Cracking form

Architecture byHugh Aldersey-Williams

The city of Strasbourg is a battleground between the forces of dark and light. While the European Union's commissioners do dirty deeds behind closed doors, members of the European Parliament now go about their business in full view of the people who voted them in. If anybody cares to watch.

The parliament's new building, which was completed in January and will formally open when the parliament assembles in the spring, hugs the banks of the river Ill which runs through the Euro-campus on the city outskirts. A huge glass screen in a boomerang curve forms the main facade behind which MEPs meet. A taller, apparently incomplete, round tower rises up behind it like a gasometer and houses MEPs' offices. Richard Rogers' European Court of Human Rights stands on the opposite bank.

The geometry of ellipses - geometric figures in which two centres fight for supremacy - is intended to mark, in the Parisian architects' words, "an unstable moment, the passage from a central power to the democratic movement". But it isn't the form that communicates the parliament's intent. It's the substance. Glass is now the material of choice for democrats in Strasbourg, in Berlin, in Edinburgh.

Transparent building has been a romantic ideal of architecture at least since the beginning of this century and probably well into the last. Before that, as at Hardwick Hall, "more glass than wall", a generous expanse of glass was used to indicate wealth.

Glass suspends ordinary considerations of space. It confuses indoors and out, the public and the private. Its use might be seen as architects' response to the new science describing the nature of space, although this transgressive property of glass was already understood by William Whewell commenting on the Crystal Palace in 1851.

In order to see how glass has captured architects' imaginations, it helps to look not at the buildings they get built but at the models they made of them beforehand. There is a long and distinguished line of architects' models that represent buildings as far more transparent than they could ever be if built. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the first to be guilty of this with two glass skyscrapers, one jagged in outline, the other amoebically curved, intended for sites in Weimar Berlin. Norman Foster's proposals for "millennium towers" in London and Tokyo continue the tradition. The models have floors that are infinitely thin; there are no blinds, no furniture, no partitions and indeed no people. They are, in short, how some architects would prefer their buildings to be. But these models are selling tools, too. Their transparency is used to persuade planners that the towers will be all but invisible.

Even then, all is not quite as it seems. A glass wall - a sensory contradiction - appears to blend inside and out, public and private space, while actually preserving the sanctity of both. Glass appears revolutionary while achieving conservative ends. It became the cloak of corporate anonymity long before these parliaments were conceived.

Mussolini declared that "Fascism is a glass house". The architect Giuseppe Terragni took him at his word and built the Casa del Fascio in Como. The Germans thought differently. Goebbels would have been happy for Miesian to become the Nazi house style, and modernism might have developed as the official architecture of Nazism but for its leader's own interest in the mother of the arts. Hitler felt that transparency was fine for industrial buildings, and there are the power stations and aircraft factories to prove it. But he mocked the idea of a domestic architecture: "Just imagine, Speer, a Christmas tree in front of a wall of glass!" One can only wonder how we would now regard modernist architecture had Hitler found it suited to his purpose.

Germany today is equally conscious of the message of its official architecture. Norman Foster is putting the finishing touches to a conversion of Germany's historic Berlin parliament building, the Reichstag, adding to it a glass cupola as a beacon. In a booklet on the project, he says: "Symbols are important. They can demean and destroy. They can also inspire and unite . . . We believe the light-house, in its clarity and transparency, is adequate to serve as a symbol of an open democracy and a country devoted to the future." The Reichstag dome won't permit you to see German democrats at work, mind you. It merely suggests that their processes are transparent. The same booklet reassures that "visitors' access is screened from other areas".

Oddly, Foster won the competition with an entry that could be decoded in a quite different way. The Reichstag building was to be entirely preserved in outward appearance, with a huge canopy raised over it , an act of protection, of cherishing almost, of its ambiguous past.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think