Dreams from a Glass House: An Interview with Josiah McElheny


At Work


Phillip Kester’s portrait of Paul Scheerbart, 1910. Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie, Archiv Kester

Paul Scheerbart doesn’t figure very prominently in modern German belles lettres—nor, more regrettably, on the drafting tables of venerated Berliner architects and urban planners. Scheerbart, an eccentric, Danzig-born poet and architectural theorist, is best remembered through obscure citations from Walter Benjamin, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut. But in the spirited era of Berlin’s café culture, he was a popular serialist, publisher, and proto-surrealist. From the late 1880s to his premature death in 1915, he wrote prolifically on science, urban planning and design, space travel, and gender politics, often in the course of a single text. His most celebrated treatise, Glass Architecture (Glasarchitektur, 1914) foretold of a sublime, technocratic civilization whose peaceful world-order was borne from the proliferation of crystal cities and floating continents of chromatic glass, a vision summed up in his aphorism: “Colored glass destroys all hatred at last.”

Taut, an architect and devoted disciple, dedicated his 1914 Werkbund Exhibition building, the Glass House, to Scheerbart—his so-called “Glass Papa.” Like his French contemporaries Camille Flammarion, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry, Scheerbart’s prophetic oeuvre oscillated between themes of technology and aesthetics in a genre known in the Francophone world as fantastique.

Translations of Scheerbart texts have trickled into the English-speaking realm; Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader, edited by Josiah McElheny and Christine Burgin, is the first attempt at an English-language collection. Assembled from his fiction and critical works, drawings and photographs, and secondary texts from friends and acolytes, the book’s publication hopes to inspire what McElheny calls a new generation of “Scheerbartians.”

I recently spoke to McElheny by phone from his studio in Brooklyn, where we discussed Scheerbart’s belated American reception, the cultural amnesia of World War I, and our mutual fascination with Utopian literature.

How did you first come across Scheerbart’s writing?

The first major publication of his work in translation was Glass Architecture in 1972. I read that sometime around 1988, and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I came to it as though it were an architecture book, but it read to me like a piece of literature. I found it to be captivating and somewhat Borges-like—not in structure but in its spirit. Then around 2001, there was the publication of The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel. I was struck by its very unusual literary style—very sparse, thematic, and highly evocative—and fascinated by the entire novel, which is about people struggling over the political and spiritual meaning of aesthetics. I had never encountered anything like it in historical literature—the way it speaks in a proto-feminist voice but also with the deep undertone of misogyny that one associates with that era. It was a very disturbing book and it really bothered me—the way in which he demonstrates how aesthetics can have this implication about sexuality. I had so many questions about the translation itself. Later I learned that much of the strangeness of the language lay in the original German.

I had a similar experience with his outer-space novel, Lesabéndio, when it was first published in English. It’s such an epic text, and yet I really couldn’t discern in his writing voice whether it was a very genuine work of a doe-eyed Utopian or a long, laborious joke. All of this effort he put into detailing an asteroid planet and these ridiculous alien characters, the lead protagonist of which transforms into this omniscient, Kubrick-inspired, energy field at the conclusion. Needless to say, I was very confused. How did you come up with the title of the book?

We wanted to demonstrate the breadth of Scheerbart, from novelist to critic to theorist to humorist to philosopher to artist, while trying to situate him in the literary and radical politics of his day. So glass speaks to his forays into architecture as politics, love represents his literature focusing on gender relations, perpetual motion focuses on the poetics of his work in the world of engineering and technology. Our hope was to encourage new translations and further scholarship on him. That’s what my “poem” at the end of the book is about: highly edited groupings of his titles, hoping to inspire new Scheerbartians.


Oskar Kokoschka, Portrait of Paul Scheerbart, 1910. Archive Marzona, Berlin. Photograph: Marcus Schneider, Berlin

In doing all of this archival research, what did you discover about the common cultural perception among Germans of Scheerbart’s eccentric writings?

He was misunderstood in his own age, so it’s difficult to find anyone who has a handle on him, even among German readers. By the early 1890s he was already quite the character—a novelist, an architectural visionary and a science-fiction publisher. Further evidence of his strangeness was that he was a regular contributor to the engineering magazine Technische Monatshefte (Engineering Monthly), at the same time he is being published by these radical, avant-garde literary publications like Der Sturm! It’s fascinating to see how he was able to convince both the engineering world and the most advanced art thinkers of the moment to publish him. When the Wright Brothers arrived in Berlin in September of 1909, in Tempelhof Airport—this is the first appearance of an airplane in Germany—Scheerbart was there. By November, two months later, he’d published an article, “The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets,” which essentially predicted all the possible kinds of death that can be created from planes, missiles, or drones. He perceived all this horrible violent potential within two months. This gave a gravitas, a weight to his thinking, and it was stomach churning. But now, these days, most people end up reading him as if he were only one of these things, for instance a “a science-fiction writer.” When Edition Phantasia republished most of his work in the 1980s, it designed the volumes using a peculiar, neo-art nouveau typeface, totally unlike the modernist aesthetic of the original publications. This shift of tone gives his work a rather countercultural feel, whereas he was truly at the center of things in his own time. Reading him through that lens makes it very difficult to see the other aspects of him.

