General 11-18-2003

The Column: The Man Who Dreamed He Was Made Of Glass

Andrew Knighton's column this month is on the glass architecture of a dreamer and utopian fabulist named Paul Scheerbart. What do Scheerbart's fantasies have to do with the blue-glass persona of Minneapolis? Tune in next month . . .

Andrew Knighton

“Many ideas constantly sound to us like a fairy-tale, when they are not really fantastic or utopian at all.” — Paul Scheerbart

A common slogan of architectural modernism declared of glass that “it is there, and it is not there.” The same might be said of the writer and glass evangelist Paul Scheerbart, who, despite his renown early in the century for promoting the architectural uses of glass, was largely written out of the modern movement’s often self-serving history. Through the prism of his obsessions, Scheerbart saw a perfect world in which monolithic glass towers crowned every mountaintop, glass cars and locomotives flashed by in a futurist blur, and chairs spun of glass fiber adorned every home and office — all suffused with rich color and flaring with dynamic light. Though perhaps embarrassing to some of the early moderns, the single-minded intensity of the transparent dreamscapes described by Scheerbart is staggering and refreshing, and even a bit humbling: it reminds us of what it once meant to be visionary.

In the years preceding Scheerbart’s death in 1915, his obsession with glass reached full flower in an idiosyncratic technical manifesto, Glasarchitektur, and a novel entitled The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel. The MIT Press’s new English translation of The Gray Cloth seems to promise not only a reevaluation of Scheerbart’s project, but also myriad satisfactions for those intrigued by either architectural history or the recently fashionable milieus of Mies and Gropius, Brecht and Benjamin (the latter of whom granted Scheerbart an obscure reference in his “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century”).

John A. Stuart’s introduction to this new production of The Gray Cloth perhaps overstates the significance of Scheerbart’s literary subversions, but it does help to situate him amid the complex of historical issues converging in the text — architectural modernism, the ascendancy of mass culture, the performance of gender. This latter lends the novel its titular conceit — the “gray cloth” refers to the clothing worn by Clara Krug, who has been forbidden by her glass-architect husband to wear anything other than gray (with a bit of white for relief) so that her dress won’t compete with his colorful architectural creations. Having reached accord on the sartorial stipulations of the marriage contract, the two embark from Chicago on an endless Zeppelin expedition around the globe, scouting and developing sites for colored glass structures in Oman, Antarctica, India, and anywhere else Scheerbart could imagine glass architecture improving the environment — which is to say, pretty much everywhere.

The narrative of The Gray Cloth is episodic, the prose laconic; both are largely reduced to literary vessels for the ideas that received slightly more matter-of-fact treatment in Glasarchitektur. But it is precisely Scheerbart’s awesome mania for glass that is the story of The Gray Cloth: this is a novel about a glass architecture visionary, written by a glass architecture visionary. Thus the many passages in which the architect Edgar Krug propounds his vision carry the weight not just of narrative invention but also of Scheerbart’s sublime fixation: “All that is beautiful on the face of the earth…we find it all again in glass architecture. It is the culmination — a cultural peak!”

Similarly, over the course of the 111 aphoristic chapters of Glasarchitektur, Scheerbart anticipated a “total architecture of glass and iron,” with implications, both practical and spiritual, for modern living. Glass construction will combat vermin and decrease the risk of fire, but this is only a modest beginning: Scheerbart envisages nothing less than a global culture organized around the dynamic development of the potentials of glass. “In the future, people will travel in order to look at new glass architecture,” he proclaims, suggesting that “one may also assume that nine-tenths of the daily press will report only on new glass effects.” Ultimately,

“Our hope is that glass architecture will also improve mankind in ethical respects. It seems to me that this is a principal merit of lustrous, colourful, mystical and noble glass walls. This quality appears to me not just an illusion, but something very real; the man who sees the splendours of glass every day cannot have ignoble hands.”

As fervently as Scheerbart argues for his glass paradise, what is noticeable throughout the book is that this version of utopianism rejects any association with mere projection or idle fantasy. The glass utopia, Scheerbart insists, is realizable in the here and now: “There will be many other things which now strike us as utopian, although those which are now feasible, like glass architecture, should never be so described,” he argues; to invoke utopia — the “no-place” which was to become a familiar stock concept for the budding artistic and critical avant-gardes — was a cop-out, an excuse to wait and see. What mattered to Scheerbart was to will into actuality the latent powers of the present.

Whether due to his anachronistic notion of immanent utopia or the unassimilable zealousness of his glass fancy, modern architectural history has accorded Scheerbart only minor recognition, mostly for his contributions to Bruno Taut’s famous glass pavilion at the German Werkbund’s 1914 Cologne exposition. Taut’s building, a 14-sided concrete base culminating in a colored glass taper above, was ringed by pro-glass couplets penned by Scheerbart (among them the pithy “coloured glass destroys hatred” and the somewhat less pithy “parasites are not nice, they will never get into the glass house”). Other than that, as the critic Reyner Banham argues in his resuscitative1959 essay “The Glass Paradise,” the modern movement’s canon, constructed to link its practitioners to classically-refined nineteenth-century antecedents like the Parisian arcades and Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace, left Scheerbart on the outside looking in. His flights of fancy, embrace of ornament, and sci-fi universalism were incompatible, it seems, with the moderns’ intention of pruning away excess and focusing on the functional (and economical) glass box. Hence, it is Gropius’s factory stairwell — not the fantastic monument of Taut and Scheerbart — that is remembered from that Cologne exhibition as the turning point for modern glass construction.

Banham’s account of Scheerbart’s influence is valuable, but he still struggles with where to situate this odd figure, at once so aberrant and also so historically necessary: he ultimately lets Scheerbart’s mysticism exempt him from the exigencies of capitalism, architectural academicism, and dominant history. When Banham hails the depth of Scheerbart’s “personal” inspiration and celebrates “a mind unrestrained by conventional ideas and received opinions,” he inadvertently makes Scheerbart the misunderstood prophet of an architecture brut. But Scheerbart was just as preoccupied with the nineteeenth-century ancestry of glass architecture as the other moderns were, and his elaborate schemes are certainly in the spirit of such noble antecedents as Ruskin’s 1857 call for London to be enclosed in a colored glass dome, or Merrifield’s celebration of the Crystal Palace as “the only building in the world in which the atmosphere is perceptible.” To this inventory, we might add some prose from the 1867 Paris Exposition guide, which suggests that “the public needs a grandiose concept…its spirit must halt, astonished, before the marvels of industry. It wishes to contemplate an enchanted scene.”

Such “enchantment” (a favorite word of Scheerbart’s) would henceforth be inseparable from industry and capital — the commodity form to which glass lent itself by the 1850s would ensure as much, no matter how romantically rose-colored the glasses of architectural dreamers may sometimes be. This is why Scheerbart’s “utopia” is not a “utopia” in the usual sense. He understands that his imagined glass paradise, like all glass architecture and all utopianism, is born out of the present and latent in the tools that are ready to hand — utopia emerges from history, not from the messianic gift of a perspicacious outsider. Just as glass made the atmosphere perceptible, it illuminated, in the confines of industry, an available blueprint for a readily-realizable utopia: “It is there, but it is not there.” When we remember Scheerbart, that utopia becomes momentarily palpable — but we recognize that “it is there” only if we follow this visionary in knowing how to see it.