Between November 1919 and December 1920, a group of German expressionist architects conducted a utopian correspondence known as the “Crystal Chain” or the “Glass Chain” (in German: “Die Gläserne Kette”). In this chain of letter the architects exchanged ideas, mostly in the form of annotated drawings, on imaginary utopian architectures. The letters were anonymous, and the authors used pen-names in place of signatures, with the explicit purpose of forming a closed group in which imaginative ideas could be shared freely and avoid revealing anything to “uncomprehending eyes” (Taut, 1919).

The group was brought together by Bruno Taut, who, Inspired by Nietzschean philosophy, and seeing in architecture the means for social regeneration, was moved by the utopian objective of developing “symbolic forms and preparatory fantasies” (Whittle, 1985) for the “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art). Taut sent the invitation to some of the participants to the “Ausstellung für unbekannte Architekten (Exhibition for Unknown Architects), that showcased works of visionary art and architecture and was held in Berlin in April 1919.

Below is a list of the members of the group (pen-names in brackets):

  • Bruno Taut (Glas)
  • Willhelm Brückmnann (Berxback 7)
  • Hermann Finsterlin (Prometh)
  • Paul Gösch (Tancred)
  • Jakobus Göttel (Stellarius)
  • Walter Gropius (Maß)
  • Wenzel Hablick (W.H.)
  • Hans Hansen (Antischmitz)
  • Carl Krayl (Anfang)
  • Wassili Luckhardt (Zacken)
  • Hans Luckhardt (Angkor)
  • Hans Scharoun (Hannes)
  • Max Taut (no name)
glass chain
Wenzel Hablik (signed W.H.) “Villas: From the City. 1920” From the book “The Crystal Chain”, edited by Ianin Boyd Whyte

In his invitation letter, sent on November 24th 1919, Bruno Taut (Glas) sets the rules of the correspondence:

“Quite informally and according to inclination, each of us will draw or write down at regular intervals those of his ideas that he wants to share with our circle, and will then send a copy to each member. In this way an exchange of ideas, questions, answers, and criticism will be established.” (Taut, 1919, p.1)

The letters were aimed at envisaging the material manifestations of an utopian state of harmony and community (Whyte, 1985). Therefore, the Crystal Chain group refused (for the most part) to take part in architectural projects of the time, and focussed instead on imaginary works not to be built at the time, but to be realised  “(w)hen the world is once again ruled with understanding and generosity” (Behne, 1920, p.4). Utopia for the Crystal Chain was not a process, but a state located in an undetermined point in time.

In the introduction to its curated collection of letters from the Crystal Chain, Whyte notes:

“Although the correspondence produced few tangible results other than the letters and drawings on which it was based, it provided an important forum for debate during a period of transition. It served to distance the radical architects from the norms and expectations of the architectural establishment, and in doing so it made them more amenable to the new ideas that were soon to come from Russia, Holland, and France”. (Whyte,1985, p.12)

In an era in which the available means of communication didn’t support the effortless group communications available now, Taut designed a system that enabled a group conversation beyond the Berlin clique, by involving architects working in various parts of Germany. This conversation was conducted through the integrated use of textual and visual language on the material support of letters that make ideas “mobile, immutable, presentable, readable and combinable” (Latour, 1998)

Cover image: a letter from Bruno Taut (unsigned) in the book: “The Crystal Chain Letters”

Read more:

  • Whyte, Iain Boyd, ed. 1985. Crystal Chain Letters: Architectural Fantasies by Bruno Taut and His Circle. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
  • Socks (an online magazine edited bu Mariabruna Fabrizi and Fosco Lucarelli) has an interesting miscellanea of works by Bruno Taut. It is an interesting read that helps understanding the genesis and the context of the Crystal Chain: