In Vitro

The many lives of glass

16 December 2023 till 16 June 2024

We often look through glass but seldom at it. While ubiquitous today, in the past, it was rarely a building material. Historically, church windows conveyed our identity and moral codes. Today, the symbolic layering of glass speaks about our health, our privacy, and our nature. A glass building is simultaneously there and not there – the architecture appears and disappears. Is this a metaphor for life? Glass holds considerable potential for enhancing the sustainability of old and new buildings. Since industrialisation, glass has symbolised the future, evolving through innovations while preserving old artisanship in new forms.

Glass has profoundly shaped Limburg’s regional and visual identity. From Roermond’s history as a glassmaking hub, to the Roman Catholic commerce that extended beyond provincial borders. From distinctive glass-in-lead skylights to neo-Gothic Catholic church windows. From Limburg School luminaries, including Joep Nicolas, Charles Eyck, and Felix Flos, to contemporary architects, such as Wiel Arets, Francine Houben, Mathieu Bruls, and Jo Coenen.

In Vitro is an exhibition exploring glass's diverse uses in architecture. Beyond glass’s role as a local and artisanal material, it holds the status of an industrial product that significantly shapes our interactions with each other, the architectural landscape, and the surrounding environment. This exhibition combines historical archive materials and vintage stained glass with contemplative installations and films investigating glass’s luminosity and layered characteristics. Through designs and models, the exhibition also forges connections between modern Limburg architecture and the broader context, philosophy, and symbolic significance of glass.

Glass for the mind Glass is not just for sealing spaces; it has a rich storytelling history. When reading and writing skills were not widespread, stained-glass church windows used text and images to explain the incomprehensible Latin mass. As windows became available to the middle class, glass became an essential expression of prosperity. The purple glass adorning many canal houses signifies wealth, but often, it is a deceptive imitation!

The ‘Rijke Roomsche Leven’ (‘Rich Roman Life’, an informal Dutch term for re-appreciation for catholic culture) emerged in the mid-19th century. During this period, the diocese of Roermond was restored and Catholic worship flourished. The studios of architect Pierre Cuypers and glazier Frans Nicolas regularly collaborated from the 1850s onwards, reviving the historical Catholic style. Gothic became neo-Gothic and one of Limburg’s cultural hallmarks. However, secularisation rendered many works in glass obsolete, relegating them to storage depots. At Bureau Europa, you can wander through the Limburg glass depot, discovering beauty among discarded stained-glass pieces.

Political charge The Stained Glass Depot brings together the many shards of glass art’s boom. Preserving this heritage presents challenges because both restoration and isolation are difficult, and the province prefers not to handle such artefacts. Glass isn’t only of concern in Limburg. Batoul Faour’s research and film portray the devastating aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion, which shrouded the city under a carpet of glass for months. The shattered glass also serves as a metaphor for Lebanon’s precarious political climate.

In her film White Heart, Christien Meindertsma examines the eponymous bead used for centuries in colonial barter trade, enabling a system of imperial exploitation. Today, these beads are manufactured in Bohemia and continue to be integrated into Native American art in a deeply traditional manner. The film delicately portrays the globalisation of both a material and a history of exploitation.

Inside and outside Since the industrial age, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of health and the necessity of ample living space for a good life. In Maastricht, Petrus Regout started equipping his factories with glass roofs and floors and even pioneered glass gas piping. Later, in response to the tuberculosis pandemic, architects designed sanatoriums emphasising light and fresh air. These buildings featured many glass walls for harnessing natural sunlight, a horizontal layout to accommodate patients resting on terrace beds and sleek, unobtrusive furniture that facilitated breathing. Wealthy sanatorium visitors adopted this style, and it quickly became a trend.

Architecture underwent significant developments with the emergence of X-ray photography around 1900. As this technology revealed the body’s interior, a parallel emerged in architecture with the advent of glass walls. The boundary between inside and outside, private and public, entirely dissolved. Architecture seemed to vanish into transparency, exemplified by architects such as Aachen’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Contemporary architect Wiel Arets responded to this phenomenon with his theory of the Alabaster Skin. Society transformed into a realm of voyeurs, where looking becomes a subject of scrutiny and discipline. In this context, the Dutch all-round sunlit (Protestant) home offered a blunt display of one’s private life, proving one’s righteousness.

