Simon Mawer's The Glass Room is a big book. A Big Book. A book about art and its role in our everyday lives. What better way to frame this discussion than to create some characters who are living inside a work of art -- a glass house designed by a visionary architect.
Leisel and Viktor Landauer are newlyweds from wealthy, prominent families in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. Both are interested in all things modern: technology, architecture and especially the well-being of their infant country, which has recently been created out of the detritus of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They decide to symbolize all that is forward-looking by commissioning a house like no other.
The Landauers hire German architect Reiner von Abt to build the house on a hillside outside of their city. What von Abt builds is an icon of modern architecture: sleek, spare, elemental, made entirely of steel, glass and concrete, subdivided inside by an onyx wall that changes color in the sunlight.
Of course with hindsight we know what must happen. Luckily, Viktor is also alert, and manages to move his business and his family to Switzerland in the late 1930s and eventually to the United States. The Glass House survives also. It is confiscated by the Germans and used as a laboratory for Nazi science experiments. At the end of the war it becomes the property of the Russians, and eventually of the local Czechoslovak government, which allows it to slide into gentle disrepair.
Mawer follows all these transitions closely, using the house as a metaphor for contemporary attitudes toward art. We also get to know the inhabitants well, especially the Landauers. At times the story swings into overdrive with plenty of sex, infidelity, angst and atrocities, but these provide a welcome distraction from so much talk about light, volume and reflection.
I really liked this book (and not just because it was sent to me for free by the author's U.S. publicist). It took me awhile to read because it's long and serious, though never boring. In the book's foreword Mawer tells us that while the house really exists, the story is complete fiction. I wished I had followed up this information when I first began reading, rather than waiting until I was done.
The house is called the Villa Tugendhat. It was designed by Mies van der Rohe, one of the fathers of the international style. So important is this house to the history of modern design that it was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are lots and lots of photographs of it on the Web, and it's open for tours, if you want to go to Brno, in the Czech Republic, which now I do.