with the Farnsworth House, but it was actually realized against a project analyzed from an earlier period of my own Corbusian work, a project based in Hejduk’s writings but also having invocations of Slutzky’s inside-out space. To arrive at Mies by way of Le Corbusier was to first note the flatness of glass as surface and wall, rather than curtain, and to see this flatness as a refutation of the pleasure of depth and distance that was often available in Le Corbusier’s most plastic work. This compelled a set of glass houses in my own work. It was not the transparency but the opacity, or coplanar solidity, that is viewable in the glass from a side view., and it was very much the weight and balance required to properly set glass in a frame.

But the IGU (insulated glass unit) is also figured, in a large way, and pushed the comprehension of visual space through Hoffmann and Slutzky and on towards Pollock, towards a recognition that the IGU has two postures and two relations to gravity. It seemed possible to accentuate the flatness of the glass in both its fabrication and implementation, in its horizontal origin and its vertical position, to see glass as a extremely dense wall, rather than a clear membrane. Here its transparency reveals a depth of field, but one also begins to tie its potential to readings of gravity drawn on a three-eighth-inch-deep pool of liquid glass. Glass is self-leveling and pools during formation. It forms while heat is slowly removed, before the material becomes stable but also causing it to become increasingly brittle. The lifting of glass from this state is crucial. Surface tensions, especially in tempered glass, allow it to shatter if hit on the edge while resisting damage from perpendicular force. It is the act of lifting it in place after fabrication and during installation that reveals the material’s weight and limited stability. The weight formed in a three-eighth-inch pool is now staged through a nine-foot-high vertical pane, or two for an IGU.

For art historian Clement Greenberg, a Jackson Pollock painting—executed on the floor of his studio and choreographed by action, material weight and forces of velocity and viscosity—became a “painting” only when it was made vertical. If approached with a memory of its fabrication, glass is similar, and an IGU is even more complex. The vertical panes reveal where deep visual transparency becomes apparent but is simultaneously conflated with an opacity and sense of material weight, even density. If the glass is thicker—as it is in the Binocular House at three-eighth-inch per pane and one-and-one-quarter-inch per IGU—the effect of the weight is palpable and structurally significant. The downward sense of weight is real; the pull into horizontal space is immense, and the architect’s sense of surface tension is never far from one’s awareness.

These conditions were once set in construction: glass is set and it stays in place. They are easily understood as difficult, tenuous, and often characterized as ineffable, but as conditions they are also quite literal and carry didactic repercussions. Glass is a dangerous conflation of mitigating forces. Tension and compression race through its otherwise visually simple shape. It has distinct lives that demand different axes of sustenance. It then becomes glass, if we accept Greenberg’s logic, only when it is placed in the vertical axis. These realizations about the nature of glass and an IGU are convened by way of Hejduk, by the nature of the material itself and by way of production of an IGU, as well as by the figure or space of in the work of Mies.

If read against the exceeded limits of the Carpenter Center’s plastic apparatus—against the embodied tensions in glass, rather than transparency—and if the final evidence or literal transparency is mixed with the memory of the material weight when horizontal, a project for architectural space arises in which the curtain wall is not based in fabric, weaving, or surface texture but as a mix of depth and flatness, a visual field constructed by memories of a material field. The eye is being pulled into space, but so, too, it remains aware of the material’s own weight. This is the nature of glass at its limits, as in the immense IGUs installed in the Binocular House, which measure fourteen feet across and nine-feet tall. Such proportions drive the Binocular House’s spatial tensions. This aspect of the glass is not Miesien; instead, it relates to the glass’s own history and the literal aspects of its fabrication in completely contemporary terms and potentials.

The Binocular House was designed to form an extended edge: a 270-foot perimeter, compared to the 194-foot-long Johnson House. Composed of three-eighth-inch thick glass set into IGUs, rather than the one-quarter-inch thick, single panes of the Johnson house, the material produces a very different final effect. In terms of literal weight and optic density, this constitutes a far heavier perimeter than that of the Farnsworth House or the Johnson Glass House. Glass on its edge is a different condition then glass on its surface. On it edge, glass is a myriad of planar stress; across its surface is a network of brittle stresses. The Binocular House comprises a 24,000-pound surface; in comparison, the Johnson House would weigh approximately 6400 pounds.

A transcription is complex, and sometimes its derivations are driven by authorship or conflation of sources, such as with Mies and Corbsier; or by analysis, as with Hejduk on Corbusier; and sometimes by material, assembly, or the memory of all, including the labor of placing it in a frame.

When it comes down to it, architecture is made up of points, lines, and planes in plan, section, and elevation. The Binocular Glass House by Michael Bell is made of eight, straight lines in plan – it’s that easy and yet that hard but proven here to be enough.


This is a little independent tabloid magazine looking into three expanding fields of Architecture, Not Architecture, and Not Not Architecture between ancient and future time and space.
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