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A cubist tableau. A light show. A maverick of modernism. Hugo Macdonald explores a Parisian masterpiece.

Hidden in an enclosed courtyard on rue Saint-Guillaume, in Paris’ seventh arrondissement, is a house of holy grail status for the architecture community. In description alone, it sounds like something from a fairy tale: a glowing, three-story home made from glass bricks, wedged under the fourth-floor apartment of an 18th-century townhouse. The fact that it lay dormant for decades, unseen by all but a handful of family members and their friends, only adds to its legend…

  • Words:
    Hugo Macdonald
  • Photography:
    François Halard & Dominique Vellay

Even today, to visit the Maison de Verre you need to apply months in advance with proof of a connection to the profession of architecture. To call this house precious is an understatement. It is the sole surviving building (of only four completed) by the French architect Pierre Chareau. Built between 1927 and 1932 for Jean and Annie Dalsace, the house is an outstanding example of creative patronage. It is testament to Chareau’s imagination and skill, but perhaps more to the friendship between the architect and client: An extraordinary level of trust would have been required to commission this experimental home.

The Dalsaces were an enlightened couple. Jean was a gynecologist who would in later life be an active promoter of contraception and found the French National Association for the Study of Abortion. Annie mixed in the avant-garde cultural circles of the time: “She was less interested in pearl necklaces and fur coats than in the works of Braque, Ernst and Picasso,” her granddaughter Dominique Vellay wrote in a publication about the house.

It was thanks to Annie, more than Jean, that the Maison de Verre came into existence. Annie had met Louise Dyte, Pierre Chareau’s English wife, in 1905. As well as teaching Annie to speak English, Louise introduced her to the progressive Parisian artists, musicians and writers that she and her husband mixed with and the two couples became close friends. It was Annie’s parents who funded the work at Rue Saint-Guillaume in 1927, and Annie who was the open mind and driving force behind Chareau’s creation.

The Maison de Verre has a peculiar infill setting, thanks to a tenant on the top floor of the existing building who refused to budge. Undeterred, Chareau propped up the apartment, demolished the rest of the building underneath it and constructed a double-height, open plan space out of steel girders in its place.

He wrapped the courtyard-facing facade in translucent glass bricks, from which the house takes its name. It is said that he wanted the house to be “a box of light.”

It is hard to emphasize the imagination, not to mention the bravery, behind these moves. Despite the mind expansion of cultural innovation sweeping through western Europe in the 1920s, the principles of modernist architecture were stark. Buildings tended to adhere to strict theories of process and function; they did not play freely with form and feeling. “The Maison de Verre is a whimsical place, a tour de force and a site of contradictions,” says Esther da Costa Meyer, Professor of Architecture at Princeton University, who curated an exhibition on the house at the Jewish Museum in New York. “Today we are used to houses with glass facades but at the time, they were new.”

She also underscores the inventiveness of the building on the inside: “Though Chareau produced elegant bespoke furniture for the house, the interior was full of mass-produced industrial materials exposed to view: rubber flooring, metal doors, exposed pipes, industrial lighting fixtures.” If the exterior of the house was unusual for the time, the interior was another world entirely.

The girder supporting structure of the building meant that large spaces could be left open, concrete floors appeared to float and different spaces could be opened up or sectioned off with moving screens, all bathed in translucent light from the glass bricks on one side, with occasional flashes of views out to the garden on the opposite side. The effect is a house that feels like it is alive and changing constantly, with the movement of walls and parts, of light, and of people through it. It is the closest we might get to experiencing life inside a cubist painting.

There is an infectious sense of fun that runs throughout the Maison de Verre. This is a house with charm and charisma in every detail, from the phone booth with a light operated underfoot, to the aluminum coat hangers shaped like moustaches and the single red button by the entrance that lights the house on a timer, allowing just enough time to make it from the front door to the bedrooms. There are moments of ethereal beauty, surprising joy and utter genius intertwined. Yet, for all of its unusual character and ingenuity, the house has considerable domestic intimacy and comfort, too. Chareau balanced his use of industrial materials with natural ones: Pirelli rubber flooring and metal grate stairs are softened elsewhere with wood, slate and polished lacquer. Surfaces are smooth to touch and hard edges have been rounded. There’s a surprising blue carpet in the less surprisingly named blue sitting room. Tapestry screens and embroidered upholstery by Jean Dalsace’s school friend Jean Lurçat bring tactile layers of intrigue. What can look cold in photographs feels warm in the flesh.

Chareau also designed all the furniture and lighting in the house (except an early 19th-century mahogany dining table and set of chairs). This means the interior works perfectly with the architecture and, given his intimate friendship with the Dalsaces, he was able to create a world that they could inhabit effortlessly, however radical it might have been at the time. “The house was a place of friendship and open to everyone,” Dominique Vellay remembers. The Alsaces’ granddaughter later moved into the Maison de Verre with her daughter. “It was a meeting place where avant-garde ideas, artistic concepts and the most beautiful of utopian ideals could be expressed.” She remembers her grandmother as the lady of the house, standing at the top of the stairs waiting to receive guests. She recalls the dinners, the parties, the music concerts. Interesting people were always passing through.

When the Germans occupied Paris in the Second World War, the Dalsaces and the Chareaus fled to America. The Maison de Verre was stripped of its furniture, which was hidden in a barn by a relative in rural France. The story goes that the Germans tried to requisition the house, but gave up when they realized they could neither heat it nor light it. After the war, the Dalsaces returned and the home stayed in the family until 2006, when it was sold to Robert Rubin, an American collector and investor-turned-architect. Rubin has meticulously restored it and lives there with his French wife and their children. Pierre Chareau stayed in America and built just two further projects in his life, neither of which remain today. It is a testament to the genius of the Maison de Verre that it has, by itself, cemented its creator’s legacy as a maverick in the canon of modern architecture.

Some have questioned if the need for sectioning off private from professional space was Chareau’s starting point for including so many moving parts within the building: One of the construction requirements was a consultation and surgery space for Dr. Dalsace’s private medical practice on the ground floor. But more likely it was thanks to Chareau’s clients’ proclivity for playfulness and the opportunity they presented to experiment widely with his collaborators, the genius metalworker Louis Dalbet and Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet. “Dalbet handcrafted all the metal parts: the ventilation louvers in the living room, the retractable stairs in Madame Dalsace’s bedroom, the incredible elements in the bathrooms,” da Costa Meyer explains. Movable aluminum panels like airplane wings separate Jean’s shower space from Annie’s bath space.

New York’s Jewish Museum has created a 3-D rendering of the Maison de Verre that visitors can tour in virtual reality.

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