Architecture is frequently the idiom of utopian thought. An ideal society needs ideal structures. Ideal structures, in turn, produce ideal citizens. The logic may be circular, but it has a robust lineage. For example, one may think of Heidegger’s suitably gnomic formulation that “only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build”. Thus, the ability to dwell is not merely a matter of embodiment, it is a cognitive process that both necessitates and actuates the production of suitably humane structures, so the thinking goes at least. Heidegger was writing in 1971 in afterburn of various malformed utopian projects that grew from the upheavals of instability, inequality and warfare. Writing in 2016, in a global context inscribed with ominously familiar tensions, the presence of utopian thought seems by turns quaint and foreboding. Visiting the Modern Visionaries exhibition at the Berlinische Gallery, one can gain a sense of how differing notions of utopias collided.
The exhibition centres on the lives and work of three artists and architectural thinkers, Paul Scheerbart, Bruo Taut, and Paul Goesch. Taut is perhaps the most traditionally architectural figure in the group, having designed and realised buildings, yet his ideas were informed by the quasi (and sometimes not so quasi)-mystical visions of the writer, Scheerbart. Particularly influential were Scheerbart’s conception of cities of glass which acted as channels for the underlying fundamental forces of the universe. The press materials of the exhibition quote the following passage from Scheerbart’s writing: “Light seeks to penetrate the whole cosmos and is alive in crystal”. The passage is from the year 1914. There are a number of Scheerbart’s books on show in the exhibition as well as his drawings which envision fantastical creatures that seem to have emerged from a strange form of unnatural selection guided by William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, Lewis Carroll and Edward Gorey.
Scheerbart’s disciple, Taut, writing in the wake of the war that began in the year of Scheerbart’s quoted mystic crystal musings, developed a yearlong correspondence network with other architects working in post-war Germany that became known as the “Crystal Chain”. The Chain integrated both the kind of visionary utopianism of Scheerbart, but also a more quotidian utopianism relating to social reform and workers’ rights. The exhibition features a number of drawings of the cities these architects hoped might one day grace war-scarred European landscape. Of course the crystal cities the writers in the chain envisioned faced an even greater engine of destruction with the war that came the year after Taut’s death in 1938.
The poisoned psychologies that led to that war were responsible for the death of Paul Goesch, the other visionary included in the show. Goesch utopias and visions, depicted in painfully expressive gouaches, are among the most heartbreaking works in the exhibition. Goesch was trained as an architect, and Modern Visionaries presents a number of his interior studies that scarcely hint at maelstrom of intellectual currents that he was imbibing during his studies. These works neatly connect Goesch to the intellectual traditions cultivated by Taut and his fellow Crystal Chain correspondents, but it is Goesch’s portraiture that seemed to me the most significant and enduring of his works. The faces that regard the viewer from Goesch’s portraits are often troubled despite the richly chromatic backgrounds against which they are positioned. They are portraits of a time as much as portraits of individuals, and, as ever, even when not speaking literally, they are self-portraits of the artist. Goesch’s style is evocative both in terms of colouration and structure of the work of the American painter, Marsden Hartley, but the unease that infuses even the most riotously colourful of Goesche’s images reflect the radical fragility of his times. If he spoke with his friends in the Crystal Chain about cities made of glass, his own biography was redolent of the problem with the utopias they envisioned: cities of glass are constructed by humans with psyches and social relations that are even more mutable and changeable than glass. Goesch ultimately fell victim to the most deranged utopia ever conceived: he was executed by the Nazi regime in 1940 under the T-4 Action euthanasia programme.