Achieving Transparency with “Solid” Materials

August 19, 2009 / no comments

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GKD Metal Fabrics is a manufacturer of interwoven metal meshes for large-scale architectural use. They have a great website with lots of project images that really show off the visual effects possible with woven or perforated surfaces.

Woven metal fabrics offer a wonderful visual inversion: when the primary illumination is on the viewer’s side, the surface appears solid. When the illumination is on objects or wall surfaces behind the fabric, the fabric appears transparent and, when viewed from a distance, can almost completely disappear.

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This is very much the same effect as that of a theatrical scrim: when light in front of the scrim fades down, and light on the scene behind the scrim is increased, the scene is “magically” revealed.

However, many designers don’t understand this concept and mistakenly try to backlight the metal mesh (or perforated metal panel, which is the same effect) in an attempt to make it “glow”. If you backlight a perforated solid object, there is no material to reflect, refract, or diffuse the light, so it looks dark even though lots of light might be streaming through the openings. At most, you might catch a little of the light on the lip of the openings if the material is thick enough, but this is generally not the intended effect.

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Light cannot diffuse through solid metal like it can through translucent glass or plastics. To create the impression of gauzy transparency with metal products, the surface must be mostly open (more like woven fabric rather than perforated panels) and the light on the front of the scrim must be approximately the same as the light on whatever is behind the surface.

Beyond a neat visual effect, metal mesh offers an intriguing way to control solar load and excessive daylight penetration, while helping a building take on a dynamic visual persona that changes from day to night.

Photo Credits: GKD Metal Fabrics