Utopia – Modernism – Glass II

The Glass Chain to Kristallnacht

The 20th century development of Modernist architecture emerged from groups such as the Crystal Chain (Die Gläserne Kette) featuring the German architect brothers Bruno and Max Taut, Wassili and Hans Luckhardt, as well as Walter Gropius and several others. All used glass as both a building material and as a signifier of a new Utopian approach to architectural imaginings. The Bauhaus became a centre for glass architecture, with the 1920s Bauhaus building in Dessau being, like Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall. Every year the Bauhaus would have a festival often dedicated to a craft or building material, such as metal, the final festival was to the reflective properties of glass. The Spielgelfest (Festival of Mirrors) became the last gasp of the Dessau Bauhaus before its closure by the Nazis who hated the Bauhaus and Modernist architecture in general with its flat ‘Asiatic’ roofs and anything seemingly socialist, Jewish, cosmopolitan or Modernist. A few years later on the 9th and 10th of November 1938 ‘Kristallnacht’ became the symbol of the Shoah, the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, when the Third Reich attacked Jewish shops, homes, businesses and synagogues, the symbolism of glass as a Modernist (and therefore ‘cosmopolitan’ and Jewish) icon was not lost on the cultural philistines of the Nazi elite, smashing glass preceded the attempted destruction of the entirety of European Jewry.

The brief dystopia of the Third Reich could not stop the inexorable rise of glass, as with the Tudors glass became an iconic building material of the twentieth, and thus far twenty-first, centuries. Glass was used as a main facade material by a host of Modernist architects, who were freed by technological advances from the need to have strong materials on the outside of buildings, so glass could envelop entire exteriors. From Mies van der Rohe to Richard Rogers, from the International Style to Post-Modernism glass is the defining material of the present era. Just as the ancient Egyptians built stone pyramids that would last thousands of years so the modern pharaohs build glass pyramids on the top of One Canada Square (Canary Wharf), London or outside of the Louvre in Paris. Whilst the properties of transparency are emphasised by architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster transience seems the more likely outcome.

More recently glass has become the material of choice for environmentally minded architects. Sustainable buildings can use glass as a medium for solar heat retention, continuing the links between glass, modernism and utopian thought.