Small miracles

The Petrified Music of Architecture
Sir John Soane's Museum, London WC2

This must be how it feels to be a god. The 28 tiny, stunningly detailed and impossible fragile models of European cathedrals sit in glass domes on shelves at Sir John Soane's Museum looking so lifelike that a deity watching from above might, depending on his mood, applaud the effort made in his name, or smash them to smithereens without a second thought. These models are beautiful and almost, well, miraculous. They are the result of unknown man hours and infinite patience, mini Gothic masterpieces made of cardboard that have somehow survived for more than 150 years.

The models - which are currently exhibited at the Soane Museum under the sonorous title "The Petrified Music of Architecture" - were made by William Gorringe between 1840 and 1850 for Sir Herbert Oakeley, a composer of church music, who first showed an interest in cathedral architecture when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. These models form an important part of the Victorian revival of architectural model-making in which Soane himself played a key role.

The Soane harbours a delightful array of classical bric-a-brac housed haphazardly in an old townhouse on Lincoln's Inn Fields, and it is easy to see Soane's oddball collection as the fruits of a wealthy man's whimsy. But Soane used his collection for practical purposes, both in his role as an architect and as a lecturer at the Royal Academy. Model-making had all but gone out of fashion until Soane revived the practice in 1793, making 44 models for his Bank of England, and these and other architectural models became an integral part of his collection. Architecture students would come to his house to study the classical friezes and statues on the ground floor, before progressing to the model room above to examine these three-dimensional representations.

Gorringe's cathedrals never found their way into Soane's vast collection. They were bequeathed to Canterbury Cathedral in 1916 and have barely been seen in public for 80 years. They are made of cardboard and glue. A fine knife has been used to score the roofs to lend them the texture of lead or slate. Slivers of mica have been used to represent glazed windows. Edifices bristle with tiny statues, often just millimetres high. You need to crouch and push your face close to the glass case to fully appreciate the extraordinary detail.

The bulk of the models are of English cathedrals - including St Paul's, York Minster, Lincoln, Canterbury, Westminster Abbey and Durham - with five European cathedrals chosen for comparative significance. Gorringe almost produced these exquisite European miniatures without seeing the originals, instead making careful study of Oakeley's paintings and engravings to ensure he captured the craggy Gothic adornments of Strasbourg and Cologne. There is a heavy Gothic bias in general, with only St Paul's in London and St Peter's in Rome representing other architectural periods.

The English cathedrals look rather small and parochial next to their grand European cousins, although the continental churches were chosen precisely for their dimensions - Cologne is the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe; Milan the largest in Italy and Antwerp one of the widest around. When viewed at this scale - one inch for every 60 feet - it becomes obvious that even St Paul's, magnificent in model form even if the cross atop the dome has become slightly wonky over the decades, would fit comfortably inside the gargantuan confines of St Peter's Basilica.

Gorringe made other models but their whereabouts is now a mystery and the museum hope this exhibition will flush out more information on the man and his methods. More is known about Francois Fouquet, a French model-maker whose delightful miniatures of classic Roman and Greek buildings will follow Gorringe's cathedrals in the "Wonders Of The Ancient World" exhibitions in July. Twenty Fouquet models were acquired by Soane in 1833 and displayed in the model room alongside models of Soane's Bank and a stunning cork Pompeii. The museum is creating a new model room in the current renovation that should open in 2015.

Fouquet's creations are white plaster over metal frame, and it's no surprise that John Nash, that master of sweeping white neo-classicism, also had Fouquet's models on display at his Pall Mall home (they are now with the V&A). Two of Soane's models were damaged in the Blitz, the plaster chipped back by shrapnel to reveal the wire skeleton. They currently sit in storage awaiting conservation, but in their current condition represent a fascinating broth of overlapping histories. Victorian models of classical structures with 20th century damage: three eras on two tiny, perfect frames.

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This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis