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Book Review: "Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture": Marc Kristal crystallizes increasingly complex notions of transparency with a light touch.

Although most of the 25 projects discussed are well-known, they take on additional meaning in this sensitively curated selection.

By Norman Weinstein
March 25, 2011

“Transparency” can act as a shockingly opaque word, and its use in architectural discourse has been regrettably muddy. While the folk adage of people living in glass houses needing to curb their stone throws lives on, Philip Johnson’s glass house transitions into a crowded tourist Mecca, leaving Johnson’s original commitment to a lucidly stark interpenetration of house and landscape behind. As Helmut Jahn, pioneering 20th-century architect of innovative transparency, and a muse to the 21st-century designers in this book, wrote in the 1990s: “Transparency is not the same as looking straight through a building: it’s not just a physical idea, it’s also an intellectual one.”


With Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (The Monacelli Press, $45), Marc Kristal has created just the right kind of introductory overview to recent trends in architectural transparency. Eschewing academic theories, Kristal’s presentation – 200 color illustrations of 25 projects matched with 200 pages of illuminating text – touches on both the intellectual and physical implications of designing with transparency in mind.


Although most of Kristal’s examples are well-known, they take on additional meaning in this sensitively curated selection. The Alice Tully Hall redesign by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with FXFOWLE Architects, is masterfully framed as a design lending transparency and lightness to all of Lincoln Center, suggesting building transparency as a gift that extends to the larger urban fabric.


Less publicized but equally stunning, Alejandro Aravena’s “Siamese Twins” Chilean laboratory thickens conventional notions of transparent design through encasing a fiber-cement structure suggesting Siamese twins within a floating glass skin. Aravena’s rhythmic interplay of glass and fiber-cement, public and private spaces, for his campus laboratory finds parallels in a number of other designs. Toyo Ito’s Tod’s Omotesando, a flagship luxury-brand store in a swanky section of Toyko, showcases transparent openings unpredictably punctuating an opaque volume. At night the store glows like a larger-than-life, ribbon-festooned, gift package with a luminous present hidden deep within.


What emerges from these projects that encompass a range from modest private homes to skyscrapers is a deep appreciation of transparency (in all of its myriad forms) becoming as versatile a feature in 21st-century architecture as the basic black dress in a fashionable wardrobe. Christian de Portzamparc’s Renaissance Paris Arc de Triomphe Hotel shimmeringly adds a shock of the new to the otherwise staid Avenue de Wagram through a façade suggesting six floors of undulating glass ribbons. Although Portzamparc was aware of zoning requiring all buildings within 500 meters of the Arc de Triomphe to be built from stone, he astonishingly finds the bureaucrat who lets his design materialize, this official bonhomme who proclaims, “This is against the rules but it’s beautiful, and it is not my duty to be against creation.”


Eminently browsable, Kristol’s book invites additional research, reflection, and archi-tourism. The photography is first-rate, the writing sharply entertaining and informative. Only the title might be improved. How about Architecture through the Looking Glass: Architectural Adventures in Transparency?


Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at


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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Iwan Baan

Diller Scofidio + Renfro with FXFOWLE Architects: Alice Tully Hall, New York, New York

Cristobal Palma

Alejandro Aravena: Siamese Towers, Santiago, Chile

Matthias Reithmeier, Diamond Graphics/Seele

Atelier Christian de Portzamparc: Renaissance Paris Arc de Triomphe Hotel, Paris, France