John A. Stuart, illustration from The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies Novel, MIT Press, 2001
“…airships, that’s the world that never materialized.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two
German architect/writer Paul Scheerbart’s 1914 novel, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies Novel, a fictional accompaniment to his more scholarly treatise, Glass Architecture, imagines a world of spectacular, colored glass buildings. Translator John A. Stuart’s introduction notes that the novel may have been in part a public relations maneuver for promoting Scheerbart’s ideas about using glass as a building material, but where Scheerbart goes with The Gray Cloth - a whimsical, world-ranging, architectural caper - puts his novel firmly and enchantingly in the realm of literature.
One accepts early on that character development, complexity of language, and philosophizing will be minimal in The Gray Cloth, but this fairy-tale fantasy, set in “the middle of the twentieth century,” rewards the reader in other ways, not least by sprinkling into the interstices of its narrative myriad inventive, charming conceits. The novel’s plot is simple: the world’s leading proponent of glass architecture, Edgar Krug, is so taken by the gray dress trimmed in ten percent white worn by Clara, whom he meets at the inauguration of the Tower of Babel, his grand, glass concert hall in Chicago, that he immediately proposes marriage to her, with the caveat that she contractually agree always to wear gray clothing with ten percent white so as to enhance his colorful buildings and insure that they won’t be upstaged[i]. To everyone’s astonishment, Clara accepts Edgar’s terms, and the novel then traces the evolution of this contract as the newlyweds float about the planet on airships - the chief mode of transportation in The Gray Cloth - to visit Edgar’s architectural projects: a convalescent home for airship chauffeurs on Fiji, a painters’ colony in Antarctica, a bath complex on a Borneo volcano, a series of revolving, hanging houses suspended over Majolica terraces for a rich Chinese client, Herr Li-Tung, on an island off Oman; a museum for antique oriental weaponry on Malta, an experimental station for aquatic architecture in the middle of “the huge Aral Sea,” and Krug’s own estate – a palace of light and glass on an island in Italy’s Lago Maggiore. Edgar foresees a world covered in colored glass architecture: scalloped shells of great glass slabs, immense paned walls carefully controlled for color effects, towers of light, sculpted glass roofs to delight airship passengers. Despite his contemplating covering the Himalayas in glass, his ambition does have a few limits; he balks at developers who would wreck the Egyptian pyramids with glass towers, and asserts that “nature...is always more wonderful that the somewhat weak fantasies of the small human,” intending his glass structures to evoke “Dragonfly wings!... Birds of paradise, fireflies, lightfish, orchids, muscles [sic], pearls, diamonds, and so on, and so on - All that is beautiful on the face of the earth.”
Scheerbart employs the language of a children’s fairy tale to tell his story. His humorous narrative consists of short, declarative sentences -
The men then drank grog to Frau Clara’s health.
They sat till midnight in the restaurant on the peak.
Only colored lanterns and the stars in the sky shone above.
The moon was not to be seen.
Meteors moved along parabolic lines across the starry skies.
On the horizon Venus was radiant.
- sometimes incorporating playful elements verging on absurdity:
Many storks floated over the airship. A stork sat near the helmsman, then, in a little while, he flew off after the other storks.
Color, light, air, zipping about the globe on zeppelins – these ingredients suggest nothing of the grim events about to engulf Europe. Rather, The Gray Cloth, a poetic fantasy like an unrealized architectural rendering, speaks of a radiant future. The gently ironic tone conveyed in The Gray Cloth contains a frolicsome, internationalist optimism for the future of the sort generated by the international expositions and world’s fairs that have all but vanished in today’s world (two such fairs frame the novel’s action). Stuart’s excellent introduction – which discusses Scheerbart’s prescient anticipation of the global diffusion of design, the impact of cinema, media’s turn towards celebrity, and other predictive qualities - notes that in part these blithe, utopian elements are posed to stand out against the threats facing humankind.
The Gray Cloth also announces, with its subtitle, “A Ladies Novel,” a concern with gender relations, exploring the independence of women and the juggling of power within marriage. Colonies of strong women populate the book: the mostly female painters’ colony; the entourage of Marquise Fi-Boh of Japan, whose colorful robes prompt Clara’s first revolt against her contract; an internationalist troop of ballerinas who perform on Li-Tung’s terraces; and above all the female friends Clara picks up on her travels, who offer moral support, advice and courage. But despite her own misgivings and friends’ pleas for her to escape the “tyranny” Edgar has imposed, Clara remains steadfastly determined to navigate her own path around Edgar’s entwining of egotism, stubbornness, and artistic genius, leading her husband to recognize her independence and stature as an artist in her own right (with some chimes, bells and drums suspended in towers, Clara, an organist, uses architecture as a musical instrument, her performances attracting global attention). This assertiveness in insisting on gender equality is also demonstrated by Clara’s female companions, one of whom marries Li-Tung - on her own terms.
While few would take seriously the fanciful world The Gray Cloth imagines, it nonetheless presents a gem-like and strangely poignant vision of an unrealized world and glows with a spirit that seems today all but lost: open-ended optimism for the future; belief in internationalism and solidarity among races and genders; ebullience, wonder and daring in trying on the new. In a world where concrete apartment blocks dominate skylines, gains in gender equality face depressing backlash and “the huge Aral Sea” has been reduced to a puddle, the glowing colors, leisurely airship voyages and innocent caprices of the The Gray Cloth seem seductively attractive, and immeasurably far away.
[i] In its treatment of the egotism of architects, The Gray Cloth accomplishes with playfulness and whimsy what that most notorious of architectural novels, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead – a book I’ve never been able to get through - attempts with humorless heavy-handedness (a concise, insightful summary of Rand’s book can be found here).