Saturday, October 8, 2016

People In Glass Houses

In December of 1994, I took a trip to Paris armed with a couple of guidebooks, a list of buildings and a map of the city. I had spent my nights after work in the fall of that year marking up the map by hand to point me to all the buildings on my list when I arrived in the city. I was ready and organized. It was the first vacation I had booked after graduating architecture school and I was determined to see as many great works of architecture as possible in the week or so I had over in Europe.

The focus of that first Paris trip was getting to the works of Hector Guimard, Auguste Perret and Le Corbusier, three architects practicing at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries at a time when the industrial revolution was forcing architects to come to terms with new materials, new methods of construction and ultimately new ideas about space. It is absolutely the most exciting period of architectural history to me and I was determined to start to discover it in person in Paris that year. Even today, with my enthusiasm for architecture and its history a little dulled, I continue to be fascinated with the decades between about 1870 and 1940.

One of the non-Guimard / Perret / Corbusier buildings on my list in 1994 was the Maison de Verre or House of Glass, a residence / office built in the late 1920s and early 1930s for Dr. Jean Dalsace in the seventh Arrondissement of Paris. The house at the time of my first visit was privately owned and generally inaccessible to the public. But I had purchased a guidebook that suggested if you called the caretaker or something sketchy like that, you might be able to get inside if you called at the right time. I called from a payphone when I arrived in Paris and was asked to call back later. I never did. And so I went home to the United States with a few photographs of the outside of the house but without setting foot inside.

The rue Saint Guillaume facade of the Maison de Verre.
Ten years later I made a return trip to Paris, this time with a smaller list of buildings, intent on building on my 1994 trip and digging a little deeper into the city's architecture. This meant more Guimard and more Perret (I skipped Le Corbusier that trip). But I also put the Maison de Verre on my 2004 list and had what I am sure was a different telephone number to call and see if I could see what I didn't see in '94. This time, I didn't even make a call. I came, I saw, but I didn't see the Maison de Verre.

Fast forward to September 2016 and my third trip to Paris. This had to be the year I got inside the Maison de Verre. And it was. After 22 years and a couple of half hearted attempts, I finally made a real effort and checked this building off my list.

The history of the house starts in the late 1920s when Dalsace's father-in-law bought a new residence for the young married couple of Dalsace and his wife. And by new I mean an 18th century urban mansion separated from the city by a thick wall and entrance portico that led to an internal courtyard. But it was new to the Dalsaces.

Apparently living in a mansion in the middle of Paris wasn't all that to the young couple. The siting of the residence and the closeness of the adjacent buildings prevented their new house from getting a lot of sun. So their thought was let's knock this thing down and start over with something that's a little more modern and progressive. After all, those kinds of ideas were perfectly in line with their lifestyles. Dr. Dalsace was a gynecologist and member of the communist party who supported the idea of planned parenting in the early 20th century. Paris at that time might have seemed like a pretty progressive place but not that progressive just yet. Certainly their taste in design matched their societal beliefs.

The house beyond the rue Saint Guillaume facade.
The problem with this let's knock the whole thing down idea? The building had a tenant on the upper floor apartment whose lease was protected even in the event of property transfer. And she refused to move. So knocking the mansion down wholesale just wasn't an option. To solve all their problems of lack of light, wanting something more modern with progressive ideals and considering the top floors of the existing building had to remain, the Dalsaces turned to the husband of their daughter's English teacher, a guy named Pierre Chareau.

Chareau was not a trained architect (he apparently failed the entrance exam) but judging from the end product, it didn't seem to matter. What the Dalsaces ended up with from the mind of Chareau (who spent his career as a furniture and interior designer) was one of those architectural masterworks that gets generated from someone throwing the full force of everything he'd (or she'd) been thinking over the years at their first big project. I'm in love with this period of architectural history and with the city of Paris and I can't off the top of my head name a single other Chareau designed building. Not one. This was his big shot and he certainly made the most of it.

