Ways in which the past conceives the future, or, how to stage time travel
Originally commissioned by Jean Dalsace, a gynecholosit, and his wife, Annie, to the French designer Pierre Chareau, the Maison de Verre (Glass House) was constructed between 1927-1932 in Paris, and represents a modernist live- and workspace par excellence. Pierre Chareau, who was not a liscensed architect at the time, created a design team including the Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet and the metalworker Louis Dalbet. Home to the Dalsace’s family, the Maison de Verre also housed the doctor’s gynecology clinic. It is not only the playful architectural approach to the private areas and public spaces within a home that makes it interesting. It is also the introduction of industrial design and materials—from the factory, as well as airplanes and ships—into a domestic space.
Last week, some colleagues and I went on a private guided-visit to the Maison de Verre led by an architectural historian. What follows is a brief account on the visit, which helped me travel in time to a Paris of the 1920s, with Francis Picabia and Erik Satie taking me by the hand.
As we pass the street entrance of 31, rue Saint-Guillaume and enter the interior courtyard of this once hôtel particulier and now landmark home, the industrial theatre play of its creator, Pierre Chareau, begins. I say “industrial” because of the designer’s palpable fascination with engineering materials of the time; “theatre” because the home stages a Taylorist-specific relation to site and labor; and “play” because it is in experiencing the nuances where joy permeates. I use these terms because the Maison de Verre presents itself to be at times both severe and distant, and at other moments both intimate and playful.
I remember seeing many things there, and as if it were played back as a moving image in my mind, scenes begin revolving as the Maison de Verre’s glass and metal doors, trickling in, one after another, as the light does in that space. Then, a voix off prompts.
Outside, a rail of stage lights for washing the glass in light and blinding others from the intimacy of home. She points the new ones in the front courtyard, and the original ones in the backyard. I think the front ones are shy; the original just right. In the ground floor, a doorknob for bowing down in a gentle manner. She tells us it choreographs a dance between doctor and patient, a detail that reveals the closeness between Jean Dalsace and Pierre Chareau, a client relationship that is remarkable. Upstairs, a blue room for Annie Dalsace, with a hidden door for tea and a tucked-in stairwell to bed. She tells us it’s a boudoir, and gives a context of its architectural history and the hidden secrets of garden follies. There is a nautical reference in the boudoir’s stairwell, and some aviation materials in the circular biombo of the clinic downstairs.
Rarely can one experience so well how the past conceived of the future. We are accustomed to imagining through pictures. Walking inside the house, however, and feeling the proportion and light and being of things triggers other sensibilities. It situates one in the many narratives that embody the building—the Dalsace family, the doctor’s patients, the house maids and clinic’s staff, and of course Chareau, Bijvoet and Dalbet, their metalworkers and construction team.
I think of other things, too.
The Maison de Verre’s façade reminds me of Francis Picabia’s landmark stage set-design for Relâche (1924), an avant-garde ballet created by the painter and his composer friend, Erik Satie. Electricity. Machines. Mechanization. Even revolving doors. These are some of the things that influenced Picabia and Satie in their creation of Relâche, and they certainly appear to be also grounding thoughts for conceiving the Dalsace’s home. I wonder if anyone else has written about this possible relationship. I begin missing my library in New York, and suddenly wish to be browsing the one at the Maison de Verre.
The home’s main book shelve occupies one entire wall of the living room-like salon, which is flanked by the glass wall of the main façade. I recall reading in a book by Mark Valley that this room in the Maison de Verre was designed, at Annie Dalscae’s request, to be “big enough to house small orchestras.” These were peak years for art and culture in the city of Paris, and the interdisciplinary work of musicians, poets and painters of that era is still influential today. I’ve heard stories that Maison de Verre hosted gatherings of artist and intellectuals of the time. I never know if these are myths or historical facts. Maybe it is the imaginings of these that make that room be most inspiring.
Today, the Maison de Verre is owned by the collectors Stéphane Samuel and Robert Rubin, who live between New York and Paris. A slide show of the interior spaces of Maison de Verre, with photography by Mark Lyon, accompanied an article by Nicolai Oursoussoff (August 26, 2007), and is available online in The New York Times.