All-glass Facade Continues to Sparkle in Amsterdam

Last week, the Crystal Houses located on Amsterdam’s P.C.Hooftstraat generated much excitement thanks to this Chanel flagship store’s facade of clear glass brick. Following up on the interest in this project, building owner Warenar have released a video made by Robert Jan Westdijk that shows the process behind the creation of this special design from MVRDV.

You can check out Warenar’s video here and also be sure to explore in our material library the materials of Poesia, who handcrafted the transparent bricks used in the design. Our special report on this project follows below.

Experiencing an All-Glass Facade:

The facade of the Crystal Houses mimics traditional brick construction except that here, the bricks that form the walls, architraves, frames and sills are made entirely of glass. Above the ground level, these glass bricks slowly transition back to traditional terracotta brick (as set out by the City’s aesthetic rules). As a result, the heavier material mass appears to ‘float’ above its transparent base.

While visually impressive, this assembly is in fact also a self-supporting wall construction with glass buttresses located behind the facade that take on the demanding windload requirements, whilst maintaining the overall transparency of the design.

Adding to the experiential quality of the design, the degree of transparency within the facade shifts along with Amsterdam’s notoriously changeable light and weather. When the sun is behind the clouds, the facade takes on a slightly greenish tint whereas when the sun is shining brightly, the exterior sparkles as if made by ice.

Furthermore, one’s experience of the facade varies depending upon the angle you view it at. When looking at the facade directly, it is indeed extremely transparent. From the side however, the edges of the glass blocks cast a slightly green tone and scattered light effect.

The Hard Work Behind It All:

Perhaps as impressive as the final result itself is the process behind the construction of the facade, which demanded the talents of between six and ten craftsmen over the period of one year. Along with the glass bricks themselves, which were handcrafted by glass manufacturer Poesia in Venice, MVRDV developed a totally new ‘masonry construction’ technique in collaboration with the Technical University of Delft, consultancy ABT and contractor Wessels Zeist.

In place of traditional cement mortar, a type of transparent glue was used in this new type of construction method. Much like the glue that is used by dentists, the glue between the bricks was bonded under the exposure of a UV lamp. The bonding of each brick took more than an hour in a working environment that MVRDV describes as ‘more laboratory than construction site.’

On a lower-tech material note, Dutch full-fat milk proved to be an ideal liquid to function as a reflective surface for the levelling of the first layers of bricks thanks to its low transparency.

In total there are only two elements in the construction not made of glass: the foundation upstand is made of concrete and the glass doors required a steel reinforcement to counter against break-ins.

Environmental Impact:

In today’s world, the environmental performance of an ‘all-glass’ facade certainly raises some questions. According to MVRDV, in order to ensure that energy requirements were supplied through renewable sources. The building designed around a ground source heat pump, with pipes leading up to 170 meters underground as part of providing an optimal and sustainable indoor climate throughout the year.

Furthermore, in terms of material sustainability, MVRDV explain that the development of new construction methods reveal future opportunities for the minimisation of waste materials. In this case, all the glass components are recyclable and waste from an ‘imperfect’ brick could be simply melted down. The same goes for nearly the entire facade at the end of the its lifespan.

Looking into the Future:

The Crystal Houses will be rented over the next year and a half by Chanel, which then will move back to its previous location. The next tenant of the Crystal Houses is not yet known.

But whoever the next tenant may be, this design certainly serves to challenge the loss of local character in shopping streets around the world.

Photos: Daria Scagliola and Stijn Brakkee / MVRDV