Pictured above: 2010 and 1993 – St John’s College, Oxford. Glass facades and screens.
Alexander Beleschenko believes that architectural glass is a “positive notation in the urban environment”. Catherine Rose talks to him about his love of large-scale architectural glass projects and explores some of the techniques he employs in his contemporary art practice.
BY CATHERINE ROSE
Known for embracing technology with his grand abstract designs, architectural glass artist Alexander Beleschenko considers stained glass to be “the handmaiden to architecture”.
“I was schooled in stained glass. It’s a wonderful medium that can’t be replicated,” says Beleschenko.
Many people associate stained glass with churches, and architects can be reticent about including traditional stained glass in contemporary buildings, so Beleschenko was surprised when he first discovered that architectural glass was a contemporary art form that pushed boundaries. Since then, he has become experimental and inventive, developing ideas more suited to an abstract secular idiom.
“We’ve gone from filling windows with glass art, to glass art becoming the wall itself. It’s very exciting to work with glass when it’s embedded within the architecture,” he continues.
Designing within budgets and architectural constraints, Beleschenko collaborates with the client, architect and structural engineers. His techniques and processes are ideas driven and focus on problem solving using methods that include screen printing, sandblasting, acid etching, engraving, enamelling, bevelling and chipping. He finds individual inspiration in each brief and then formulates his technique.
“I couldn’t be prescriptive,” he says. “I’ve never had, nor sought to have, a certain style. Every project is an onion to be peeled. I love solving problems and having a framework for generating ideas. I enjoy collaboration but if I’m not emotionally engaged, or if I don’t have a veto on it being my artwork, I walk away.”
He believes that current practice has become more difficult and challenging when doing a large integrated artwork. That’s when it becomes contractual and there’s a need to be well informed and clearheaded.
A project at Stockley Park near Heathrow kickstarted Beleschenko’s career in 1983/4. At that time, new agencies were being set up to encourage art in architecture. Winning a stained glass competition to do a major installation, he collaborated with the late architect Sir Philip Dowson on design development. Nonplussed that Beleschenko wanted to incorporate a “medieval craft” into a 20th-century building, Dowson stipulated that there be no lead. Beleschenko’s answer was to invent the “glass sandwich” – pieces of interlocking glass encapsulated between plain glass to produce a laminate.
He’s currently working on a project to create three intricately hand-painted back-lit panels for an institutional meeting room. For other projects, such as his glass canopies and walls at 22 Bishopsgate, London, he has used digital ceramic printing, a colour-stable and precise process, done at 1,081 dpi as opposed to normal paper printing of between 140-300 dpi.
For Bishopsgate, huge design files inspired by the City of London trade guilds were sent to Sedak, a glass-processing company in Germany, which printed his designs onto a double layer of heat-strengthened, low-iron, insulated safety glass.
“Digital printing is a very interesting technique. It can put huge amounts of varied colours in one sweep onto the glass,” says Beleschenko. “I first chose to use it 10-12 years ago for a project at Exeter University. In the past, I would have used the silkscreen method – the traditional but more expensive technique for decorating large areas. Digital printing was new. I realised it was limited but decided I could work freely with it despite that.
“When I’m in my studio I’m in control, but with digital printing, you produce a file and give it to a printer. You have to manage it so that you’re confident it’s going to be perfect. You have to understand the software and ensure it’s calibrated correctly on your screen for production. Industry takes no prisoners.”
In digital printing, any micro inclusions or grease spots on the glass will ruin the design. It has to be a high-level management technical process with no manual handling, especially if printing onto massive pieces of glass measuring 3m x 15m.
“Digital printing on glass originally evolved for signage and would be back-coated in white,” explains Beleschenko. “The six base ceramic colours used in digital printing are opaque, apart from a semi-opaque blue. Because stained glass artists work with transmitted light, you have to factor a form of translucency into your design concept to enliven this medium. It would be great if transparent colours were available in the process but the industry is yet to develop them.”
For Exeter University, Beleschenko produced a striking 3D-effect colour-coded design. Does he like working with codes and ciphers?
“I’ve done it with a few projects. I used coding in Herz Jesu Church in Munich, by creating a pictographic alphabet on the computer based on crucifixion nails. This then became pattern grids of Bible text within the design. My inspiration was the big blue church doors, which reminded me of opening a book.”
Beleschenko is comfortable with large projects. “The bigger they are, the more relaxed I feel. I have a good sensibility towards architecture. I’m genuinely steeped in it and switched on to contemporary art practice.”
One of his most technically challenging projects was at St John’s College in Oxford. He employed ten people for a year to make crystal clear glass, which was chipped and sawed. Everything was handmade. “St John’s College was a huge undertaking. When I see it, I’m always surprised by it,” he says.
He often finds that he has to work with artificial light in buildings, which provides its own challenges. “All glass artists want natural light as it’s infinitely variable, so I aim to create something within the matrix of the glass,” he continues.
His preference is to work in his Swansea studio. “You’re in contact with the material in a way that is special. Glass is always giving you ideas and you learn from your mistakes.”
Many who have trained in his studio have continued with some association with glassmaking but Beleschenko is concerned about the future. He describes the Architectural Stained Glass course at Swansea as “brilliant”, but it has now gone. He fears that architectural glass courses are now cleared out of the education system and feels privileged that he had the opportunity to learn in such an environment.
“I grew up in the 60s, which was all about optimism,” he says. “There was a sense that you could do anything.”
He acknowledges that emerging glass artists today face more challenges, especially the rising cost of materials.
“A sheet of mouth-blown coloured glass is expensive, especially if you factor in 30% wastage in the cutting process. You can’t afford to make a mistake. Today, there are extra energy levies on everything. I can build that into the cost of a commission but a young person starting out who wants to experiment can’t.”
Despite a long resume of innovative contemporary architectural glass projects under his belt, Beleschenko remains passionate about the traditional art of mouth-blown stained glass and believes we are guardians of its future.
“The other day I cut some glass and wrapped lead around it. It was a piece of alchemy – magical,” he smiles.
Alexander Beleschenko’s broad experience of working with architectural glass spans more than four decades. Now living in Swansea, he was born in Corby in 1951 to Ukrainian parents. He studied Art & Design at Winchester School of Art, Fine Art & Printmaking at Slade School of Fine Art, and after time spent in Florence, he was inspired to study Architectural Stained Glass at Swansea School of Art (1978-79). Beleschenko’s architectural glass is installed worldwide. Fellow and twice recipient of the RSA’s Art & Architecture award, he is also Honorary Fellow of RIBA and Swansea Metropolitan University, with an Honorary Doctorate from Exeter University.