Imaginary Wars: Benjamin and Scheerbart

“It will surely appear self-evident that the furniture in the glass house may not be placed against the precious, ornamentally-coloured glass walls. Pictures on the walls are, of course, totally impossible. Given the highest intentions, this revolution in the environment is inevitable. Glass architecture will have a tough fight on its hands, but force of habit must be overcome.” – Paul Scheerbart, Chapter 8, Glasarkitektur

I have been reading three essays by Walter Benjamin: ‘Surrealism’ (1929); ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933); and ‘On Scheerbart’ (1940), which can be found in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. The first two are published in Volume 2 and the latter can be read in Volume 4. I came across these essays in a lecture by Detlef Mertins, which can also be found as ‘The Enticing and Threatening Face of Prehistory: Walter Benjamin and the Utopia of Glass’, published in Modernity Unbound. I do not mention these texts solely as bibliographic reference, but more so because it is on reading the four texts in counter position with each other I was able to construct the following point of view.

Scheerbart is little known in architecture and if he is known at all it is because of his treatise Glasarkitektur, his architectural novel The Grey Cloth with Ten Percent White and Bruno Taut’s glass pavilion in the Cologne exhibition in 1914 which was dedicated to Scheerbart. While Reyner Banham in an essay, ‘A Glass Paradise’ published in the Architectural Review in 1959 argues for the inclusion of Scheerbart in the historiography of modern architecture; however, it is Mertins who, nearly four decades later, establishes a place within this historiography for Scheerbart, through his study of Benjamin. Banham’s essay does not take into consideration Benjamin’s reading of Scheerbart and instead, inclines on correcting modern architectural historiography while displaying, what he considers, forking paths that were shelved least they dilute the deeply biased linear historiography constructed by the narrators of modern architecture. Banham plays on the idiosyncrasies of Scheerbart; while Benjamin views Scheerbart’s work as very much part of the lineage of modern architecture.

Benjamin’s reading of Scheerbart needs to be understood contextually – the essays were written in between the two wars at the end of the ‘Golden Twenties’, the collapse of the New York stock exchange and the advent of the Great Depression. The three essays discuss World War I and the destruction it wreaked on society – intellectually and emotionally. The Great War, as it was commonly known, was infamous for its unprecedented technological superiority, and Benjamin recognises that modern society has converted a pre-war fascination of technology to a post-war dread of the same. Scholars evidences that pre-war literature focused on technological innovation while post-war literature projected technology as the harbinger of end of civilisation. Irrespective, modernity and the advent of modern man was predicated on a technological future.

In the essays Benjamin explores the role that technology can play in revolutionising society to become truly modern. Benjamin revives Scheerbart’s work and renders in it a post-war afterlife.

“…the Dadaists considered themselves to be the ‘diapered children’ of a new age and Scheerbart to be their spiritual father.”  – Detlef Mertins

Mertins states that Benjamin, preferred not to classify Scheerbart as an expressionist, a lineage that was constructed by Herwarth Walden, the editor of Der Strum magazine, which regularly published Scheerbart’s fictions. Instead, through Benjamin’s personal involvement with the G magazine (mid 1920s) which included artists and architects – for example, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer – he staged Scheerbart as a structural influence on both modern architecture and its more famous proponents:

“Rather than Bruno Taut, Benjamin considered Le Corbusier, JJP Oud, Adolf Loos and the Bauhaus to be the architects who were ‘realising’ Scheerbart’s ideas in what he took to be the most extreme rationalist and anti-organic architecture – architecture without ‘art’, governed by the spirit of pure engineering.”  – Detlef Mertins

In ‘Surrealism’, Benjamin uses Scheerbart as a foil to provoke the Surrealists: arguing that engineering combined with fantasy could be best utilised to construct utopias and other similar revolutionary social systems:

“It is very instructive to compare the movement’s over precipitous embrace of the uncomprehended miracle of machines – “the old fables for the most part been realised; now is the turn of poets to create new ones that the inventors of their side can then make real again” (Apollinaire) – to compare these overheated fantasies with the well-ventilated utopias of Scheerbart.”

In this essay Benjamin is on a mission – he, who is standing at the bottom of the valley and can see the force that the work can gather as it gains traction, undertakes to critique, reflect and guide the Surrealists. For Benjamin, Scheerbart’s structure – extreme fantasy coupled with extreme logic – allows for the transformation of society through engineering, while displaying a break with all traditional ideas. This, he argues, is is in line with the movement’s method of working – from the interior outwards counterpoised with the exterior inwards – and provides it with a revolutionary edge. He rhetorically asks:

“What are the conditions for revolution? In the changing of attitudes or of external circumstances?”  

