The Gray Cloth
A Novel on Glass Architecture
136 pp., 7 x 9 in, 5 color illus.
- Published: August 29, 2003
- Published: October 26, 2001
A cult novel, with a critical introduction, by the German expressionist visionary Paul Scheerbart.
The German expressionist, architectural visionary, author, inventor, and artist Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915) wrote several fictional utopian narratives related to glass architecture. In The Gray Cloth, the first of his novels to be translated into English, Scheerbart uses subtle irony and the structural simplicity of a fairy tale to present the theories of colored glass outlined in his well-known treatise Glass Architecture.
The novel is set forward in time to the mid-twentieth century. The protagonist, a Swiss architect named Edgar Krug, circumnavigates the globe by airship with his wife, constructing wildly varied, colored-glass buildings. His projects include a high-rise and exhibition/concert hall in Chicago, a retirement complex for air pilots on the Fiji Islands, the structure for an elevated train across a zoological park in northern India, and a suspended residential villa on the Kuria Muria Islands off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea. Fearing that his architecture is challenged by the colorfulness of women's clothing, Krug insists that his wife wear all gray clothing with the addition of ten percent white. This odd demand brings him notoriety and sensationalizes his international building campaign. For the reader, it underlines the confluence of architecture with fashion, gender, and global media.
In his introduction, John Stuart surveys Scheerbart's career and role in German avant-garde circles, as well as his architectural and social ideas. He shows how Scheerbart strove to integrate his spiritual and romantic leanings with the modern world, often relying on glass architecture to do so. In addition to discussing the novel's reception and its rediscovery by contemporary architects and critics, Stuart shows fiction to be a resource for the study of architecture and places The Gray Cloth in the context of German Expressionism.
John Stuart's lucid translation of and introduction to Paul Scheerbart's ironic sci-fi novel The Gray Cloth of 1914 (a companion piece to his prose-poem Glasarchitektur of the same year) confirms Scheerbart's reputation as the primary source for the anarchic techno-utopianism that pervades the entire trajectory of German Expressionist architecture. As close to Baron Munchausen and Gulliver's Travels as to Jules Verne and the psycho-physics of Gustav Theodor Fechner, Scheerbart's astral modernity envisages a brightly colored, orientalized, ferro-vitreous architecture, at one with a pacified cosmos
Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia University
In The Gray Cloth, Scheerbart shows that even in the most edifying buildings, the human comedy finds a home.
This novel will delight art historians, Brentano fans, and lovers of sophisticated irony.
John Stuart's translation brings to life the full vigor of Paul Scheerbart's amazing novel. It will not only help in the process of reformulating our understanding of early modernism but also and just as importantly extend the discussion on that most fascinating topic fiction and architecture.
Mark Jarzombek, Director, History Theory Criticism Section, Department of Architecture, MIT
John Stuart's commentary on, and translation of, Scheerbart's Gray Cloth makes a very important and entertaining work more accessible. While most well-known texts on architecture seem to be theory, history, or how-to, Stuart's efforts remind us of the delight and power in fiction. Scheebart's fantastic tale struck his contemporaries right where they dreamed, and this translation does the same for readers today.
Terence Riley, Chief Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art