The incredible origins of the curtain wall

The curtain wall is one of the most groundbreaking innovations in modern commercial architecture. It has transformed the aesthetics of properties and provides benefits such as increasing natural light within the structure. In addition, the surface is non-structural and therefore can be much lighter. This is why they are commonly made of glass.

The Hallidie Building, San Francisco

The seven storey retail and office building is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2018. When it was complete in 1918 it was unique, the very first building in the US to feature a lightweight, sheer glass curtain wall. It was a groundbreaking design by architect Willis Polk.

A number of issues inspired the creation of the glazed wall. Firstly there were budget limitations. Creating an entire surface from brick would have cost much more than the curtain wall. After-all it would have required more extensive foundations to account for the additional weight. In addition, the use of glass helped to maximise the amount of natural light inside the building.

Striking yet odd

The glass facade makes the building stand out but also made it something of an oddity at the time. It creates an interesting juxtaposition with the gold painted iron work that was common in the area during the period.

One of the incredible things about the design is that the glass wall is attached to each concrete floor with brackets and steel mullions. As a result it is a similar to the floating walls we see on modern commercial architecture today, particularly skyscrapers. This shows just how innovative the idea was for the time.

Modern buildings

Curtain walls are very common now. The weight savings are a big reason why it is possible to build such large skyscrapers. They would have a much larger footprint if heavier materials were necessary instead of lightweight glass. It would also dramatically increase the construction costs.

Coffey Architects loves commercial architecture, especially iconic buildings that innovate and inspire others. The Hallidie Building definitely deserves fits into this category.