• Peter Houk, technical instructor and glass artist in the MIT Glass Lab, shapes a piece that will model color for students of the lab.

    Photo / Sasha Brown

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  • Peter Houk, technical instructor and glass artist in the MIT Glass Lab, blows glass through a tubing pipe.

    Photo / Sasha Brown

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Glass Lab is a hot spot for cool designs


Even in the dog days of summer, the Glass Lab in the basement of Building 4 might be the most stifling place on the MIT campus.

With temperatures inside the glass ovens reaching up to 1,200 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, even an open window provides little relief, said technical instructor and glass artist Peter Houk, director of the MIT Glass Lab.

"We don't do much when it is really hot outside," Houk said. In fact, the Glass Lab stood mostly empty during the hot spells this month when outside temperatures climbed into the mid and upper 90s. Five months from now, things will be different, Houk said, laughing. "In the wintertime, it is really nice in here."

The Glass Lab was launched more than 30 years ago as a result of ceramics and glass processing research in MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering. It grew out of the research effort of Professor David Kingery and Pam Vandiver, both of whom studied glass batch chemistry and processing, and it was natural to include glass blowing as a great experience for the students.

The Glass Lab closed after Kingery and Vandiver left MIT, remaining shut until 1986, when two students and a young artist and master glassblower, Page Hazlegrove, asked the new lab director whether they might use the existing glass furnace. The lab has been a fully operational since then (Hazlegrove died in 1997).

Even when the Glass Lab is empty, the glass ovens, known as glory holes, are still hot. It can take up to a week for the hotter of the two to get to the temperature needed. One furnace has been on for more than three years.

The lab holds courses in glassblowing and is also used in engineering courses, said Houk. "Students should have hands-on experience with materials," he explained.

As the lab has grown, so too has interest in being part of it. The glassblowing courses offered in the fall and spring semesters and during IAP have to hold a lottery for admission. More than 100 students, staff and faculty members fill Room 6-120 during the lottery meetings in hopes of winning a chance to participate, said Houk. This year's lottery meeting will be held on Oct. 2. "There are so many people, we just can't allow everyone in," Houk said.

Glass Lab students spend hours creating vases, glasses and other decorative, unique items using the glass lab material.

Safety is a primary concern, said Houk. "We are very attentive to the basics like safety glasses and burns," he said. "I have never seen a severe burn in here."

The Glass Lab tends to have a hold on people, Houk said. Engineering majors who graduated from MIT have left the field of engineering to become glass artists. "It does not happen often, but it does happen," said Houk. "Some people just really find their calling here."

The Glass Lab stays open largely with the money students earn at the Great Glass Pumpkin Patch fundraiser, their biggest sale of the year. This year it will be held on Sept. 30.

During the pumpkin sale each fall, the lawn outside Kresge Auditorium is transformed into a pumpkin patch with more than 1,200 blown glass pumpkins in assorted colors and styles, selling for $20 to $200 each. With lines that stretch around the student center and down Vassar Street, the sale often earns up to $70,000 -- enough to keep the lab hot throughout the year.

The pumpkins are all handmade by small teams of volunteers who work year-round to prepare for the sale. Often, the teams can create 30 to 60 pumpkins in one four-hour shift. "Their work is very much like a dance," Houk said.

For more information, please visit web.mit.edu/glasslab.


Topics: Materials science

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