The Art Institute of Chicago’s 1942 Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks reminds me of a history of architecture question I’ve often wondered about: when did huge panes of plate glass become feasible and when did they become fashionable?
My native San Fernando Valley isn’t a hotbed of architectural history, except that it has a number of famous plate glass buildings in the Googie style of diners and car dealerships that are featured in Quentin Tarantino and Iron Man movies.
These days, it’s hard to reconstruct in the imagination how exciting a building made out of giant pieces of plate glass must have been in the 1940s, Apple Stores 60-70 years before Apple Stores. But clearly it had a big impact on people then, and still does on nostalgists of genius like Tarantino.
But even this famous example of postwar prosperity saw fit to to divide the vertical height into two panes of glass.
My impression is that huge pieces of plate glass started being used in diners in Hollywood around 1940, but then the explosion in these type of buildings was delayed by WWII until the late 1940s.
A question I’ve never heard the answer to is: how early could plate glass diners have been constructed? Perhaps if not for the stock market crash of 1929, they would have emerged in the early 1930s? Perhaps the technology was already available but people preferred decoration to streamlining?
Glass and iron greenhouses proliferated in England in the first half of the 19th Century, with the first colossal glass and metal building to come to fame in the metropolis being gardener Joseph Paxton’s famous Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition, a world’s fair, in 1851. This greenhouse was 1,850 feet long and 168 feet high.
It was the first Modernist building. When people tell you that Modernism was a plot imposed on the public by a malign elite, recall that the Dickensian Era masses absolutely loved the light and bright Crystal Palace. Many historians date the transition from the oppressive Hard Times of the first half of the 19th Century to the optimist high Victorian age to the construction of the Crystal Palace: finally, industrialization and capitalism were, visibly, paying off.
The Crystal Palace was built, remarkably rapidly after procrastination over the design left the organizers of the Great Exhibition with less than a year to construct a vast building to house the displays, out of millions of panes of glass of the largest size that could be produced at the time: 49 inches by 10 inches.
Skyscrapers, in which a thin steel frame rather than thick masonry walls hold up a building so tall it requires elevators to reach the top floors, emerged in the American Midwest around 1890. Up through the great skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s, such as, in NYC, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center, architects typically restricted themselves to windows that only went from, roughly, hip high to the ceiling, with stone or brick or whatever forming the bottom three or four feet of each floor.
As far as I can tell, floor to ceiling windows, emerged in the 1940s. Was this due to technological or organizational improvements in making big pieces of plate glass (transporting huge pieces of glass safely is a challenge) or was it due to a change in tastes? Would people in 1929 have worried about falling out of a skyscraper with floor to ceiling windows?
Nighthawks appears to represent a transitional design for the designer: the plate glass doesn’t extend to the floor, but it extends lavishly toward a very high ceiling. The main piece of plate glass in the middle of the painting appears to be at least 10 feet tall and 30 feet wide, and perhaps 12′ by 36′: extremely lavish by the standards of 1942.
My guess is that while Hopper’s Nighthawks looks bleak, crimped, and nostalgic to us, to people in 1942, the diner looked avant-garde, sexy, and expensive.