Before we go on, I should probably put some sort of a disclaimer out there. There is a good deal of doubt as to how the Maison de Verre got from nothing to what it is now. It's clear from planning records that the first permit application in 1927 was denied for being incomplete and that this was remedied the next year. It's also fairly certain that the exterior of the house was finished sometime in 1931 and that the Dalsaces moved in sometime in 1932. But it is not clear if there were ever any construction drawings prepared for the building and the decision logic behind certain design gestures is either lost or never existed.

Most of this uncertainty is generated from the fact that in 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris which forced Chareau (who was jewish) to flee the city with what we assume was pretty much nothing. He certainly wouldn't take the time to pack a set of drawings from his masterwork in his bags before he left. It is reasonable to presume that whatever Chareau left behind in Paris (for both the Maison de Verre and other projects) was destroyed either by the Germans or someone who found them later. And if there were documents or Chareau could maybe remember how the house came together, nobody thought to ask him and record it before he died in 1950.

What is clear (and not just from the sign on the front of the building) is that the house was a collaboration between Chareau and Bernard Bijvoët (pronounced bie-vut) and Louis Dalbet. Bijvoët covered the trained architect part of the equation and Dalbet was the master metal worker responsible for the extensive metal work on the interior of the house. Together they pulled off something special here.

The house is organized around two sequences of entry: one for patients visiting Dr. Dalsace's gynecological practice and one for residents and guests of the house. The ground floor of the building is dedicated almost exclusively to the medical practice. Everything above the ground floor is for the people living there, including the live-in chauffeur and maid who shared the entrance with the family. I wrote that last sentence deliberately, not to remind you that we are dealing with a wealthy family here (which we are) but to note that sharing an entrance with staff of the house was really a progressive idea. While it may seem bourgeois to us today to have live-in servants, to 1930s Paris it might have been shocking to have the staff share an entrance with their employers.

The ground floor is remarkable in a number of ways and it's full of Chareau's beliefs about how modern materials and processes which were children of the industrial revolution might transform how buildings work. Space is defined not by traditional thick plaster and wood walls but instead by changes in floor level or material or by screens and walls that move. Walls are thin (like single sheet of metal or plywood thin) and doors don't have frames (they pivot on poles that span from slab to slab). Building services are either built in (electrical outlets are in the floor or exterior walls), become part of the circulation sequence (you can walk on a heating duct), or are applied after the fact as discreet elements representing what they are (electrical outlets not in the floor or exterior wall are supported on polished metal tubing that becomes an architectural feature).

And then there are the windows which are operated more like they are part of an ocean liner or train car than a traditional house. You engage in opening and closing windows either by sliding them up and down (a la a steam train passenger car) or by operating a series of cranks and wheels that might open a single window or a collective bank simultaneously. Ventilation is brought into the house in a similar way in the main living space. All the ideas here are operating on a kit of parts concept using standardly manufactured items to generate affordable housing rather than custom building everything from scratch. Of course, the very design of the Maison de Verre was a completely custom endeavor that ended up costing far more than conventional construction and was never again duplicated. Chareau wasn't the first or last architect to design something with this ideal in mind. He also wasn't the first or last to fail at it.

You can see similar ideals in the exterior of the house and its distinctive glass block facade both in the front and at the garden or rear elevation. Glass block (and indeed large sheets of purely transparent glass) was a new invention in the early 20th century and Chareau seemed determined to use it to establish a new vocabulary for his architecture. These blocks are not the glass block of today which are manufactured by essentially gluing together two hollow thin walled glass halves together to make a whole unit. Instead, the block used by Chareau were solid glass pieces with a scoop of material removed while not yet cooled. The result is something much heavier than today's glass block.

