Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stained Glass Savoir Faire

Stained glass as a form of decoration is familiar to all of us, especially in cathedrals and churches and to a lesser degree in Victorian domestic architecture in Australia and the UK. The focal points of most churches are their stained glass windows, which were invariably donated by a benefactor of the church, to pave their way to heaven. There are some incredibly beautiful and monumental examples around the world which tourists and normal worshipers are undoubtedly impressed by. To go to the other end of the scale Victorian terraces and houses abound with stained glass in doors and windows and it is a pleasure walking through suburbs at night to see these humble cousins of the church window illuminated at night.

However, stained glass seems to have fallen out of favour for major architectural projects of the last 50 years or so, only to be replaced with vast expanses of clear glass. Two exceptions where stained glass has been used are the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne from 1967 and the American Airlines terminal at JFK from the early 1960’s. Both buildings use stained glass in totally different ways, creating different effects, but no less stunning in their final appearance.

The National Gallery of Victoria was designed by Roy Grounds and is a classic example of a rather brutal approach to architecture. However this is redeemed when stepping into The Great Hall of the gallery where one looks up to see a monumental stained glass ceiling. The ceiling designed by Leonard French is one of the world’s largest examples of suspended stained glass. This is a huge space, which would lack any sort of savoir faire if it were not for that ceiling. It is awe inspiring and gives the room an almost cathedral like quality. When entering the space you cannot help but whisper in hushed tones for fear of destroying the ambience it creates.

On the other end of the spectrum stained glass was used to create a totally different effect on the American Airlines terminal at JFK completed in 1960. The terminal was designed by Kahn and Jacobs and became known for its 317 feet (97 m) stained glass facade designed by Robert Sowers, which was the largest stained glass installation in the world until 1979.

Whereas the National Gallery’s stained glass could only be viewed by the public from within in the space, the American Airlines installation could be viewed from both outside and inside. From the exterior the window swept along the gentle curve of the building and gave the effect of an abstract mural. From the interior whole walls shimmered with muted tones providing intimate lighting for the spaces within. Sadly the facade was removed in 2007 as the terminal was demolished to make room for the new Terminal 8.


  1. How heartbreaking! That was beautiful. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to at least repurpose it in some way.

  2. One more thing, our house was built in 1890 (rowhouse) and we have 3 skylights. The norm at the time would have been to have a peice of stained glass at the bottom of the 'shaft' for the skylight that would act as a transom window. Well, I guess over the years they either broke or were discarded for aesthetic reasons.

    I felt it only right to go out and buy a large piece of stained glass to hang in our dining room window. Just seemed like the house would be happier with at least one piece of it.

  3. Yes, I wish they could have found another use for it in their new terminal, which would have been fantastic. Interesting about the skylights, I didnt know this.

  4. Of course the AA terminal was demolished. When it comes to things of beauty and wonder, the Phlistines will go to any lengths to crush them under their jackboots because they are too dense to understand.

  5. Texan, Thank you for your visit, you are so right about what you say. There has been so much good architecture of the later part of last century that has either been demolished or renovated, which has destroyed the aesthetics of the building in question.


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