Once viewed as the embodiment of machine-age perfection, mirror glazing is now often seen as a sterile and impersonal cladding. As early as the 1970s, critics have taken mirror-glazed architecture to task. Architectural historians Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman, for example, once described the reflective glass façade of the Hancock Place tower in Boston “as forbidding, anti-social, and hostile as a person wearing sunglasses.” Despite these critiques, architects continue to experiment with mirrored façades—and are getting some unexpected results.
One example is Montpellier, France–based NAS Architecture’s Breath Box, which employs mirrors as dynamic elements that respond to changes in the local environment. Situated on the Mediterranean waterfront in La Grande-Motte, France, the small wood pavilion uses 345 suspended, square, and polished–steel plates that register wind as it flows through and around the building. Attached like hinges to horizontal ribs, the steel tiles also can be moved by visitor contact.
Breath Box is reminiscent of environmental artist Ned Kahn’s wind-harnessing façades, which are also composed of many small metal plates. However, the French pavilion’s mirror panels are larger and physically accessible to pedestrians, thus inviting interaction. The hinged-mirror façade creates a constantly-shifting field of multicolored slices of sea and sky, and its movement alone is enough to attract notice, if not a little dizziness. The pavilion demonstrates the possibility of creating a provocative experience with a simple—and presumed to be passé—material.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is an architect and materials researcher. The author of the three Transmaterial books (2006, 2008, 2010), he is the director of graduate studies in the school of
architecture at the University of Minnesota.