Bottled Up

TEXT + PHOTO John Leroux

We thrive on such things as beauty and colour, but in an equally intuitive way we yearn for pattern, rhythm, symbolism and radiance in our surroundings. Often responding to these needs, stained-glass windows are dynamic creations that radically transform with the changing light, the angle of the sun, the time of day, and weather conditions. Unlike a painting, they are considered permanent and eternal–anchored in their particular place as a strategic part of the architecture.

While it is seldom celebrated, Fredericton, New Brunswick has some of the finest stained glass in Canada. This precious assortment runs the gamut from 19th-century church windows resplendent with Gothic Revival majesty, to bold post-war glazing that strove for a more modern expression of society’s values.

While light passing through a church’s stained-glass windows was seen for centuries as a sacred and tangible contact with God, a unique example of homemade architecture on the outskirts of Fredericton shows that the power, reach and simple joy of sunlight passing through coloured glass is not limited to religious structures or the artistry of traditional glaziers.

When James and Inge Pataki, owners of the Gallery 78 commercial art gallery in Fredericton, chose to build a summer camp alongside an inlet of the St. John River at Longs Creek in the early 1980s, they engaged a number of their friends, including renowned artists Bruno and Molly Bobak, to hand-shape a unique “stained-glass” bottle cabin. Using a technique borrowed from cordwood houses, the walls were assembled from bottles stacked in a mortar bed. Like the best folk or naïve art, the walls are informal yet sophisticated, and they vary through patterned designs of white, green and brown bottles. Overseeing the interior open space is a bold happy face, a cheerful anthropomorphic assemblage of coloured bottles that comprise one panel of the wall.

By the end of the Modern era, stained-glass artists were striving to make their works part of the architecture itself. British glass artist John Piper called it “the simultaneous creation of a light-filled unit.” Like an abstract painting, the Patakis’ idea was less a carefully designed matrix of coloured bottles that read as a window, but rather one of an expressive presence of colour and light permeating the interior. One’s experience of the structure changes entirely according to the intensity of light, which is startling and unexpected considering that on the outside, the camp is as grey and opaque as a cinderblock. Through resourceful scavenging, the Patakis have built one of New Brunswick’s most exceptional buildings. On a sunny day, the interior effect is magical.

What would the medieval cathedral builders think of the bottle cabin? Would they see God pouring through the gin and wine bottles, or would they just be perplexed by a house made of glass and cement? Further to this, can we equally consider the huge stained-glass windows of a medieval cathedral in the same breath as a camp cabin made of bottles? The answer is a resounding yes, demonstrated by the fact that something as simple and honest as light shining through coloured glass can stop us in our tracks and fill our minds with wonder. It reminds us that great architecture and design result from an inspired mixture of material and motivation, giving revelation to form, no matter how down-to-earth. CA

John Leroux is an architect and art historian living in Fredericton. His latest book, Glorious Light: The Stained Glass of Fredericton was recently published by Gaspereau Press. It is the first time in Canada that a fully illustrated history of a city’s stained glass has ever been published.