If architecture was a gender, would it be male? Often design books speak in a masculine language and tone about form, function and ‘machines to live in’. That all changes in the pages of Simon Mawer’s novel The Glass Room, shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2009. Here is an author who can write lyrically and gently about architecture. The house is based on Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat and is integral to the story which begins in the 1930s in the newly formed Czechoslovakia. The main protagonists, a just-married couple (he a Jew, she a gentile) commission a home that is symbolic of modern beginnings, free of the ornate trappings of the past. The house is a pared-back masterpiece composed of reinforced concrete, steel and glass. An onyx wall, with patterns in the stone, provides the only ‘decoration’. Mawer writes: “The Glass Room embodies the pure rationality of a Greek classical temple, the austere beauty of a perfect composition, the grace and balance of a painting by Mondrian… there is nothing convolute, involute, awkward or complex. Here everything can be understood as a matter of proportion and dimension.”
The fictional story parallels reality in scenes that play out in The Glass Room against a historical backdrop of the events in World War II. Villa Tugendhat was confiscated by the Gestapo in 1939 and the original owners, who fled the advancement of the Nazis, never lived there again. It has now been restored and is open to public viewing. If you appreciate a ‘less is more’ philosophy in architecture and in literary fiction, this is the book for you.