One of the most entertaining nonfiction books I own is a skinny paperback called Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture. First published in English in 1970 and edited by Ulrich Conrads, it is a candy store of wild-eyed absolutism and undiluted idealism from some of last century’s most strident voices. “Ornament and Crime” by Adolf Loos is in it, as are assorted De Stijl and Futurist tracts, pronouncements from Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, and some more recent cris de coeur from the likes of Louis Kahn and Bucky Fuller.
My copy is filled with Post-its and highlighter streaks. But the excerpt of an essay by one Paul Scheerbart was untouched—until recently, when I was teaching the fine art of manifesto writing and assigned it, almost at random, to a student. Finally obliged to read it myself, I discovered an essay titled “Glass Architecture,” exactly a century after it had first been published.
The translation of Scheerbart in my little book of manifestos begins like this: “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 worse to transform our architecture.”
I liked him already, even before he got to the heart of his proposal to make spaces less claustrophobic. How did he intend to do this? “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—colored glass.”
Scheerbart was born in Danzig (then part of the Prussian Kingdom) in 1863 and moved to Berlin in his 20s, intending to become a writer. His early works were generally fantasy or science fiction, published by his own small press. Later writings, described as expressionist or surrealist, made their way into a radical magazine called Der Sturm, where they were read and admired by Walter Gropius. Like many of his contemporaries, Scheerbart believed that the technological and industrial breakthroughs of the 19th and early 20th century set the stage for momentous transformations. Glass architecture enabled by the sophisticated use of iron, he decreed, would make the built environment “paradise on Earth” and would also liberate buildings from old limitations: “Walls need no longer be vertical,” he proclaimed. Glass buildings could be “transportable.”
Scheerbart the surrealist made some remarkably sound predictions. Walls today no longer reliably vertical, and any number of fashionable architects have designed portable buildings. The brief excerpt of “Glass Architecture” that I found in my little manifesto book was so tantalizing. Who was this guy? I wanted more.
I was delighted to discover, therefore, that the University of Chicago Press has published the first English language compendium of Scheerbart’s work. Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader (2014) was edited by artist Josiah McElheny, known for creating works in glass that represent re-imagined historical events, and by the gallerist and art book impresario Christine Burgin (who is married to photographer William Wegman). In other words, the first survey of Scheerbart’s writings, his life, and his impact comes from deep in the art world, rather than from the architectural profession.
The book is assembled as if it were a museum exhibition, one with an emphasis on showing many of Scheerbart’s works as visual artifacts. Scheerbart, known as a heavy drinker, reputedly hobnobbed with figures such as August Strindberg and Edvard Munch at his favorite bar. But his most important connection was made at a 1913 workshop in glass painting and mosaics, where he met the architect Bruno Taut, who became his close friend and admirer. His letters to Taut, who built a Scheerbart-inspired, dome-shaped glass pavilion for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, Germany, are printed in translation. But they are also reproduced as they were originally published in an insert Taut created for the Berlin architecture journal, Stadtbaukunst Alter und Neuer Zeit, accompanied by illustrations that may have been done by Taut. There are also lots of stunning, beautifully printed photos of Taut’s Glass House. And Scheerbart’s 1910 book on the perpetual motion machine he hoped to invent (an experiment in automation, many decades before it was possible) is accompanied by a reproduction of its original cover and illustrations by McElheny, photograms of glass objects inspired by Scheerbart’s often-loopy narrative.
What I find most fascinating about Scheerbart, a man Taut anointed as “the only poet of architecture,” is that he represents an alternative version of Modernism, a road not taken. The Modernism that emerged from the Bauhaus gave us endless rectilinear buildings that championed the idea of mass production, even if they were never exactly mass produced. As for the other strains of Modernism that seemingly cropped up everywhere in the fertile early decades of the 20th century—architecture, with a capital A, had limited use for them. Czech Cubism and Italian Futurism, for instance, disappeared without making much of an impact—except, of course, on other visionaries. An essay in the book by architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter paints Scheerbart as the inspiration for 1960s “utopian architectural groups like Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists,” and the progenitor of “an antirationalist undercurrent of modernism.”
British arts writer Christopher Turner, in the book’s biographical essay, describes Scheerbart’s aesthetic as “an imaginary art nouveau.” But it was more than that. Scheerbart (especially as interpreted by Taut) nicely anticipated Fuller’s domes and Foster’s slanty-walled towers. He conjured a more generous future than the one we actually got, but one that isn’t too far off the mark. “When there is more glass everywhere,” he wrote, “fireworks will be transformed; thousands of reflection effects will be possible.” It’s as if he’d spent Fourth of July weekend in present-day Manhattan.
As he details his attempts—possibly sincere—to build a perpetual motion machine (das Perpetuum Mobile, which he nicknames Perpet) from wheels and other parts fabricated for him by a tinsmith, he fantasizes that this device “will relieve mankind of all its labors.” His experiments with perpetual motion inevitably lead him back to thoughts on the nature of buildings: “I spent three days thinking about a large architecture park. It kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Crazy. But it carries with it a whiff of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA’s manifesto. Perhaps if Scheerbart had not been done in by his loathing for World War I (Turner thinks he drank himself to death, although it’s been said that he starved himself to protest the conflict), Scheerbart could have emerged as a precursor to Koolhaas. “Beyond all doubt,” he wrote, “architecture must be elevated to greater heights before it can approach the colossal tasks of the Perpet future. Right now we are no longer satisfied with just putting up buildings. More and more novel building materials must be tried out. And then—how can we go on confining ourselves to simple, rectangular architecture?”
Scheerbart is well worth discovering—or rediscovering—not just because he was uncannily prescient, but because his good-natured manifestos are so at odds with those of his more famous contemporaries. Ornament in Scheerbart’s universe is never a crime. Machines are objects of fascination, but we don’t have to live in them. And most of the world’s problems can be solved simply by building walls of multicolored glass.