For me, Scheerbart’s work seems to fall more within that French tradition of fantastique literature in which the fantasists and decadents of the late nineteenth century had begun to encounter and muse on new technologies, architectures, and artificial environments as future utopias. He belongs in the company of writers like Alfred Kubin, Camille Flammarion, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Raymond Roussel, Marcel Schwob, Alfred Jarry …

Scheerbart and the others you mentioned were writing right before the mass violence of World War I, which seems to me to completely disrupt history, even now. There were all these new potentials, but then the violence and the economic upheaval of the war period ends that possibility. So when some of these ideas were taken up again just after the war, like the Scheerbart-inspired Crystal Chain group with Taut and Gropius, among others, these efforts almost immediately disintegrate and are then swept under the rug, as if they’d never happened. In some sense, I think we haven’t completely processed what a massive shift—and loss—the war represented. Between 1914 and the 1990s, we’ve still been dealing with the fallout of World War I. Maybe now we’re finally entering a new period where some of the things that were happening at that time, just before the war, can be reexamined.


Paul Scheerbart, Glass Houses: Bruno Taut’s Glass Palace at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition, March 1914. Technische Monatshefte: Technik für Alle. Baukunstarchive, Akademie der Künste, Berlin

What about this era appeals to you as a visual artist?

What interests me about Scheerbart in relationship to design and literature is the connection between aesthetics and practical construction, all under the roof of literary narrative. After the war, aesthetic theories became divorced from any sense of the literary, or of humor. Rather, everything became, first and foremost, an expression of economics, a demonstration of efficiency. Later, the critique of all this, especially in French theory and philosophy, emphasizes the economic underpinnings and doesn’t seem to remember the literary roots of it. Scheerbart’s moment was one in which technology and design had an evocative potential, a potential that is not fully futuristic but rather changes within an historical context. In contrast, people opposing him or ridiculing his ideas, those who more or less won the argument after World War I, saw starting over from zero as the answer. They thought that the erasure of the past was essential. Scheerbart saw the opposite. His work considers the ideas of the Babylonian era in equal measure with futuristic ideas. Even today, the idea of bringing the past with us into the future is very odd. We’re still in an era of historical forgetfulness as a cultural mode. All new technologies aspire to erase the technologies of just a few years before.

9780226203003This link Scheerbart develops between the use of glass as both a literary conceit and an architectural prima materia also evokes a link between literature and architecture, which one would see in, say, the work of the early, British gothic writers. The novels of Horace Walpole, for example, or William Beckford are fascinated with constructing elaborate interiors, which they transformed into actual folly architecture at Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey. Could you discern in Scheerbart this frustrated desire to take his written work into the realm of actual, lived space?

I don’t think he ever saw himself as a practical builder. He wanted to be part of a community and energize other people. It’s no accident that he met Bruno Taut under the guise of developing a society of glass architects. He didn’t want to be the architect, he wanted to generate the dialogue and supports others. That’s really important in understanding Scheerbart. He wanted the engineering and construction companies to take on the fantastical, to see its potential to change society. Utopia, for him, was based on this idea that average people would take up his ideas—but he’s weirdly self-aware. He writes, “Always and again, this pathetic if … ”—he doesn’t want to accept the “if” or that moving forward can be stopped by simply saying “if only … ”


The Glass House by Bruno Taut, Cologne Werkbund Exhibition, 1914. Baukunstarchive, Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Scheerbart explored glass as a building block not only of construction but also of “seeing,” at this transitional moment between nineteenth- and twentieth-century practices of art and architecture.

One of the things that remains unexamined is the way in which he offers an alternative to the current era of the architecture of transparency. This transparency is the main legacy of the International Style of architecture, which sees glass architecture as metaphorically representing how large corporations move flows of capital across the world in an “honest” way. Even today, the idea that a transparent building is more honest is commonplace among architects, as is the notion that transparency represents a higher morality. This is the architectural, though not political, era we’ve lived through and continue to live in. My interest in Scheerbart is that there might be a parallel possibility where glass is not about seeing through the structure, but rather about how it provides illumination. So, for example, the less well-known “Glass House,” the Maison de Verre, by Pierre Chareau from the 1930s, might represent this other path—it’s an important glass building that’s mostly opaque, or rather, translucent. It’s not about seeing beyond, it’s about being illuminated in the space that one is in now. We’re not going to travel into the far horizon. So, in a way, again, it’s about dragging the past into the future with us.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is also a lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles.