An icon of misunderstanding

Monday 25 Jul 2011

Charles Bancroft reviews The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

It’s not very often that a building plays a central role in a novel, so when I discovered that that the fictional storyline of The Glass Room was wrapped around Mies van der Rohe’s Modernist Tugendhat House built in 1930s Czechoslovakia, it became a must-read. How I had missed it for 18 months, (published in Oct 2009) I just can’t imagine. It is the most extraordinary book that I have read for some time.

Mawer is at pains to point out that The Glass Room is an imprecise translation from the original Der Glasraum. “Raum is an expansive word, spacious, vague, precise conceptual, literal, all those things.” The same ambiguity pervades the wealth of information stored within the pages and it is somewhat difficult to pigeon-hole the book into in any of the usual sub-genres, obviously it’s fiction but it also had a historical narrative, at times it’s a thriller and between the lines it nudges into politics. Casual discussions over coffee and newspapers drip-feed a sense of foreboding into the story as we head toward the outbreak of war.

At times the book lapses into a menagerie of languages, German, English, Czech and of course Russian, languages of the relentless vanguard of cultures, politics and peoples that swept through Eastern Europe in that troubled period. The building remained aloof throughout these comings and goings, remaining an icon of misunderstanding.

Through his cinematic scenes, Mawer builds a vivid vision of the glass and steel structure in the reader’s mind. The glass Room was a total anathema at the time, and strangely, it is this anathema that binds the disparate occupiers of the space; their misunderstanding of the building universal. The building as portrayed was the ultimate dichotomy; designed with light and optimism, beacon of hope but planted in a dark period on a desolate site, perched on a hillside like a ship, ploughing through dark and troubled waters.

The voguish clients who commissioned the design and their flamboyant, visionary architect, Rainer von Abt remain throughout the sole holders of the key to understanding the building. It’s this disjoint that runs as a thread through the book. Mawer manages to innovatively use the building as a device to expose the different ideologies of the building’s relay of malevolent invaders, each viewing it through different eyes, but ironically, none seeing it as a home.

The author successfully delivers a range of emotions to the reader through his cast of believable and perfectly flawed characters and the complex relationships both with themselves and with the architect’s creation. The reader is exposed in turn to dread, fear, warmth and happiness … which one you exit the last page on… that’s for you to find out.

The Glass Room stands up as a great read in its own right but for any architect, it’s totally addictive. Charles Bancroft

CB is author of The Architect trilogy (The Architect, Masterplan and Deadline). The Architect is now available as a downloadable audiobook for iPod/MP3 players exclusively through WANBOOKS. Contact to download your copy today.

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Czech Republic

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