Glasarkitektur reflected in War

“German Expressionist writer Paul Scheerbart (1863–1914) articulated his convictions on the power of architectural construction and its relationship to the modern world in his final fictional narrative of 1914 entitled Das graue Tuch und zehn Prozent Weiß. Ein Damenroman [The GrayCloth and Ten Percent White. A Ladies Novel].” ([1])

In September 1909 spectators at the first International Aviation Exhibition (ILA) in Frankfurt, were enraptured by a display of the German version of an aircraft by the Wright brothers, the rights of which were bought by the German Flugmaschine Wright GMBH.[2] This event roused Paul Scheerbart and it resulted in his ‘pacifist tract’: The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilisation of European Ground Forces, Fortresses and Naval Fleets.[3] Scheerbart’s disposition was hardly surprising in light of the umpteen peace conferences hosted in the first half of nineteenth century, which temporarily revved public passions.[4] Rosemarie Haag Bletter underlines Scheerbart’s concerns about war[5] as discernible in his  short stories, for example, ‘Transportable Cities’, and ‘Dynamite War’, writing:

“In these short stories he suggests the decentralisation of cities into smaller garden-cities as pacifist, defensive gesture. In place of the old standing armies and their “fronts”, he foresaw (and feared) the use of aerial bombardment of major cities behind enemy lines. For this reason, Scheerbart proposed that the madness of war could be avoided by the dissolution of old urban centres. In this he follows the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who proposed the decentralisation of cities. In a more facetious vein, he proposes confusing the enemy by renaming Paris “New Berlin” and Berlin “New Paris”. ([6])

It is evident that Scheerbart was painfully aware of the changing nature of weapons, the city as the new battlefield and inadvertently, its undesirous impact on the civilian population. The mid nineteenth century saw a flurry of publications of the futurist literary genre including Angel of Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror by George Griffith, which makes lucid the devastating effects of aerial warfare on the city. Glasarkitektur was written in1914 and was not accepted as a literary piece of work by his publisher, which goaded him to write Grey Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies Novel – a fiction that vividly renders Glasarkitektur, interwoven with other themes – in a relatively short time.[7] In modern architectural historiography Glasarkitektur is discussed for ‘glass’; however, it can, and should, be read as a continuation of his opposition to, and fear of aerial warfare and in relation with his other ‘fantasies’. In retrospect, his fears were well founded.

“And if only Scheerbart had been awarded the Nobel Prize, as the only real and true apostle of peace in Europe, as I continually pleaded between 1911 and 1914…! Then perhaps his voice would have been echoed – since most people need external signs and signals in order to take notice and listen …” ([8])

The Aircraft is a crucial subject in Glasarkitektur. In chapter 79 of the treatise, he suggests that glass architecture could be used to construct an ‘aeronauts house in the restaurant garden of the exhibition’ as a ‘variant of the Seeschrifferhaus at Bremen’. Commercialising, and therefore, demilitarising the aircraft is a leitmotif in his work.[9] To a similar end, glass – another technological marvel of the time – is pitted against the aircraft – both as a consort and as a nemesis; He painted glass as a preventative solution in times of war. Glass, not unlike the aircraft, is an industrial product that was based on technological developments of the age: Germany was a leading supplier of high quality glass for optics that were indispensable in the military for reconnaissance, aiming and range finding – an important component in aerial warfare. In the years before the war Germany was exporting ‘176,400 Kgs of other optical glass’ – 25% of which were bought by the United Kingdom.[10] In chapter 21 he forebodes:

“… a brick building is also easy to shatter by explosives, which endanger the whole building equally. This is not the case in a glass-iron building; only partial destruction can be induced by explosives in the latter.”

This preventative, almost heroic, character of glass becomes a thread woven across the text – sometimes as way to tame the aircraft – it is replayed and exaggerated across the treatise: he mentions its fire proof qualities in chapter 29 and again in chapter 43. Aerial bombing, while experimental and imprecise at the time resulted in fewer deaths than did the fires that were caused in its wake. In chapter 68 he facetiously suggests that civic buildings made of glass would be easier to repair when struck by air torpedoes and would leave less destruction behind:

“… with the significant advent of ‘dirigible’ aerial torpedo, it inevitably draws attention to the dangers of brick architecture; if a brick church tower is struck low down by a torpedo, it will in every case collapse, kill many people and reduce an entire group of buildings to rubble.

If, therefore, militarism evolves logically, it is bound to bring our brick culture into disrepute; … A glass tower, when it is supported by more than four metal piers, will not be destroyed by an aerial torpedo; a few iron members will be bent, and a number of glass panels will have holes and cracks, but such damage is simple to repair.”

