Dr Freyja Hartzell
Modern Design, Architecture and Art, Bard Graduate Center, NYC
Experience, Poverty, Transparency: The Myths of Modern Glass
Glass is magic. Not quite liquid, not quite solid, it is a shape-shifter: transforming itself, and – when penetrated by light – transfiguring the world. A material ever in flux, it appears now fluid, now frozen, and has thus been exploited practically and politically for both its material and immaterial qualities over the course of its history. This paper considers glass objects and architecture produced in modern Germany as both monuments to modern culture and myths about its values. Beginning in 1914 with the colored glass utopias of science fiction writer Paul Scheerbart and visionary architect Bruno Taut, it traces glass’s subsequent, systematic “dematerialization”: its evacuation of color, texture, expressiveness, and meaning – and its shift, in the Weimar era, towards complete transparency in the hands of avant-garde architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Bauhaus-trained designers like Wilhelm Wagenfeld.
As Walter Benjamin articulated in his 1933 essay, “Experience and Poverty,” glass’s new immateriality – its clarity and emptiness – paralleled the “clean slate” ruthlessly bequeathed to modern society by the cataclysms of the First World War. Between the wars, glass’s utopian virtues gradually transitioned from those of looking at – from Taut’s 1919 “Fairy Palace” children’s building blocks cast from richly colored class – to looking through: when Wagenfeld’s 1938 Kubus stackable food storage containers, made from clear, colorless, pressed glass, became the building blocks of German housewives during the Third Reich. Though Wagenfeld was a recognized product of the socially progressive Bauhaus, his Kubus vessels were commissioned and marketed by the Nazi government. More surprising still, they bore a strong resemblance to another avant-garde “object” – one that the Nazis abhorred: Walter Gropius’s 1925 Bauhaus, itself. Wagenfeld’s clear cubes, their contents laid bare, mimicked, in miniature, the transparent Bauhaus, whose revolutionary glass “curtain wall” was an actively immaterializing agent, providing a penetrating view of its own “contents” – its activities and actors.
Where the see-through Bauhaus felt fluid and permeable, Wagenfeld’s kitchen cubes were reified – turned to ice. The transgressive transparency of modern glass promised liberation – its progressive dematerialization suggesting even complete social dissolution. But this same stark emptiness simultaneously opened it to the infusion of totalitarian ideologies. Why would the Nazis appropriate the transparent surface for their political agenda utterly dependent on secrecy, hypocrisy – opacity? This paper explores the cultural and political murkiness of modern glass through critical readings of objects in conjunction with close analyses of glass “myths” in period theory and fiction. Why did the Nazis fear the glass Bauhaus, while desiring Wagenfeld’s glass cubes? Was it because the first was so difficult to empty, while the last were all too easy to fill?
Dr Freyja Hartzell is Assistant Professor of Modern Design, Architecture, and Art at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. She received her PhD in the History of Art from Yale University and her MA in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. Freyja teaches courses on themes ranging from design as utopia, to modernism as a contest between nature and artifice, to fashion as representation in word and image. Her current research interests include the cultural politics of design in modern Germany; object studies (ontologies, agency, things); emotion studies, empathy, and theories of perception; materiality and immateriality. She has published articles on topics including velvet as material and metaphor in fin-de-siècle Paris, design and theatricality in Biedermeier Berlin, and stoneware beer mugs as cultural agents in early twentieth-century Germany. Freyja is currently completing her first book, Living Things: The Modern Art of Richard Riemerschmid, and is engaged in research on a second book, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Modern Myths of Transparency, from which the material for this paper is drawn.