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03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Architectural Wonder Inspires a Work of Fiction

Because I recently ended up buying back the house my ex and I sold as part of our divorce agreement several years ago, I have a curiosity about what makes a house a home. This thought ran through my mind while reading Simon Mawer's The Glass Room (Other Press), especially when I came across what the fictional architect, Rainer von Abt, says to Viktor and Liesel, a young married couple who hired him to build their state-of-the-art home: "I will design you a life. Not a mere house to live in, but a whole way of life."

Among a number of well-drawn characters, the main one is the eponymous Glass Room that is in fact very real, according to the author's note, one that obviously inspired him to build a fictional world around it. Yet, as what fiction so often does, it reminds us where we've been while hopefully leading us to pay attention to where we're going. The story starts out in Czechoslovakia, beginning in the 1920s, and takes us into the most horrific of times where people were pulled from the lives they knew and taken from their homes, never to return. So it is with the family members living in the architectural wonder that was to exemplify a forward-thinking future.

It is Viktor who is eager for the modern way of living and when the architect shows him the plans for the Glass Room, something out of the ordinary for a private home, it fits his idea of a house for the future. However, with hints of trouble on the horizon, the future will soon be nothing but bleak and tragic, making a mockery of his envious lifestyle, even while the house remains standing and is used by others, initially for more subversive means.

Viktor is Jewish, while his wife is not. He reads all the newspapers, and as the years pass by, he realizes danger is brewing. Liesel, instead, chooses to read fashion magazines, thinking her husband's concern hyperbolic. I couldn't help but compare her apathy to so many people today who give far more interest to matters of little consequence than any sort of attention to the world around them. Metaphorically speaking, they close their blinds and shut themselves behind four walls that give them the false feeling of protection.

With that in mind, I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a Glass Room where the outside world can see in, as though it were an aquarium. Yet, this particular Glass Room was more than just part of a modern house where guests gasp in pleasant surprise upon walking in, and I couldn't help but wonder that instead of the world looking in at Viktor and Liesel and all the society dinners and piano performances they hosted, the couple had the opportunity to look out and watch as the world around them was being overrun by hate and intolerance and yet could do nothing to stop it. What happens to their modern way of life is what gives this novel heartbreaking context. When Viktor and his family must escape before the Nazis arrive, the narrator tells us "A house without people has no dimensions. It just is."

Fritz and Greta Tugendhat were the real homeowners of the house that inspired this novel and, like Viktor and Liesel, were forced to leave. The house with the Glass Room, considered a masterpiece by German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is now a public museum. Still, at one time, it was home to people who were forced to leave it and never got to return. The Glass Room, which was a finalist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, is a story that will stay with me for a long, long time. Perhaps it's because I have a soft spot for houses that mean more than "just is."

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