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There are some minds which give us the sense that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.
    -Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics

There is some sad truth to the old saying that every biographer comes to hate his subject, but Simon Mawer's Glass Room illustrates the danger inherent in a novelist coming to love his subject. The story here begins with wealthy newlyweds in 1930s Czechoslovakia starting out on their new life by building a modernist house--that the author modeled on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat Villa in Brno (see above)--that will represent their repudiation of all traditional more and values and the embrace of art and science as the bases for a new sort of society. Even were the husband, Viktor Landauer, not a Jewish industrialist and the setting not a country soon to be destroyed and kept captive in turn by the two monstrous modernist ideologies of Nazism and Communism, the irony of such a silly sentiment would fairly drip off the page. But setting the tale in an archetypically anti-human glass box more or less demands that the rest of the novel unwind in tragic manner. It's a classic case of Chekov's gun--"If you introduce a gun in the first act, you should fire it in the third." Modernism, Nazism, and Communism were, after all, of a piece, and the Landauers of the early portion of the book are eagerly rushing into the abyss that the reader must assume will yawn ever wider in the latter stages.

Instead, while the family is forced to flee, the marriage predictably disintegrates in a house that affords no privacy, and both the Nazis and the Communists take over the building itself, Mr. Mawer treats its physical survival as a kind of triumph (one barely resists adding "of the will"). When the aged widow Landauer returns to visit the house after the fall of the Wall we apparently supposed to share in her nostalgic joy, rather than see the hideous box as a pluperfect symbol of 20th Century evil, every bit as potent in its own way as the swastika or the hammer and sickle. The author would seem to have become so enchanted by the building that he can not follow where the natural structure of his own novel leads. The result is that a novel filled with beautiful writing, that you're likely to race through in one sitting, ends up feeling morally vacant.

My own reaction to the novel was obviously fed by a deep personal loathing of Modernism and informed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, whose Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word stripped bare the pretensions of the architecture and art the Modernists foisted upon the world. At one point I even feared I was overreacting, such is Mr. Mawer's reasonable seeming affection for at least his chosen example of the form. Happily, just then Malcolm Millais's exquisite daisycutter of a book, Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, came over the transom to remind me that one can't hate Modernism enough.

Mr. Millais may not quite be the wordsmith that Mr. Wolfe is, but his text is just as devastating and just as savagely witty, and is fueled by the righteous indignation of a professional engineer, which enables him to explain that isn't just that the buildings themselves are ugly, but that they are impractical and have, when built, far overrun their cost estimates, been unpopular with those required to use them, and been nightmares to maintain. Consider, for example, that whatever artistic statement is supposed to be made by the extensive use of glass, the reality is that it invites tremendous difficulties in regulating temperatures for the occupants, or that the flat roofs that give the buildings their utilitarian boxlike effect are anything but useful once snow starts to pile up on them, or that choosing building materials and getting rid of load bearing walls because it suits the artist's vision really just discards millennia of wisdom about what works in practice. The horror stories Mr. Millais tells about how prize-winning plans have needed to be scrapped, about the disastrous consequences of following them, and about the eagerness with which the public welcomes opportunities to pull the monstrosities down makes for consistently amusing reading.

We heartily recommend this one to everyone, but it makes for an especially good corrective for anyone who's read The Glass Room. And we'll leave you with this, Mr. Millais's account of the reality of the Villa Savoye (1928), a house that was supposed to float on air, like the Landauer house in the novel:
This was an example par excellence, of the five points (Le Corbusier's Five Points of a New Architecture)--the perfect, cubically-white, living machine. But what was a modern life like in one of these cubical living machines? Well you had to put up with a building that malfunctioned technically, there were cracks and stains and leaks and condensation and...of course you'd already paid way beyond the initial budget. But some people could cope. Raoul la Roche 'enjoyed living in the villa, despite its many technical deficiencies, such as a noisy central heating system that was never resolved and an ever pending lighting solution.'

But other were less enthusiastic--the Savoye family for instance. Pierre Savoye was a Parisian banker and not a member of the avant-garde. What he wanted was a weekend house in the country for his family. There is no evidence that he had any interest, one way or the other, in modern architecture -- but he chose Le Corbusier to be his architect. The outcome was a disaster. The final cost of the project was far in excess of the budget, there were technical problems, as always, and the house was so uncomfortable for family life that the Savoyes hardly used it. It later served as a military billet for both German and Allied soldiers, then was used as a hay barn by local farmers. In 1959, scheduled for demolition, it was "rescued" by the then French minister of culture Andre Malraux--it is now a historic monument!
That's the non-fiction truth behind the novel.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Malcolm Millais Links:
Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture 2009 0711229740 Malcolm Millais
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture
    -BOOK SITE: Malcolm Millais (Frances Lincoln)
    -ESSAY: Should architects try harder to please the public? (Malcolm Millais, 19 February 2010, BD: The Architects' Website)
    -REVIEW: of Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture by Malcolm Millais (David Brussat, Architecture Here and There)
    -REVIEW: of Exoploding the Myths (Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Exploding the Myths (Nikos A. Salingaros, INTBAU)
    -REVIEW: of Exploding the Myths (Urban Realm)
    -REVIEW: of Exploding the Myths (Robert Steuteville, New Urban News)
    -REVIEW: of Exploding the Myths (James Stevens Curl, Times Higher Education Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Exploding the Myths (Edwin Heathcote , Financial Times)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Building, Beauty, and Belonging (Mark Dooley, 6/15/24, Public Discourse)
    -REVIEW: of Architectural Principles in the Age of Fraud by Branko Mitrovi? (James Stevens Curl, 10 June, 2023, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: Carbuncles and King Charles: was the royal family’s meddling supertroll right about architecture?: He was the comedy villain of architecture, dismissed for his kitsch follies and ill-considered outbursts. But has Charles III actually been proved correct? (Oliver Wainwright, 28 Sep 2022, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: How can we solve a problem like modern architecture? (Henry Oliver, 26 August, 2022, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: The Unbearable Burden of Invention: A corollary of giving priority to invention is that imitation, once the foundation of creativity in architecture, is banished. (Witold Rybczynski, Hedgehog Review)
    -ESSAY: The Problem With Architectural “Genius” (Sir Roger Scruton|September 18th, 2020, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: On Defending Beauty (Roger Scruton, May 2010, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of THE BAUHAUS GROUP: Six Masters of Modernism By Nicholas Fox Weber (John Simon, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The modernist who wanted to be Fu?hrer: We should acknowledge the Nazi past of architect Philip Johnson, not erase him (Charles Saumarez Smith, April 12, 2021, The Critic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Classical architecture’s counter-attack: Reed’s great book exposes the ugliness and illiteracy of Modernism: a review of The Golden City by Henry Hope Reed (James Stevens Curl, 31 October, 2021, The Critic)