Friday, 3 January 2014

Architectural Fictions and Technical Utopias: Paul Scheerbart - The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White (1914)

After the meal, they went by automobile to the Orchid Hotel. It was situated close to the sea and had beautiful terraces.
"Don't you have a wish?" asked Edgar.
"Yes," responded Clara, "I would like to eat oysters."
"Of course we could do that," replied the architect, "but I thought you would express architectural desires."

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, pg 96.
I think I've found my new favorite writer for the time being - the amazingly prolific and frustratingly much-untranslated Paul Scheerbart! Yesterday I eagerly received my copy of The Gray Cloth in the mail (so much that after carrying all our mail upstairs I seized upon the wrong package and excitedly opened one of George's similarly-sized packages instead).

Whilst researching about building facades last month, I got interested in finding out what would be considered the first fully double-skin facade building in the world. It was obvious there had to be some break in history, some turning point - the entire idea of additional glazed glass facades must have been a kind of design feature that people had to get to grips with. Even when Peter Ellis designed Oriel Chambers in 1864 in Liverpool, one of the first few buildings to make extensive use of glazed curtain wall construction.

Oriel Chambers (Source: Flickr)

With huge, bright iron framed oriel windows - it only received morbidly scathing reviews in its time - The Builder described of it: “The plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Water Street known as Oriel Chambers;” and even Charles Reilly, Professor of Architecture at Liverpool University described it in his book (Some Liverpool Streets and Buildings in 1921) as the "oddest building in Liverpool, at once so logical and so a cellular habitation for the human insect." It seems people just did not like the looks of it. Poor Peter Ellis designed another similar building on 16 Cook Street to even more withering reviews and was never to design another building ever again, decidedly only working on civil engineering projects thereafter. Yet today Oriel Chambers and 16 Cook St are regarded as having laid the groundwork for modern architecture.

So far it seems as if the honour of the first ever fully double-skin facade building goes to a certain Steiff Factory built in 1903. Designed by Richard Steiff, a teddybear designer, it was one of those architectural outliers before its time - "a pioneer work of industrial building without any immediate succession" (Fissabre & Niethammer, 2009) - designed to be bright for functional reasons, and not even signed off by an architect.

The Steiff toy factory in the illustrated catalogue of the Eisenwerk München AG in 1905 (Source: The Invention of Glazed Curtain Wall in 1903 - The Steiff Toy Factory / Anke Fissabre, Bernhard Niethammer / RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany / Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, Cottbus, May 2009)

A useful post on facadesconfidential notes that it could not have signed off by an architect because no architect at the time would have considered it "a respectable facade solution". It was from this that I was intrigued by the mention of Paul Scheerbart; another speculation cited by facadesconfidential for why the double skin facade did not take off with the Steiff Building in 1903 was that: "The glass guru of the time, the poet Paul Scheerbart, would not write his very influential "Glasarchitektur" until 1914."

Turns out, Scheerbart did not only write an actual theoretical book on coloured glass and Glass architecture, but even wrote a novel on Glass Architecture. A NOVEL! AN ENTIRE NOVEL! And exactly one hundred years ago! Its German title is "Das graue Tuch zehn Prozent Weiß: Ein Damen Roman" or The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies' Novel.

A photo of Paul Scheerbarts by Wilhelm Fechner, 1897.
Even the photograph of the man seems so curious. Why is his head off-centre? Was the space above his head left intentionally empty? What manner of a pose was he even trying to strike, and what was cropped off! All the questions that may never be answered!

Around midday, when the sun became visible outside, there was some commotion in the exhibition hall. The splendor of the colored-glass ornament was so enhanced by the sun that one was at a loss for words to praise this wonder of color. Many visitors shouted repeatedly, "Delightful!" Wonderful! Great! Incomparable!"
While the exclamations were repeated over and over, better-educated visitors found these and similar words quite distasteful. Fortunately, the exclamations stopped as soon as the sun crept back and there remained nothing left of it to see.

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, pg 3.

My impressions of it from a quick first read are that it is most delightfully shouty and full of moments of passionate, idiosyncratic glass/architecture/engineering/archaeology-related rhetoric, along with perfectly timed comedic moments of dumbfounded silence. I should not have imagined it possible to write such a thing before I read this. The novel is about a Herr Krug, a famous Swiss architect who impetuously marries a beautiful pianist, Clara Weber, on condition that she sign a marriage contract - agreeing that she will always wear gray with ten percent white, out of respect for his magnificent glass architecture. Clara agrees, but this is not to say she is a wallflower and a mere foil for Edgar Krug's desire for power and the realisation of his ultimate architectural fancies; she can pull her own creative weight as well - the vibrations of her music is what makes people sit up and admire the delicate glass structures around them. The two cruise around the world in an airship, as Herr Krug constructs more and more fantastical glass architectures in exotic locales, warring with clients' tastes and budgets, and architectural context (flatly refusing to construct glass obelisks on top of the pyramids out of his respect for ancient architectural monuments). They dine on the finest cuisine, visit the most astounding natural sights, and socialize in high society, with their wedding even becoming parodied in a movie made as a spectacle for "European audiences" (producing a hilarious scene in which Herr Krug stands up and informs them he was actually born in Europe). I quite enjoy the dialogues between the figure of the hero-architect and others who question his architectural fictions, all of which is delicately presented within the novel as fictions within fictions. Commenting on an incident where Herr Krug blows up after a female artist from an artist colony convinces Clara to wear ten percent plaid instead of ten percent white, Clara says:

"My husband has such an inconsiderate, progressive nature that one must forgive his stubbornness. He is really consistent like a true hero in a novel. The name Edgar sounds too fitting for a novel."
"Oh!" shouted her husband, "precisely because it sounds so much like a novel do I go to a lot of trouble to veil what is like a novel in me!"
"Oh yes," then shouted Miss Amanda, "with your wife's gray cloth, isn't that true?"

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, pg 102-103.

Ah! I should only hope that one day I should be able to write an equally engrossing architectural novel.

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