Heavy glass block caused two concerns in the design of the house: first, they are made of glass and what happens if they crack (because glass does crack)?; second, these things are heavy and cannot support themselves so they need some help. Both problems were solved by supporting 20 to 24 glass blocks in a concrete frame which would provide support for all that weight and would minimize movement to prevent cracking. Yes, I know at the front of the building they appear to be set into steel frames (see above photographs) but they are not; the concrete is just painted black. You can see this pretty clearly in the rear of the house where Chareau and Co. decided to leave the concrete unpainted (see next photograph below).

The all-glass facade caused other issues, namely when the interior of the house was lit in the evening, you could actually see a lot of what was happening inside the private spaces of the family. To overcome this issue, Chareau devised a frame at the front of the building with high-powered stage-type lights to flood the front face of the house with light at night, simultaneously preserving the privacy of the Dalsaces and dramatically lighting the front of the house. If you look carefully at the pictures above you can see the frame supporting the lights with two ladders. These ladders were there for the express purpose of changing the light bulbs when they burned out.

Take a closer look at the front of the house and you can see still see the upper floor apartment where the woman who refused to move out lived. You can see it clearer at the back of the property. And the Maison de Verre was truly constructed under this portion of the original building, which was propped up temporarily while all of Chareau's ideas were brought to bear beneath.

From the interior of the house, you can see the fact that this house was built underneath a portion of an older existing mansion pretty clearly in the main interior reception and living space, a gorgeous two story open volume punctuated by four exposed steel I shaped columns propping up what remained above while simultaneously providing support for the cantilevered floor slab all the way to the self supported exterior glass block wall.

The main living space of the house is truly one of the great spaces of modern architecture. It's not as brilliant in its confinement and release of space as some of the houses of Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead, it's more impressive based on what it's made out of in a larger envelope created by someone who clearly understood the concept of modern architectural space. If there's no other value in getting inside the house (and there certainly is), standing in this main space is worth it alone.

If you make it inside one day, take a look at the four main columns propping up the old building. They appear to be painted red (which apparently is a rust protective coating) and black. But they are not painted black; the black you see in interior photographs is actually an added piece of slate, which I find fascinating because it seems antithetical to Chareau's desire to design a house built of mass produced items. But touch is an essential part of experiencing a building and I'm sure from seeing this detail, Chareau understood this, just like Alvar Aalto used to wrap metal door pulls and handrails in leather. 

It's this kind of detail along with seeing Chareau's almost obsessive use of pivoting mechanisms and other sorts of odd devices used to solve the interface between living in and building this house that provide the detail to the overall experience of being there. And that makes shelling out 40 Euros per person worthwhile (yes, you read that right). The only way you can get this sort of appreciation is by walking through that front door and exploring. On the third try, I'm appreciative that I finally got my shot. I understand more now, which is sort of the whole point.

This post was 22 years in the making.
Access to the Maison de Verre today is both simpler and more complex than it was in 1994 and 2004. Although I suppose I don't know that for a fact since I never actually got inside on either of my first two trips to Paris. The house is currently owned by the Rubin family, who actually live there for part of the year. So it's literally someone's house and not just a museum, in other words. But in what is a stroke of very great luck for architects who can make it to Paris, the Rubins have decided to open the house for one afternoon each week to a handful of visitors.

Now getting into the house is not as simple as showing up on the afternoon when the place is open. You need to request access ahead of time in writing stating your interest in the house (send it to It's also not cheap; a 90 minute or so tour of the house costs a cool 40 Euros as I stated above (20 Euros for students). But considering you are stepping inside one of the most unique works of residential architecture in the 20th century that cannot really be understood from reading a book, and considering the Rubins are letting strangers into their private residence, it's totally worth it. This is not something you are likely to do twice; spend some Euros and go if they will let you in. It is a total privilege to spend an hour and a half at this place. I'm thrilled I finally made it inside.

Last note on this post: I know there are no interior photographs here. The Rubins request that visitors not photograph the interior. It's annoying but it's their stuff in their house and that's the rule. So I followed it. You should too if you visit.

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