A Close Look at the Curtain Wall

As a design-driven real estate development firm, our Modernist roots shine in each one of our projects. A staple of classic Modernist design, we often employ glass curtain walls to create stunningly transparent and sleek exteriors. In respect to the tradition and technique, we’re diving deep into the history of the curtain wall and its impact on our structures today.

The curtain wall at Optima Signature
The curtain wall at Optima Signature

The Curtain Wall Defined

A curtain wall is a nonstructural exterior component of a building, at first serving the mere purpose of keeping weather out and occupants in. Being nonstructural, curtain walls are often made of lightweight materials such as glass, metal panels or thin stone. Glass curtain walls have the added benefit of introducing deeply penetrating natural light into a building, and can offer broad, sweeping views, creating seamless cohesion between the built environment and its natural surroundings. 

Because curtain walls are nonstructural components, load-bearing responsibilities fall on the shoulders of strong metal frames. The invention of the curtain wall was in fact made possible by the growth of the iron and steel industry, when these strong metal materials were made more readily available and affordable to the mass market in the late 18th century. 

The first Modernist building, The Crystal Palace, was built during this time. Shortly after The Crystal Palace, Modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pioneered the contemporary steel-and-glass aesthetic that defined an era and way of designing, coining the name for the style: “skin-and-bones architecture.” Today, designing minimalistic, functional building frames in steel and glass, and employing curtain walls to do so, continues to be a signature mark of Modernist structures.

The curtain wall at Optima Old Orchard Woods
The curtain wall at Optima Old Orchard Woods

Adding Beauty and Sustainability

As a building material, glass has evolved considerably over the years. Our capability to utilize glass in curtain wall systems connects indoors and outdoors, and promises a beautiful environment, with an abundance of natural sunlight and impressive views. Outside of aesthetic, glass curtain walls also serve the functionality of increased performance in temperature moderation, moisture protection and improved acoustics. 

In our own projects, we utilize Low-E UV protected laminated glass with a heat reflective coating, which contributes to a regulated indoor environment, particularly in the harsh Arizona climate, and provides added sustainability, decreasing energy need for additional heating and cooling control.

As we continue to explore the integration of the built and the natural environment, we appreciate the curtain wall for its transparency and sustainability, and the wonder that it adds to exceptional Modernist design.


A Brief History of Steel

One of the most utilized structural materials in the world, you’d be hard pressed to find a construction site not making use of steel. Yet what’s now a ubiquitous material was once so hard to come by that it was regarded as heaven-sent—literally. In paying our respects to steel, we’re diving deep into its rich and storied history. 

Iron, The Metal From Heaven

Before we learned to smelt iron into steel, iron itself was an alloy hard to come by. Ancient Egyptians called iron biz-n-pt, translating to “metal from heaven.” In their time, iron did come from space, crashing onto earth embedded in meteorites. This metal from heaven had a higher nickel content than the iron dug up from the ground, making it supple, malleable and resilient—and more valuable than gems or gold. It wasn’t until 2,500 BC that miners began the arduous task of removing iron from the earth, and even then, it took hundreds more years to discover how to properly separate the precious ore and manipulate it. 

From wrought iron made in primitive smelters, to cast iron made in ancient Chinese furnaces, to iron smelted in blast furnaces, the material remained challenging to produce in mass quantities and to use for a variety of purposes. Certain crafts, such as the delicate process of clock-making, called for a material that was even more malleable, even more resilient than iron. That material was steel, an alloy made by mixing iron and carbon.

One of three Bessemer Converters left in the world, at the Kelham Island Museum.
One of three Bessemer Converters left in the world, at the Kelham Island Museum. Credit: David Dixon on Geograph, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

The Dawn of Steel

The modern steel industry was officially born in 1856 when Henry Bessemer developed a more effective and inexpensive method of producing the precious alloy. Known now as the Bessemer Process, Bessemer designed a pear-shaped receptacle in which iron could be heated while oxygen was blown through the molten metal, reacting with carbon, releasing carbon dioxide and producing a more pure iron. 

Bessemer’s process revolutionized the industry, allowing for the efficient transformation of iron into high-quality steel in mass quantities. In fact, once the steel industry in America adapted the Bessemer process too, they were able to catch up with Britain’s production, sparking an industry that generated more wealth than the 1849 California Gold Rush. 

Steelmaking in America continued to boom as technology improved, allowing for higher efficiency, safety and yield. At the end of World War I, the improved production of steel is what allowed for the invention of skyscrapers. The skyline shot upward in cities like New York and Chicago, a testament to the true strength and power of the material. Steel became a staple in the Modernist structures of masters such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as a material that not only allowed for a fierce, durable structure, but for a simple, bold aesthetic. 

As the steel industry continues to propel forward, metallurgists seek to create more sustainable production methods, exploring electricity-based smelting and utilizing recycled steel for new projects. 

Steel and Optima

Throughout our projects at Optima, steel functions as both a structural component and a Modernist aesthetic choice. In projects such as Relic Rock and Arizona Courtyard House, we utilized Corten steel, which is a 99% recycled material. David Hovey Sr. also utilizes steel in his sculpture work, moulding the material into abstract creative expressions. From humble beginnings to its inventive usage today, steel’s versatility still inspires us to venture into new endeavors.

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