Layered glass Architecture disappears as soon as it appears; the glass wall serves as a boundary that separates chaos from order. The introduction of electricity meant the light source came not only from the exterior but also from the interior. Frits Peutz’s Glaspaleis in Heerlen venerates modern construction and embodies the spirit of modernity found in department stores (Ironically, the glass architecture of sanatoriums sought to counter the effects of modernity) and Wiel Arets’ Maastricht Academy of Visual Arts proposes a translucent layer between the vibrant artist studio and the structured urban fabric.

Yet, glass architecture also lets nature in. Mathieu Bruls’s Trans Natural House in Beutenaken harmonises with the sun’s positions and outdoor climate to optimise natural light. The Swedish Naturhus concept embraces living in greenhouses with no insulation or heating. Ingeborg Meulendijk’s Arboreous Imprint relief glasses capture nature within glass itself, while MVRD’s Crystal Houses in Amsterdam blur the boundaries between nature and culture, inside and outside.

Ready for the future Although an ancient material, glass is continually evolving. Consequently, restoring old glass is challenging, given glass production often deviates from historical methods. Nevertheless, insulating and renovating stained glass holds significant importance in the context of climate adaptation. Innovations in the glass industry and related fields make glass a highly versatile and viable material for the future, not least due to its sustainability attributes.

Glass can be endlessly recycled and sustainably sourced. Ori Orisun Merhav’s Made by Insects research investigates how the natural insect polymer shellac can be blown into a glass coating. AtelierNL emphasises that we can extract the raw materials for glass hyper-locally by working with different types of sand. It is worth noting, however, that sand is a finite resource. The extraction of sand and silica substantially impacts the surrounding landscape.

On a positive note, there are ways to mitigate impact. Nuclear waste, posing a danger for millennia, can find containment in ceramic containers. The warning of danger is captured in the crystallised glaze surrounding it, as ongoing research by Antye Guenther demonstrates.

The In Vitro exhibition delves into glass’s many and versatile roles, encompassing 19th-century Catholic Limburg’s stained glass, contemporary architectural symbolism, sustainable material innovation, and global industrial applications across art, fashion, design, and healthcare. It traverses the spectrum from local artisanship to international industry and explores the multifaceted identities of those involved, including musicians, researchers, novelists, and activists.

On Sundays, January 21, February 18, March 10, April 21, May 19, and June 15&16, a stained glass expert from the Glasdepot Limburg will be present. Be surprised by Limburg's glass heritage, learn about the different facets of the glass tradition, and take home a piece of glass culture!

Remco Beckers | Supervisor Floor van Spaendonck | Research assistant Dirk van de Leemput | Graphic design Studio Eikenhorst | Scenography and spatial design Daniël de Jong | Production Ilona van den Brekel | Video Hussein Alkhayat | Texts Remco Beckers | Translation JLC Coburn | PR Myrthe Leenders, Sam Nemeth and Martine Willekens | Construction Fran Hoebergen, Charlotte Koenen, Bo Oudendijk, Emanuël Riksen, Carmen Vollebergh

With works and contributions by Wiel Arets Architects | AtelierNL | Mathieu Bruls | Anne Büscher | Wim Delvoye | George Deswijzen | Batoul Faour | Mio Fujimaki | Antye Guenther | Happel Cornelisse Verhoeven | Jo Coenen Architect and Urbanist | Kraaijvanger Architects | Dieter Lievens | Elvis López | Mecanoo | Christien Meindertsma, Elizabeth James Perry & Tim van Gils | Maurice Mentjens | Ingeborg Meulendijks | MVRDV | Diego Semprun Nicolas | Ori Orisun Merhav | Youngeun Sohn | Berend Strik & Hans van Houwelingen

With thanks to Artesk Van Royen Architecten | Atelier Joëlle d’Alsace | Atelier Flos | Beeld & Geluid | Huub Brandts | C2C Venlo | Centre Céramique | Cuypershuis Roermond | Dionne Hendriks | Discovery Museum Kerkrade | Beatrice de Fraiture | Gallerie Mariska Dirkx Roermond | Municipality Heerlen | Municipality Roermond | Municipality Venlo | Stained Glass Depot Limburg | Heineken Collection Foundation | Jan Van Eyck Academy | Charlotte Koenen | Limburgs Museum | Martens Willems & Humblé architecten | Joes Minis | Nationaal Glasmuseum Leerdam | Nationaal Jenevermuseum Schiedam | Schunck* | Gijs Stork & Angelo Tromp

Exhibition In Vitro