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AN caught up with co-founders of MOS Architects, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample, and Seattle-based artist and designer John Hogan. The group collaborated with structural engineer Nat Oppenheimer of Silman Engineering to develop a prototype of an interlocking structural glass block. The work is part of Vertical City, a central installation at the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, where sixteen “towers” respond to one of architectural history’s most significant competitions: the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower. Curated by Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, the towers will remain on exhibit in the Sidney R. Yates Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center through January 7, 2018.
Called “& Another (Chicago Tribune Tower),” the project is an orderly stack of three types of modular block units rising to approximately sixteen feet tall. A custom-milled aluminum plate system interfaces with the glass block wall every two courses, providing lateral bracing. The assembly creates a translucent effect, blurring the legibility of the tower’s structural core. “We would like this to be a real building,” said Michael Meredith. “This is a full-scale mockup of a 16-foot-tall glass wall. We didn’t know what we were going to get at first. It was all a big experiment.” The office tapped into technical Ph.D. papers and engineering research utilized in MVRDV’s recent glass block project and looked into precedents from offices like Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
Michael Meredith said the aesthetic qualities of the glass are what pique most visitors’ interest, but expects the work will spark a deeper conversation about architectural history. The installation pairs the repetitive, rational, and modular thinking of Ludwig Hilberseimer, best known for his ties to the Bauhaus and to Mies van der Rohe, with “one-liner” tectonic jokes—tower as a fluted column, a skyscraper with crenellation, etc.—in the manner of Adolf Loos who submitted a “joke” entry to the original 1922 competition. The tower sits just shy of sixteen feet, remaining “unfinished,” with a final course of blocks scattered on the ground below.
The glass blocks were handmade, so ensuring the assembly stayed vertically true was a primary concern to the project team. A “peg registration” system—precisely located bumps and divets—was incorporated into the formwork to assist in stacking the modular units. Despite this planning, Hogan said the group was not sure how much tolerance the individual units would have. The solution was to incorporate CNC-milled aluminum plates to provide a rigid template for the glass walls. “Engineering a system that basically gives you a reset every two courses was the best way for us to be confident the tower would stand straight.”
The glass block manufacturing process lasted only six days and resulting in 750 blocks from three distinct forms. The team used soda-lime glass, one of the most prevalent types of glass available, accounting for about 90% of manufactured glass today. For Hogan, the project is a continuation of techniques picked up at Alfred University in Western New York, a top-notch casting facility with what he calls “an incredible collection of scrap graphite” (an ideal material for hot-casting glass). Hot-casting is a process that involves pouring molten glass into a form. Graphite is an ideal form material as it can be removed almost immediately after the pour, whereas other materials require the glass to cool completely prior to removal—a lengthier process that is inherently more labor intensive.
Hogan said despite the fast timeframe and limited budget, the creative process was fluid and not predetermined from the start. “The lack of pressure MOS put on themselves to have a predetermined idea of where this thing is going and what it might become is something that aligns well with how I work.”
So what’s next now that the “mock-up” is complete? Hogan continues to “scale up” his efforts and will be completing a rooftop exterior screen installation later this year in Seattle. He credits this repetitive modular design approach as a way to continue working at a larger architectural scale. MOS Architects and Hogan plan to collaborate on future projects as well. “For me, this is just the beginning of a conversation,” said Hogan. “The potential for building larger structures or any number of facade systems with this approach is something we are very excited about. Everything is automated and precise today, so the handmade qualities of building materials have become increasingly relevant.”