A House Made of Glass

A central image in this project is the glass house. I don’t yet have a perfect picture of it, but I now realize I have been reading and writing and dreaming around it for years.

I remember the first time I read Walter Benjamin’s descriptions of the Paris arcades, how their iron and glass construction prefigured not only modern architecture but the experience of modernity itself, how they gave rise to the flâneur and, eventually, the department store (which monetized flânerie). How at the same time, the interior became cozier, was filled with art, was turned into an expression of the individual — bourgeois interiors that would be destroyed by the war at Benjamin’s doorstep. Benjamin said that every epoch “not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.” 

Reading Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century for the first time, I felt that Benjamin was describing not only his experience of modernity but mine. I was living in Dublin, doing a lot of walking around the city, spending most of my time either entirely alone or alone in a crowd. It was the spring of 2008. Most days, it rained. I stumbled across The Arcades Project in Trinity’s Ussher Library. I sat on the floor in the stacks and read. I was comforted by Benjamin’s mix of historical analysis, cultural criticism, and poetry. I loved the collage-like form of his work. I felt oddly close to him in time, just as he seemed to feel close to his subjects from past centuries. I took the book to the copy room and photocopied dozens of pages. 

A decade later, I stood before Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois and thought about Benjamin, writing about glass and iron in the early twentieth century. He observed that the applications of glass in architecture were rapidly expanding. No longer reserved for the arcades, exhibition halls, and train stations — “buildings that serve transitory purposes” — glass could and would finally be used in the construction of homes.

I experienced, as I often do in house museums, time collapsing in on itself. Benjamin died just five years before Mies began the design of Farnsworth.

In Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Benjamin mentions Paul Scheerbart, so briefly that I had glossed over it before. Recently I began reading Glasarchitektur, Scheerbart’s 1914 manifesto, which begins:

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 light of the sun, the moon, and the stars, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass.

Benjamin said Scheerbart wrote about glass architecture “in the context of utopia.” At the time, the idea of glass walls for houses was new, daring. Misguided, even, given the heating and cooling challenges, but also exciting.

The architect at the center of my novel is steeped in these dreams. These are the ideas that move her to build a house made of glass. 

A related thing I love: this VR tour of Farnsworth