Both Dadaism and Surrealism found their voice in their criticism of the Great War; it was an unprecedented war – the damage unleashed by technological innovations in weaponry, the use of gas, the inclusion of aerial bombardment and the elongated duration of the war left returning soldiers physically mutilated and emotionally devastated. Many Dadaist artists, for example, Otto Dix and George Grosz used their work to shed light on the plight and the betrayal of the soldier on his return to civil society. Furthermore, in ‘Expression and Poverty’, Benjamin prefaces the essay with a discussion on the silence fogging the returned soldier, who is both, unable and unwilling to talk about his experiences. He views this silence as a loss of experience – learned experience – and as the modern condition of society post-war. He sees this loss as an opportunity – a liberation from the oppressions of traditions and learned experiences and moreover, an opportunity to construct modern man with new lived experiences with the aid of technology. He is not isolated in this thinking: H.G.Wells in The Shape of Things to Come uses a ‘pathological analogy’ to compare the inequality in technological vis-à-vis social advancement likening it to irregular growth in the bones of the body without a corresponding development in the nervous system.  Invoking Scheerbart Benjamin says:

“To return to Scheerbart: he places the greatest value of ‘housing his people’ – and, following this model, his fellow citizens – in buildings befitting their station, in adjustable, movable glass coloured dwellings of the kind since built by Loos and Le Corbusier. It is no coincidence that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed. A cold and sober material into the bargain. Objects made of glass have no ‘aura’. Glass is in general the enemy of secrets. It is also the enemy of possession”

‘Experience and Poverty’ fleshes out of some of the key concepts found in ‘Surrealism’ – for example, what he means by experience, revolution and the role of architecture in constructing them. In the latter, Benjamin recites an anecdote of his time in Moscow, when an order of monks staying in the same hotel as him, left their doors ajar. On further investigation, he learned that they had vowed never to occupy a room with closed doors. Benjamin finds in this an example of behaviour meeting the will towards ‘profane illumination’ –the open door literalises the exposure of man to new experiences and the act itself harbours waiting, observing and accepting. In this anecdote one hears the echo of Scheerbart’s introductory chapter in Glasarkitektur:

 “We live for the most part within enclosed spaces. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is in a sense a product of our architecture. If we wish to raise our culture to a higher level, we are forced for better or for worse to transform our architecture. And this will be possible only if we remove the enclosed quality from the spaces within which we live. This can be done only through the introduction of glass architecture that lets the sunlight and the light of the moon and stars into our rooms not merely through a few windows, but simultaneously through the greatest possible number of walls that are made entirely of glass —coloured glass. The new environment that we shall thereby create must bring with it a new culture.”

Benjamin advances Scheerbart’s architectural fantasies in support of his own argument and projects glass as a universal panacea for the ills of tradition and accumulation – inadvertently creating a direct association between the characteristics of glass and the ills of secrecy, thus, staging the role of ‘transparency’ in modern architecture. However, Benjamin’s reading of Scheerbart while arguably operative , was equally nuanced, and transparency for him was less about seeing-through in the sense as is understood in modern architecture but more related to illumination, seeing beyond, and exposure in the sense of demystifying the ‘aura’. Diametrically Banham states that Scheerbart, unlike the later generation of modernists, did not believe glass to be universal panacea but it that cannot be justifiably corroborrated in my reading of  Scheerbart; there is a hesitancy in Scheerbart to propose glass-architecture in the tropical and equatorial regions of the earth because of over-heating!

Moreover, Benjamin is enamoured with the lobotomy of the Scheerbartian world from the current world. In ‘On Scheerbart’, written in 1940, the year in which Benjamin committed suicide to escape the Nazi regime, and which is a eulogy of sorts, he describes Scheerbart through his novel Lesabéndio stating that:

“This poet’s work is imbued with an idea which could not have been more foreign to the notions than widespread. This idea of rather this image was of a humanity which had deployed the full range of its technology and put it to humane use.”   

 To conclude, while in the years before the war, Scheerbart was writing technological futuristic fantasy aimed towards detracting from war-mongering, in the years between the wars, he was reinvigorated in the works of the Dadaists, Surrealists, writings of Walter Benjamin and modern architecture as a way to propel technology for social advancement. While the architectural discipline is rarely discussed in periods of war, however, the fictions of Scheerbart are deeply entrenched and conditioned by impending war and his writings bring the relationship between architectural discipline and war much closer.

The featured image is a drawing by Paul Scheerbart from 1912 – ‘Nusi-Pusi’

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