Morphosis skyscraper at Vals by Peter Zumthor Owen Hatherley opinion Paul Scheerbart glass

"Modern architecture needs projects like this"

Opinion: you don't have to like Thom Mayne's skyscraper for Vals to understand that architecture needs fantastical projects like it, says Owen Hatherley.


The early 20th-century German storyteller and architectural dreamer Paul Scheerbart – whose work is newly anthologised in English, in the new volume Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! – spent the 1900s and 1910s dreaming of a future that partly came to pass. However, it came to pass in such a manner that all the dreamlike, fantastical grandeur of his ideas seemed to be forcibly extracted, and the realisation of the dream became boring in a way he could never have expected.

But the sort of things he dreamed about were as follows: all-glass architecture (a dream fulfilled by Mies van der Rohe), glass cities (every financial district, everywhere) cities in the ocean (oil rigs, Chep Lap KokHong Kong International airport), cities in the mountains (most ski resorts), of China overtaking the west by building skyscraper new towns (Shenzhen), flight as leisure (Ryanair), among various other things that were once the province of fairy tales and have gradually become the province of brute economic forces.

But one thing that would definitely have pleased Scheerbart, perhaps at least until he saw the renders, was the prospect of one of Europe's tallest skyscrapers being placed in a small Swiss resort town with a population of barely more than a thousand permanent residents, created seemingly as a piece of pure, gratuitous potlatch, for the sheer bizarre wonder of it. A man-made mountain of glass, placed among the white peaks of the Alps! How could that possibly ever become boring?

Given that Scheerbart was opposed to the technocratic tedium of the "functional style", as he saw it, it is likely that the prospect of a "minimal skyscraper" – even one in the Swiss alps – might have eventually come across as slightly dispiriting. However, the idea would have appealed to him greatly for its deployment of a certain throw-caution-to-the-wind weirdness that Scheerbart's successors in glass architecture discarded like embarassing childhood toys.

The site in Vals, known in architectural circles for Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals hotel and spa complex, is a tight settlement in between the sweep of the mountains. Normally, what a conscientious modern architect today – particularly in Switzerland – would contribute to such a site is something stark yet site-hugging, monolithic yet classical, austere but rich, and so forth. It would be the height of bad taste to put a skyscraper there – like Dubai, with its kitsch riot of nature-altering gee-gaws forever discredited by the slave labour that lies behind those maps of the world built as islands, building the world's tallest skyscrapers in the middle of the desert.

As right-thinking architectural culture moves further away from this sort of whimsy-plus-slavery form-making, it's not surprising that this slender, tasteful tower is going to be seen as an act of destruction of the site, and as a monument largely to Thom Mayne's ego. I should probably be clear that I'm not particularly a fan of Morphosis, and not massively keen on the prospective tower either. But modern architecture needs projects like this, if nothing else as a way of outlining the limits of the possible. In the automatic rejection that it elicits, there's something a little sad, and Paul Scheerbart would have understood what that was.

Scheerbart was not an architect, though he had great understanding of architecture and engineering that are now very much the norm. As Reyner Banham pointed out in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, he knew how his imaginary glass architecture could be constructed, and recommended many things – lightweight steel frames, tinting, double-glazing.

However, he wasn't in any way a functionalist, and his closest comrade was Bruno Taut, the Expressionist-Modernist architect who referred to the older author/dreamer as his "Glass Papa". Taut is best known today as a designer for the series of not particularly heavily glazed (but incredibly brightly painted) housing estates he built in Weimar Berlin – but in a sense this was already compromised, a step back from the dreams he had dreamt under Scheerbart's influence – in particular Alpine Architecture: A Utopia, which was published as a book in 1919.

When it was first published, Taut was deeply involved in left-wing art and architecture organisations, like the Workers Council for Art, who believed that the revolution they thought was happening in Germany after the first world war would open up new, unheard-of paths for architecture. Alpine Architecture was a dream of an architecture of world peace and socialism, where mountains as large as the alps themselves would be constructed out of multicoloured prisms of glass, tinted orange, red, shaped like flowers or sunbursts.

It was all as practically unbuildable and fundamentally unserious as Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, unveiled the same year. But like it, this was a promise of how space could be completely remade in a society where profit and utility were no longer the compulsory measure.

Obviously, Taut was not designing his Alpine Architecture for the use of the super-rich on holiday in the Swiss Alps. But interestingly, the major difference is actually formal. In terms of their morphology, they are spreading, organic, rising in tiers to their shimmering peaks; "crystal symbols of a new faith", as Walter Gropius, his comrade in the Workers Council for Art, put it.

They are artificial mountains that try to emulate some of the qualities of mountains themselves, and look like the peak of something that is already there, an adding to nature something artificial and man-made rather than its imposition.

Morphosis' tower does not do this, but is a strong statement of sheer artificiality and individualism – slender, repetitive, it makes no attempt at compromise with the natural environment whatsoever. The difference in their respective politics, you could argue, comes out in their very different approaches to the "Alpine" in Alpine architecture.

In WeWe, another science fiction utopia published in the aftermath of the first world war, Scheerbart's contemporary, the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin imagined another kind of glass architecture – one where rectilinear blocks, heavily surveilled, would be inhabited by a population bent purely on work. When a group of them rebel, they are subjected to a "fantasiectomy", forcibly removing from their minds the notion that society could ever be different.

What couldn't have been imagined a century ago, though, was that this wasn't even needed. The realisation of fantasy could in itself be stripped of any significance depending on exactly how it was realised, and so we end up rolling our eyes as we consider the prospect of skyscrapers in mountains.


Owen Hatherley is a critic and author, focusing on architecture, politics and culture. His books include Militant Modernism (2009), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), and A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through urban Britain (2012).