More Glass Room

“The slow slide of the pane downwards as though to remove the barrier that exists between reality and fiction, the fabricated world of the living room and the hard fact of snow and vegetation. There is a pause during which the two airs stand fragile and separate, the warmth within shivering like a jelly against the wall of cold outside. And then this temporary equilibrium collapses so that winter with a cold sigh intrudes, and, presumably, their carefully constructed, carefully warmed interior air is dispersed into the outside world.”

Wow. Read it again...don’t read my bland prose yet.

And, one more time.

That’s on page 5 of Simon Mawer’s book The Glass Room, a fictionalized tale of Mies’s Tugendhat House, here called the Landauer House. I was part of a Readers’ Review discussion of the book on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday morning and felt today as if I still had some thoughts about the book to work through.

The structure of the book uses the familiar device of opening in the present, with the reader ignorant of how the characters got to this point, and then time spins back to trace their complex paths, finishing as if in a loop, where it began. After I finished the book I made the loop myself and re-read the opening chapter, enjoying a second time that passage on page 5. I won’t summarize the book here, or my comments about it; you should read it yourselves and just stream the program at WAMU.

If you know the house then you can picture that “slow slide” of the window. You may have heard about that device in architectural history. Or perhaps it was part of a section on architectural technology, where all of the ambitious yet flawed ideas for modern envelopes were discussed, like the double glazing for Le Corbusier’s Salvation Army HQ, Frank Lloyd Wright’s leaky glass tubes at Johnson Wax. Unless you had a more eloquent professor than I, however, you never heard architectural technology and building environmental systems described so elegantly.

Two paradoxes of modern architecture are unfurled through the narrative, and they are both related to glass: the first is timelessness and atemporality, and the other transparency and blindness. Glass, index of the eternal present of the modern, is probably the most resistant to aging of all building materials. It takes an act of violence to damage it. So the Glass House persists in its eternal present as the entire world around it is in revolution. Architecture or revolution. I had noticed while reading that every time the story is physically set in the house the narration is in the present tense. When the scene shifts to Vienna or Zurich, the past tense appears. There’s a quote on page 327 that confirmed my reading of the eternal present:

“The philosopher has decided that past and future are both illusions, that there is only a continuous present, and the present is this view through the window over the city, this cigarette, this vague and milky reflection...”

The city below changes; the light through the window changes; the trading between seeing and being seen changes; but the glass itself doesn’t. Until, it is lowered into the floor and then for just a moment, there’s a thickness of nothingness where the glass once was, between the cold outside and warm inside. But what is the quality of that ½” of air? In the page 5 quote it’s a figural void, but just for a moment, then the worlds collide. For all of its valorization of abstraction, its devotion to technology, its ideological aspirations, architecture is first and always a sensual experience.

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