Furthering the argument in chapter 69 he suggests that glass should be the material of choice for all important institutions:

“In war times these [parliament buildings], too, are much more resistant to damage than the old parliament buildings of brick faced with sandstone… Dynamite can only damage a glass house partially; … It needs a hailstorm of dynamite bombs to destroy a larger building made of glass and iron.”

Towards the later chapters he shifts from glass as an end to glass as a means, where glass architecture is seen as an economic solution to deter war-mongering: by catalysing heavy industry and other technological developments, for example, rust proof inventions, the furniture industry, and more relevantly, the glass industry itself. Furthermore, he incepts the idea that these inventions can replace the armament industry:

“The introduction of iron into house-building will, beyond question, bring so many new orders to heavy industry that it could continue to exist even if all cannon-making was stopped.”

Glass, for Scheerbart, is a means to tame the bestiality of war. In the epigrams written by him for Taut’s glass-pavilion, encircled around the drum just below the springing of the dome, right above the entrance one reads:

“Coloured Glass

Destroys hatred”

This belief is read in the introductory chapter of the treatise where he envisions a future for architecture in bringing forth the new man. On contextualising Scheerbart in the years before World War I – a period bogged in an armament race for the total destruction of its enemies – and in relation with his earlier work, lends a profound poignancy to the words of Adolf Behne:

“Building as an elemental activity has the power to transform the individual. And now, indeed, building with glass! This would be the surest method of transforming the European into a human being.” ([11])

As seen, Scheerbart’s treatise is grounded in the context of war and is both, a product of its time and of its country. In ‘the future’ that he designed he provokes a shift in the technologies that were relevant to the war in order to detract from it. Diametrically, after the war the leaps in innovation that were spurred by it were turned towards a commercial end, which was further accelerated by modern architecture, and Scheerbart’s fantasy undoubtedly played an integral role towards that end. Glass and the aircraft continued as objects used by architects, amongst others, to seer ‘the future’.

The featured image is a page from Alpine Architecture. It is an interpretation of Paul Scheerbart’s Glass-architecture drawn by Bruno Taut.

 

[1] John A Stuart, ‘Unweaving Narrative Fabric: Bruno Taut, Walter Benjamin and Paul Scheerbart’s The Grey Cloth’ in Journal of Architectural Education, 13 March 2006, vol. 53 no.2, pp 61-73, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/1531314x/1999/53/2 accessed on 7 September 2018.

[2] Guaillame de Syon, ‘Faded Memories: The Wright Brothers and Germany, 1909-1913’ in September 28, 2001, http://corescholar.libraries.wright.edu/following/symposium/program/1, accessed on 6.7.2018

[3] Christopher Turner ‘The Crystal Vision of Paul Scheerbart: A Brief Biography’ in Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader, eds Josiah McElheny and Christine Burgin, University of Chicago Press, (2014)

[4] Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, Penguin, London 2012 (kindle edition), pg 34. In 1849 a noted peace conference was hosted in Paris in which Victor Hugo delivered the opening speech and an African-American represented the United States, both of which were globally reported upon.

[5] Rosemarie Haag Bletter, ‘Fragments of Utopia: Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut’ in Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!, and ‘Paul Scheerbart’s Architectural Fantasies’ in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historian, Vol 34, no 2 *May 1975, http://www.jstor.org/stable/988996, accessed on 4.7.2018.  She discusses his pacifist stance in the first essay, however in the essay mentioned second, she explicitly states that his ‘architectural fantasies’ should be positioned within this stance.

[6] Jean Louis Cohen, ‘Camouflage, or the Temptation of the Invisible’ in Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War, Yale University Press (New Haven and London, 2011). The efforts in World War II to camouflage cities, especially because of the rudimentary nature of air photography, renders Scheerbart’s ironical statements prescient.

[7] Scheerbart was constantly struggling with money.

[8] Anselm Reust, ‘On Birth, Death and Rebirth of Dionysus: A Memorial Wreath for Paul Scheerbart’s Grave’ in Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!, trans Anne Posten.

[9] Rosmarie Haag Bletter, ‘Paul Scheerbart’s Architectural Fantasies’. Scheerbart envisioned air travel as a replacement for the car and, in his ‘Aviation and Zoning Board’ he wrote that architecture should make provisions for landing strips at a domestic level thus, rooftops should be adequately reinforced towards this end.

[10] Stewart Wills, ‘How the Great War changed the Optics industry’ in Optics and Photonics News, January 2016, https://www.osa-opn.org/home/articles/volume_27/january_2016/features/how_the_great_war_changed_the_optics_industry/, accessed on 9 September 2018. For a detailed account about the Chance Brothers in Birmingham – an important producer of glass that included the optics industry in the war please refer to Isobel Armstrong, ‘Robert Lucas Chance, Modern Glass Manufacture: Fractures in the Glass Factory’ in Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp 37-56.

[11] Rosmarie Haag Bletter, ‘Paul Scheerbart’s Architectural Fantasies’.

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