Paul Scheerbart and his Glass Utopia

Paul ScheerbartImpossible to summarise Paul Scheerbart, I cannot help but wonder what he was like in person. If he went on and on about glass architecture, perpetual motion. If he only spoke in phrases of satiric certainty. As a tone, it works brilliantly in Glass Architecture, where outrageous claims become more than possible.

The key idea is this one, nice of him to put it out in front. But as I read this amazing Christmas present sitting on my brother’s couch in Chicago in lieu of braving the weather and my stomach flu to see any real glass architecture, I forgot it just a few theses in and only now am I giving it the proper consideration it deserves:

1
Environment and its influence on the development of culture

We live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the lights of the sun, the moon, and the stars, nor merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass–of coloured glass. The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture.¬† (26)

scheerbartMany have argued similar things — that we are products of our architecture, or at least our environment. It is a fairly mad brilliant step to seek to open up our closed rooms, to open everything up to the light (even if not quite to full visibility — I love the use of nacre to shield our most private moments, how beautiful that is).

18
The beauty of the Earth, when glass architecture is everywhere

The face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels. Such glory is unimaginable. All over the world it would be as splendid as in the gardens of the Arabian Nights. We should then have a paradise on earth, and no need to watch in longing expectation for the paradise in heaven. (38)

Almost I am convinced. I forget when we stopped desiring to establish a paradise on this earth.

Glass architecture is unthinkable without Gothic.  (38)

I love the gothic, the dream of soaring spaces full of light. Perhaps Scheerbart is right, and if they could have constructed in glass rather than being technologically limited to stone, perhaps they would have done so.

I am finding in myself as much nostalgia for this time of infinite architectural possibility as for the revolutionaries of the 1960s who believed the world was theirs to change…I am sad I will never be able to believe in a revolution around the corner, a technology so new, a progress assured and manageable. Not that Scheerbart believes it entirely. But I think he wants to believe, is perhaps challenging himself to believe¬† — and a part of him does believe in a way impossible now, however tongue and cheek his work is.

Cities in their present form are not yet fifty years old. They can vanish as quickly as they came. Even the permanent way of the steam railway is not immortal. (43)

I liked this:

I am convinced that every constructive idea will appear in many heads at the same time and quite irrationally; one should therefore not speak carelessly about the seemingly confused and crazy; it generally contains the germ of reason. (48)

And this also:

The vacuum-cleaner will naturally be needed as an insect-exterminator. It is absolutely horrifying that today it is still not used for this purpose. That the vacuum-cleaner has already been employed for getting rid of street dust, I take to be a known fact. (50)

This betrays the downside of a city of glass — no dirt. No nature. No insects. Not even dust on city streets. A curious, fastidious kind of utopia and I shudder at the cleaning of it. But I adore this passage on vacuum-cleaners.

I also love his fascination, any fascination, with aeronautics.

37
Direction-finding for aeronautics

Aeronautics will undoubtedly be determined to conquer the night. All towers must therefore become towers of light. (52)

and later

It is generally known that the aeronauts would like to take over the night. that they have not so far done so is easily explained: on the earth the night is not yet light enough. But when, thanks to glass architecture, it has become light down below, it will also be light up in the air…The crucial factor in this is undoubtedly reinforced concrete. (65)

This is not short on technical details as you can see, even though I am leaving them out of this blog. Today some of this insistence on height and light seems almost old-fashioned given the towering skyscrapers that fill London, Chicago, Dubai — but he is prescient really in discussions of building vertically, using iron and metal frames upon which glass is hung, he inserts long discussions of concrete, stone and mosaics, enamels.

Number 58 needs no words, it is pure happiness:

58
Floating architecture

We can talk in all seriousness of floating architecture…The buildings can obviously be juxtaposed or moved apart in ever changing patterns, so that every floating town could look different each day. The floating town could swim around in regions of large lakes–perhaps in the sea too. It sounds most fantastic and utopian, but it is far from being so, if reinforced concrete, shaped to the form of an indestructible vessel, carries the architecture. (64)

And to conclude we come back to how glass architecture will change us, improve us, help us move into our better future.

…our hope is that glass architecture will also improve mankind in ethical respects. It seems to me that this is a principle 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. (71)

And not just any light, but

We must not strive to increase the intensity of light–today it is already too strong and no longer endurable. But a gentler light is worth striving for. Not more light!–‘more coloured light!’ must be the watchword. (88)

Some of his ideas were put into actual form — by architect Bruno Taut with his Glass House created for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition in 1914. Here Scheerbart stands inside of it (far left):

Paul Scheerbart in the Glass Pavilion 1914

Around the house can be read Scheerbart’s words (from a collection of adorably bad aphorisms on glass and life written for this purpose):

Coloured glass destroys all hatred at last.

