Dangerous Stuff

By Powers, Alan | The Spectator, November 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Dangerous Stuff


Powers, Alan, The Spectator


Glass, Space and Light

(Crafts Council, 44A Pentonville Road, N1, till 30 November, then touring) Glass is a material which creates a particular kind of excitement, whether it is held in the hand or raised into a building. This excitement has been felt at different times in the development of architecture, from the stained glass which seemed to the mediaeval Scholastics to be a metaphor of divine illumination, to the palm houses and covered shopping arcades of the Regency, and then, after a long period of stasis, the strange combination of the technical and the spiritual in the early Modern movement.

A visionary book, Glasarchitektur by Paul Scheerbart (only ever translated into English in brief excerpts), proclaimed a see-through world in 1914, where physical transparency becomes a spiritual and moral accompaniment to the liberation of the spirit. This excitement was transmitted from Germany to England at the end of the 1920s, most particularly through the work of a young Australian, Raymond McGrath, for a highly eccentric Cambridge don, Mansfield Forbes, who used glass and other shimmering materials to transform the ground floor of a Victorian house, now the home of the composer and Spectator contributor Robin Holloway. As a patron concerned with mythological symbolism (the house was named Finella after a legendary queen of Scotland who was supposed to have invented glass and died falling down a waterfall) Forbes induced a kind of magic into glass that raised it above the level of functionalism, something that echoed however brassily through Thirties super-cinemas and the Lyons Corner Houses designed by Oliver Bernard, father of the late lamented Jeffrey.

Like so many things in the 1960s, glass lost its magic. In Jacques Tati's film Playtime, 1969, the modern 'Tativille' of smooth reflective skyscrapers has to be disrupted in order that humanity can survive, its transparency revealing only a banality of industrial life. In the same era, David Jones, mingling Ezekiel and science fiction in a vision of modernity, found `the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stagepaste'. Glass is dangerous stuff, therefore. It can mould itself to metaphorical shapes and conditions, but, like Hans Andersen's Snow Queen, it has the power to shatter and chill the heart.

In the 1990s we are in a new period of glassy activity. Glass has developed technically to new levels of strength and decorative subtlety. …

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