Photo via Flickr by BM.

“For architects it represents the road not taken: a lyrical machine whose theatricality is the antithesis of the dry functionalist aesthetic that reigned through much of the 20th century.”
– Nicolai Ousaroff (The New York Times, “The Best House in Paris,” 8/29/07)

Ousaroff’s quote is just the tip of an iceberg that is the famous Maison de Verre on Rue Saint-Guillaume. I have had the opportunity to visit the famous home twice through Columbia University (and my mild obsession with the house). Architectural historian Mary Vaughn Johnson gives a fascinating guided visit, bringing to life the original occupants of the home and their influence on the design. In the 1920s, the newly-wed Annie Dalsace began to envision a modern home on the property gifted to her on her nuptial, which she shared with her physician husband and eventually two children.  The current owner is retired financier and scholar, Robert M. Rubin, a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in the history and theory of architecture at Columbia University. He has been restoring and providing a limited public an opportunity to see the house.

Almost paradoxically, the house was both a “machine for living,” and an embrace of the arts and crafts movement, and the tour clearly demonstrates how artisanship and mechanization could coexist seamlessly in the Maison de Verre. The architect Pierre Chareau embodies this complexity, with his background as a furniture designer and his involvement in the C.I.A.M movement. It was even said that Le Corbusier often peeked into the courtyard during construction, as he worked and lived just nearby.

As such, the impact of the architectural movements at the time is clear: the homage to piloti construction and the interest in mass-produced housing. Simultaneously however, the industrial structure of the house–glass, riveted steel columns lined with fire resistant slate, and iron railings–is counterbalanced with more intimate furniture: wooden panels with a flame-like pattern, Japanese folding curtain, wood furniture, and rubber flooring. The partnership between Chareau and iron craftsman Louis Dalbet on the Maison de Verre, further emphasizes the juxtaposition of ideas within the home.

The ostensible design paradoxes in the Maison de Verre connect in an almost infinite progression:
– The functions are separated but the spaces flow continuously such that one is always given a view to the next room. This intimates a space larger than the actual”¦
– But the view to the next room can almost always be closed off through human action, be it a soundproof metal door, a curtain, a folding screen and more”¦
– Yet, even when the view is blocked, architectural details indicate the presence of human bodies. For example, when Madame Dalsace entered her petit salon, a sliding glass door would emerge in Dr. Dalsace’s private office”¦
– This mechanization pervades throughout the house but is countered by a reliance on natural forces–gravity, the weight of a panel to create a perfect pivot and natural ventilation…

The furniture and interior décor were predominantly hand crafted and designed by Chareau, and the main feature of the house–the glass wall–was sand casted, a process closer to that of an artisan. This type of glass wall was traditionally used for smaller windows in staircases or walls, but never as a complete faà§ade. The front faà§ade you see now is sadly not the original, as it was subject to cracks and deterioration within twenty years of construction, but the original glass (which yields a warmer light and higher translucency) still exists on the back faà§ade. The replacement front faà§ade was factory made using machines.

Close up of Original Glass Wall  (Photo by Michelle Young)

Johnson believes that Chareau deliberately dramatized the theatricality of the juncture where systems and design concepts meet in the Maison de Verre. This is achieved through an interplay between opacity and transparency via the use of materials. This separation of systems is prominently displayed at the front entrance, an obvious pronouncement of the design theory. A 3-button free-standing buzzer gives you a choice between service, visiteurs and docteur (for the doctor’s office designed for the first floor of the home)

The house was literally inserted into a traditional Parisian home because an elderly woman refused to move out of her apartment on the top floor, and was protected by Parisian tenant laws. Today, the top floors are occupied by the daughter of the Dalsace family and the windows were altered into English double-hung sash windows, a further attempt to distance the house from traditional Parisian architecture.

The literal insertion of the glass house

The Back of the House (Photos by Michelle Young)

Equally importantly in the design of the Maison de Verre is the connection between design, social propriety and ease of use. The one doorknob in the house appears to be an afterthought, but is no less of a miracle in design. The doorknob is lower than usual and slides in an upwards arc, allowing Dr. Dalsace to gracefully open the door for his patient and return her to reception after her appointment. The doors are curved and the walls from which the doors open do not align, giving the impression of being led into a room. The desk designed by Chareau has a retractable writing table to lessen the distance between doctor and patient during conversation.

The house also has five staircases, none of which is alike in construction or character. There are no railings on the main staircase leading to the grand salon of the private home and the staircase hooks into the floor like an airplane ladder, another staircase has removable metal steps for easy cleaning. The wardrobes are accessible from both outside the bedrooms and the inside, allowing the servant to return laundry without entering the bedrooms. And each fork, knife and spoon had its own uniquely designed home within velvet lined cases.

Lighting was also an important design consideration, from the dramatic theater projection lights on the exterior to small details within the interior. The light to a private telephone booth turned on when Dr. Dalsace stepped in and turned off when he exited. A bathroom light turns on when the door is opened, remains on when the door is closed for the first time during use, and turns off when the door is closed the second time when the visitor exits. Johnson’s PhD research focuses on the sanitation equipment of the Maison de Verre particularly for its lavish interest in bathrooms. In a house designed for just four, there are 6 bidets, 6 toilets, 12 lavabos (bathroom sinks), 3 bathtubs and 1 shower. Just as telling are the dimensions: the size of the master bathroom equals the size of the master bedroom.

Finally, for preservation buffs: the doctor’s office has been preserved in the same state it was in fifteen years ago when it was still in use by Dr. Dalsace’s son-in-law, an obstetrician, and you will be pretty amazed with the examining table that was first used by Dr. Dalsace as a gynecologist and later by the Dr. Vellay who delivered babies on it!

To visit, you must be in the field of architecture or a related field. You must also reserve 3-4 months in advance for individuals and 5-6 months in advance for groups by emailing [email protected]. Be sure to state the purpose of your tour. The tours only occur on Thursdays and a maximum of ten people are allowed per visit. The cost is 40 euros per person, 20 euros for students and professors of architecture. It might sound steep, but it’s well worth it for an insightful hour and a half visit of such a renown and private home.

How to Get There:
31,  rue SaintGuillaume ,  7th Arrondisement
Metro:  M4 to Saint-Sulpice or St. Germain-des-Prés, M10/M12 to Sevres-Babylone, M12 to Rue du Bac

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich. Find more information about visiting the Maison de Verre here.