From Bruno Taut:

The Glass House has no purpose other than to be beautiful. It is intended purely as a structure for exhibition and should be a beautiful source of ideas for “lasting” architecture but is not itself intended as such. According to the poet Paul Scheerbart, to whom it is dedicated, the Glass House should inspire the dissolution of current architecture’s far-too-restricted understanding of space and should introduce the effects and possibilities of glass into the world of architecture. May it, in its own way, help to foster a transformation of building toward the light and grace that it currently sorely lacks. (101)

Bruno Taut glass housebruno taut glass housebruno taut glass house

Bruno Taut also designed a set of glass building blocks, useful for imagining the future.

bruno taut dandanehDandanah — The Fairy Palace. They are beautiful, and probably the same colour palette he used for the Glass House.

I want them.

Scheerbart wrote fiction as well, some of which I have to hunt down in Mark’s boxes, but in this volume he writes a glass adventure or two for the Baron Munchausen to relate, though even the Baron himself lacks words to describe the wonder of the Chinese exhibition of glass he visits over a period of days.

Next I saw the Tiffany glass hall.
I looked back out.
Moonlight again!
And the stars are mirrored in the mirrors.
One almost begins to understand infinity. (202)

Paul ScheerbartI think my favourite piece in this book was Perpetual Motion: The Story of Invention (1910). A journal of invention, continual exaggerated hopes for the world’s transformation and a just as continual failure in making this contraption of wheels obtain perpetual motion through gravity.

The exaggerations come in imagining to what uses such energy generated could be put to…

13 January 1908
Building canals in the Sahara could make the whole desert futile.
And in general, if one could instruct all the rivers on Earth to adopt advantageous new courses, a tremendous increase in terrestrial fecundity could be achieved.
In other words: Desert culture on a grand scale.
Compared to this, the Panama Canal is a bagatelle.
***
There’s something dilettantish about always needing to see everything brought to fruition in reality.

and then

14 January 1908
Once–in former days–people used to move house.
Now–people can move mountains.

Paul ScheerbartThere is no limits to what the Perpets can do. The Martians clearly have them, as evidenced by the canals visible on their planet. Perpets can light up the earth for aeronauts (a foreshadowing of the dreams of glass houses). They can build the architecture park necessary for imagining the future using the Harz mountain range in its entirety. People will be able to go traveling carrying their gardens and livestock with them, and thus:

In the early phases, accordingly, we’ll have to reckon with the dissolution of our various fatherlands.

Things will also take a curious turn where languages are concerned. But I certainly hope that the culturally most significant languages can be preserved.

The German language must be saved in any case, otherwise my books will become utterly incomprehensible. And that would drive me stark raving mad. (215)

Then Scheerbart goes on to wonder if given a life of complete ease and plenty, people will become imbeciles…he hopes instead they will turn to astronomy, and plans observatories the size of cathedrals. There are pages of worry over the inevitable negative impacts on literature and theatre when suffering is erased.

After all, the Age of Satire has not yet come to an end. (217)

He is obsessed with motion:

11 February 1908
A garden with rearrangeable parts.
Transportable hedges.
Transportable terraces.

The economy will crash as labour becomes unnecessary and money becomes worthless.

Financial institutions are institutions with which, strictly speaking, I am utterly unfamiliar. If, however, my wheel works, I shall make their acquaintance. But–this acquaintance will not not be a pleasant one. (235)

Pride in work will have to disappear with work itself, and so will the Social Democrats. Belief in God will also disappear, to be replaced with religious awe. The earth itself might seek to follow its heart’s desire, escape its orbit and go off into the universe (the subject of one of the short stories).

Brilliant.

But wait, I think perhaps what I actually loved most of all was the ‘Gallery of the Beyond.’

As is generally known, it is only in the twentieth century, according to our accounting of time, that microscopic study of the photographic plates provided by the great astronomical observatories has begun to yield some results…This much is already certain: the plates taken in the region of the heavens near Neptune, an area characterized by a remarkable brightness, present new views of our world that are nothing less than exhilarating–that these are cosmic images can no longer be doubted. (283)

These views show amazing component creatures, with their cometlike limbs. I think this particular creature was my favourite, I am jealous of someone able to hang it on their wall.

Paul ScheerbartHere is another:

Paul Scheerbart

No, I cannot choose a favourite. I can’t at all.

I quite love Scheerbart. I didn’t get as much from the many essays of scholars and artists sprinkled liberally throughout this volume, but Scheerbart is enough, is he not?

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