The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

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JUL-AUG 2014 Issue

At The Glass Exposition In Peking

The old Baron Münchhausen has just returned from the Chinese interior. In Peking he makes the following entries in his diary:


September 10, 1910

People who always keep a sober head will never write amusing stories. But this just in passing. In the last fourteen days I’ve seen colossal snowstorms and…

But what I have seen here in Peking—it eclipses all other experiences, as the saying goes, it leaves them in the shadows. Truly this ‘leaving in the shadows’ is one of those horrific phrases that always put me somewhat on edge. There’s something amiss in this shadow talk. But—let’s not digress! Peking has arranged this summer, in barely three months, an international glass exposition… Oh my stars! What the Chinese accomplish! I’ve always said it: one day they’ll be the world’s master race.


September 11, 1910.

First off, to convey the general impression!

Well—it isn’t easy.

In the open, well out of Peking—a good mile and a half out—there springs up from the ground a great glass city, suddenly.

Of course it doesn’t spring up. I’m jotting down incandescent nonsense out of pure enthusiasm. But one can see in it just how enthused I am.

All this in three months!

Around it, first of all, only enormous mirrored walls. They enframe the whole of it. But not just simply quadratically. No—quite irregular, the layout of this little city.

‘Little’ is of course again quite wrong. The dimensions are considerable. Each reflective wall is fifty meters high and eight hundred meters long. Iron girders hold up the entirety. The girders are lacquered or enameled carmine red. And then these walls of mirrored glass cut in deep and jut out far, by turns. There are three thousand right angles in the layout. And the mirrored walls have many terraces and overhangs as well, held up by four-cornered mirrored columns. Hard to imagine. But such is the exterior.

I arrived this very morning. Very blue, the sky. And the mirrors seemed, in the upper portions, blue as well, so that one didn’t realize, at first, that there was a glass city at all. Only after one drew closer could the glass be seen. The many mirror surfaces glittered powerfully. I went, first, three times around the whole exposition.

The sharp angles made the best effect where the surfaces simply collided.

Everything in only right angles. Cubes predominated on the one side. On the next there were mostly terraces.

The number of sides is unknown to me—very many in any case. Up above always all blue. Underneath, cornfields come up against the superb city, so that the whole lower portion looks golden—as if the cornfields simply continued into this paradise.


One truly can’t, when one gets excited, tear oneself free from cliché. Never, in any case, has a man on earth imagined paradise in this way.

I stayed awhile in a restaurant that sat out in the middle of a cornfield.

There I marveled at the sunset—in the mirror panes. It was a splendor.

Immediately afterwards I went to my room and wrote this down, and I am looking out again now.

The moonlight in the mirrors!

And the stars, too, in the mirrors.

All a hundred- and a thousandfold.

What human hands can accomplish!

Two hundred thousand hands have made this in three months. And I’ve so far seen only the exterior.


September 12, 1910.

Today I was inside.

I can give no more than notes.

First a hall with kaleidoscopes on the walls. Everything else in black velvet. But at the center of the sixteen walls there appears a great circle with kaleidoscope effects. The kaleidoscope shifts with every minute. Always again different. All sorts of magic lanterns up upon the black velvet ceiling.

That is just an hors d’oeuvre.

Many Chinese there—all in silk garments, woven colorfully. I too am in Chinese dress. Borrowed from the innkeeper. Bright blue and bright green, it is.

The paper I am writing on bores me.

I write only for the Europeans’ sake, so that they realize how far behind they are in matter of expositions. I’m surprised that besides me there are no other Europeans here, although many have exhibited. The ones who’ve worked here are all in the city, with the Emperor, where they’re being fêted splendidly.

The ushers are all in silk—a splendor of color is unfolded thus…

I saw, to begin with, the halls for Tiffany glass.

I’m looking out again.

Again moonlight!

And the stars are mirrored in the mirrored glass. And one nearly gets the notion of infinity.


September 13, 1910.

Today I came in only after sunset.

The Emperor of China was here during the day with his retinue. Now he’s gone off again. I didn’t see him, since, alas, I am a European.

I saw lamps today—glass lamps.

Surely a hundred thousand pieces. And in all of them there burned electric light.

The exposition palaces all border on the mirrored walls that edge the whole.

In the middle it descends, in terraces.

Glass terraces!

Colored glass terraces!

Lit up by countless—and colored—glass lamps!

A pool down at the center—but no swans in it.

The water’s surface has just the same effect as glass, and mirrors back the whole sky and the lamps all around.

Let someone else describe it.

I cannot.


September 14, 1910

One always thinks one’s made it to the end.

But it always goes on, ever better.

Today there were works in stained glass.

But—only decorative.

Was pleased that all of them were decorative. One is thus not reminded of Europe. The decorative arts here are different; much Tiffany glass is employed. All of it quite reminiscent of the kaleidoscope in the reception hall.

But its fixity here has such a subtle effect.

Houses in wired glass, too, were shown to me. The wire in the glass makes the glass itself quite impervious to fire.

I also saw enamel houses—opaque and transparent enamel!

Pure jeweled confections!

Let this, too, be described by someone else.


September 15, 1910

I thought, now, that there could be nothing further.

But look!—all of a sudden, head- and fist-sized glass gemstones.

All possible crystalline forms.

And colors!

We saw real gemstones exhibited beside them. And their colors burnt no fiercer, nor more glowingly, than those of the gemstones in glass.

Nevertheless—in these there burnt mostly electric light.

And yet the effect is identical.


September 16, 1910

Saw Venetian glass pieces today.

However—I do not know where they’re produced. They’re merely reminiscent of Venetian works and otherwise offer, on account of their size, quite new effects.

I’m on the point of giving up note-taking.

Such things are just not to be captured.


September 17, 1910

Saw glass cupolas today.

Over a hundred.


September 18, 1910

Instead of banners—as today is a great Chinese holiday—there were poles put out everywhere, made out of glass gemstones. It glittered. The poles spun and bowed in all directions. They’re at it still, now—in the moonlight.

Poor Europe!

How poor you seem to me—how poor!


Paul Scheerbart

PAUL SCHEERBART (1863 - 1915) was a German fantasist and humorist, utopian and pacifist; above all an enthusiast and theorist of architecture in glass. His best-known works include Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel (1913), The Grey Gloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies' Novel (1914), and Glass Architecture (1914).

Alex Verdolini

ALEX VERDOLINI is a writer and translator (from German, Spanish, and French); he lives, at present, in Tübingen, Germany.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

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