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“The Glass Room” by Simon Mawer is an architecture novel in which a house becomes the central character.
It is a compelling depiction of Czechoslovakia prior to and during the early years of Nazism. Viktor and Liesel Landauer are a wealthy couple who lead a privileged life. Viktor is culturally Jewish but not observant. Liesel is intelligent and beautiful, a sensitive young woman who is a gentile. Money is no object, as Viktor owns a Czechoslovakian automobile manufacturing company.
Having received a sweeping plot of land from Liesel’s parents as a wedding present, the Landauers in 1928 commission German architect Rainer von Abt to design a modern, minimalist, yet first and foremost, a family home for them in Mesto, Czechoslovakia. A spectacular three-level house becomes the author’s framework for the social and political changes in Eastern Europe between the two wars, all of them affecting the fate of the house and the architect’s dream. Readers might recognize Villa Tugendhat in Brno as the original Landauer House, the villa in “The Glass Room.”
The novel is divided into five chronologically ordered parts plus a prologue and an epilogue, beginning in 1928 and finishing in the 1960s.
At the beginning of the novel, the Landauers seem to live a model life. But as the novel progresses, the transparency of the glass walls contrasts with the veiled existence of the characters. Their lives are affected by infidelity, Jewish pogroms, the coming of World II and an escape into exile.
The home brings out their passionate desires and darkest secrets. Viktor searches for comfort in a call girl, 25-year-old Kata (Katalin) Kalman, and Liesel turns for excitement to her wild, sophisticated and restless friend Hana Hanakova.
The marriage begins to shows signs of strain. When Kata shows up at a benefit the Landauers throw for other Jews, Liesel, not knowing who Kata is, invites her to live with them. Soon Kata becomes the nanny for the Landauer children, and she and her daughter, Marika, move into the house.
Because of the political climate, the Landauers soon flee Mesto, stopping en route in France, Spain and finally, Cuba before flying to the United States.
The author moves through six decades of European history, using the house to tell the stories of the different inhabitants of the house in successive eras.
The character Rainer von Abt in “The Glass Room” is based on architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In the late 1920s, he designed the Villa Tugendhat for affluent, German-speaking Jews Grete and Fritz and their three children.
The house is essentially a light-filled living space surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking a garden. An example of sculptural architecture, it was Mies’s first truly modern house. His use of rare and exotic materials is part of what makes the home unique. A semicircular wood divider creates a dining nook, and a free-standing wall of onyx separates the main seating area from a study. Two of the exterior glass walls retract, letting in the sounds of nature. Mies’s use of steel, glass and concrete showed how modern materials could create an extraordinary structure.
The actual owners of the Villa left Brno in May 1938 after Germany’s annexation of Austria. At the beginning of October 1939, the Gestapo took over the Villa, and after January 1942, the Nazis used it for offices. Eventually the Soviet Army occupied it and used it for stables. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it became a physiotherapy center for children.
By 1938 Mies van der Rohe had realized that his professional situation in Nazi Germany had become untenable. He fled to the United States, where he was asked to direct the school of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He worked from his studio in downtown Chicago until his death in1969. An architectural masterpiece because of its structure, layout, furnishings and setting, Villa Turendhat was listed as a World Cultural and National Heritage UNESCO site in 2001.