Great Art on a Grand Scale

When most people think of stained glass, they associate it with the type of ecclesiastical architecture that flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries. Brian Clark, the renowned British artist, has brought this ancient medium into the modern ages by introducing high tech into his many stained glass commissions Clarke's extensive work in stained glass has earned him the distinction of having created more stained glass than anyone else in history.

The most recent creation to come out of Brian Clarke Studios is a spectacular glass wall comprising nearly 2,392 square feet of fully tempered float glass. Each of the wall's 350 panels measures approximately 67 inches x 114 inches. This is the largest stained glass work ever produced. The 79-foot-wide by 265-foot-high masterpiece has been installed in the elegant five-story atrium-style lobby of Al Faisaliah Tower, Riyadh's newest landmark. Soaring a mighty 874 feet, the Sir Norman Foster-designed structure is Saudi Arabia's first skyscraper.

Clarke has chosen as his theme a desert panorama interspersed with images representing regional, natural, and environment elements of Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Clarke's innovative approach, the image fragments, obscures and refracts with magical effect.

Clarke first photographs existing images and then manipulates them with the mediums such as watercolor or acrylics. After re-photographing the picture, he scans the image onto the computer where it is represented as hundreds of thousands of interacting pixels. Clarke then divides the image into sections that will be silk-screened onto glass panels for the next stage of the process.

Instead of paint or ink, permanent transparent metallic oxides of different colors are mixed with glass powder and fired at temperatures as high as 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit, according to traditional methods. The surface melts, the glaze/inks melt, and the two fuse together. The resulting tempered panels meet given security standards and render the colors totally permanent within the glass. Once the artist completed all the procedures at the factory in Germany, it was shipped to Riyadh where each panel was cleaned and then double-glazed with low-E laminated glass, a superior form of insulation.

The glass is installed in the tower lobby which also serves as a link between the Al Faisaliah Hotel on the north side and the Al Faisaliah Residence on the south. Pedestrians have access via three bridges that pass immediately in front of the stained glass wall. The visual interpretation alters considerably, depending on the viewing distance. From afar, each element of the artwork is distinct. As the viewer stands closer to the wall, the image within the translucent circles of color, begins to fragment. It's like looking at newspaper print under a magnifying glass but in the most beguiling colors, from the softest pink to the richest violet. The closer the viewer gets, the more the dots disperse into a sensation of millions of drops of colored light. Step back, and the wall becomes a literal image once again.

Clarke is delighted with the result. "The building itself is made up of a prefabricated units; it's a mechanical process, a process in which all the available technology has been brought to bear to get this vision right. This is in the same spirit as that. If this were a hand-painted piece of art, it wouldn't be correct."

Born in Lancashire in 1953, Clarke became interested in stained glass as a result of his love of architecture. "I don't like to do a painting and just hang it in a building. I like to respond to the architectural imperatives. What I like about stained glass, in particular, is that it remains an integral part of the building. You don't think about removing it."

One of the challenges facing Brian Clarke on the project was the fact that he had seen only drawings and models of Al Faisaliah before coming up with a design. "I was concerned that the atmosphere might not suit my art concept." Thanks to directional lighting and ambience in the lobby, the design worked beautifully. "This project is a marriage made in heaven."