In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith hailed the mass availability of glass windows-"that beautiful and happy invention"-as among the greatest miracles of industrial organization. While modernist architectural historians have often dated glass's widespread architectural use to the Victorian era, Smith spoke within an already long established architectural tradition. By the late sixteenth century, building with great glazed facades had become nothing short of an obsession in Northern European secular architecture.
By tracing these developments during the late Renaissance, this paper offers a new material prehistory of modernist transparency. This longue durée approach, I argue, not only allows us to track the historical transmission of architectural forms; it also provides a tool for critically evaluating the building practices of our own time.
The early modern significance of architectural glass corresponds with the shift in economic power from the Mediterranean world toward Northern Europe, which allowed nations like France and England to eclipse earlier centers such as Venice as the preeminent sites of glass production. Demand for glass was tied to the northward diffusion of architectural classicism. Arcades, plazas, and courtyards abounded in the south; but the colder climate had severely restricted the ability of northern designers and builders to emulate these forms. Glass made it possible to reinvent such light and open spaces for the north. Such conditions help us map the later trajectory of architectural modernism as an outgrowth of this originally local phenomenon.
Glass's seemingly paradoxical properties, moreover, engendered a fascinating body of cultural responses. On the one hand, glass's ethereal and alchemic qualities prompted associations with platonic-hermetic philosophy. Its transparency also allowed light to flood architectural interiors, reconfiguring conceptions of vision and domestic space. On the other hand, glass's fuel-intensive production contributed to acute wood shortages in early modern Northern Europe-leading to the denunciation of its architectural use as an embodiment of material excess.
This paper will close by considering the continued ecological stakes associated with glass production, following its long transition from a local to a universal building material.