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La Maison de Verre: Negotiating a Modern Domesticity M. Jean Edwards, M.F.A. and W. Geoff Gjertson, M. Arch., University of Louisiana at Lafayette ABSTRACT The Maison de Verre (1928–1932), built in Paris and designed by Pierre Chareau in collaboration with Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoët, metalworker Louis Dalbet, and the clients, Dr. and Mme Dalsace, does not fit easily with
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   Journal of Interior Design 15 © Copyright 2008, Interior Design Educators Council,  Journal of Interior Design  34(1)  Introduction The Maison de Verre (1928 – 1932), built in Paris and designed by Pierre Chareau in collaboration with Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoët, metalworker Louis Dalbet, and the clients, Dr. and Mme Dalsace, does not fit easily within the canon of modern architecture and interior design. Though acknowledged at the time of its construction for the groundbreaking use of modern building materials and technological innova-tions, the house has remained relatively unacknowl-edged in the literature of interior design, where it has been dismissed as “stylistically” modern without contributing to the critical dialogue of the modern interior. The recent acquisition of the Maison de Verre by Robert Rubin, an American architectural historian, has occasioned renewed interest in the position of the house within the history of modern architecture. Significantly, he is intent on carefully re-storing the house as a place of habitation for himself and his family, not as a museum piece. This intent suggests that the house continues to contribute to the dialogue between modernism and livability, a quality of domesticity more identified with the interior than the exterior. Thus, a reassessment of the house in the context of interior design history and theory seems timely and appropriate. Kenneth Frampton first rescued the Maison de Verre from critical obscurity in a 1969 essay in Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal   . At the beginning of his essay, Frampton acknowledges the difficulty in classifying the house conceptually, stylistically, and in terms of its genre, highlighting the problematic na-ture of this house when viewed within what he calls “accepted” norms. Frampton then sets out to claim the house for architecture by locating the house within “the genealogy of modern architecture” ( Wigglesworth, 1998 , p. 266). However, his opening question, “Are we to regard it as a building in the accepted sense or should we rather think of it as a grossly enlarged piece of furniture, interjected into an altogether larger realm?” (Frampton, p. 77) remains unanswered according to Chareau’s biographer Brian La Maison de Verre: Negotiating a Modern Domesticity M. Jean Edwards  , M.F.A. and W. Geoff Gjertson  , M. Arch ., University of Louisiana at Lafayette ABSTRACT The Maison de Verre (1928 – 1932), built in Paris and designed by Pierre Chareau in collaboration with Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoët, metalworker Louis Dalbet, and the clients, Dr. and Mme Dalsace, does not fi t easily within the canon of modern architecture and interior design. Though acknowledged at the time of its construction for the ground-breaking use of modern building materials and technological innovations, it went un-acknowledged throughout much of the twentieth century as a defi ning modernist building until a 1969 essay by Kenneth Frampton rescued the house from critical obscurity. In his essay, Frampton asks whether the house is to be understood as a conventional building or as a piece of furniture. The possibility that the house might be better understood as a “piece of furniture” suggests two questions: (1) Is the Maison de Verre more signifi cant for its interior design than for its architecture and (2) can its signifi cance be located in the quality of livability that resulted from the negotiation between the ideals of early modern-ism and the demands of habitation? Our purpose is to propose answers to these questions by analyzing the complexities of Chareau’s design in relation to the rhetoric of early modern architectural theory and its challenge to the nineteenth-century concept of domesticity. We assert that Chareau’s design resolution as expressed in the interior of the Maison de Verre represents a case study in livability that warrants greater attention in the context of the history and theory of interior design distinct from architectural history and theory.   Journal of Interior Design  Volume 34 Number 1 2008 16 NEGOTIATING A MODERN DOMESTICITY EDWARDS AND GJERTSON Brace Taylor ( Taylor, 1992 ). This question of genre (building or furniture) has both practical and meta-phorical implications for understanding the Maison de Verre. Practically speaking, furniture plays only a sup-portive role in the architectural conception. It is not necessarily attached or otherwise critical to the archi-tectural structure; instead, it functions to support human activity. Metaphorically, however, furniture often performs a defining role in the understanding and apprehension of interior architectural space, serv-ing as a direct mediator between the human occupant and the building structure. The possibility raised by Frampton that the house might be better understood as a “piece of furniture” thus suggests two further questions: Is the Maison de Verre more significant for its interior design than for its architecture, and can this significance be located in the quality of livability that resulted from the negotiation between the ideals of early modernism and the demands of habitation? Purpose and Method Our purpose is to propose answers to these questions by analyzing the complexities of Chareau’s design for the Maison de Verre, focusing particularly on the design of its interior. The analysis is based on a litera-ture review and personal observation of the house. We begin with an overview of the treatment of the house and its designer within literature specific to interior design and its history, as distinct from archi-tecture, noting at the outset the limited role the house has played to date in this literature. We then examine early modern architectural theory, primarily in the work of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier to establish the theoretical context within which the house was built and has been considered. Our review concludes with a look at the work of contemporary authors who have focused particularly on the spatial organization and detailing of the Maison de Verre’s interior through the dual lens of domesticity and gender. We include refer-ences to the literature of domesticity as it relates to the changing interior of the early twentieth century. Direct observations of the house also contribute to the analysis and understanding of the interior. A personal tour of the Maison de Verre taken in the summer of 2007 — one of the last private tours of the living quarters before the new owner closed the house for renovation — and observations made by Chareau and his contempo-raries at the time of its construction provide experiential readings of the house. We compare and contrast these reflections to the dwelling requirements as articulated by Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture  , a pub-lication contemporary with the construction of the house. We also examine the observations in relation to qualities associated with domestic livability as currently understood. The analysis concludes that the Maison de Verre represents a case study that warrants greater attention in the context of the history and theory of interior design distinct from architectural history and theory, especially in relation to its domestic livability. Literature Review The Maison de Verre is far less well known than such modernist icons as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (built around the same time), and it plays a tertiary role, at best, in the literature of modern architecture and inte-rior design. The obscurity of the house is due at least in part to the fact that the clients and their descen-dents have owned and lived in the house for most of the time since its completion — it was briefly aban-doned during World War II — making access to the house very restricted. The longevity of this habitation, however, attests to the livability of the house, a qual-ity not necessarily associated with other modern mas-terpieces, such as the Villa Savoye and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, both of which were built as weekend retreats, not as primary residences. The Savoye family spent roughly a decade in their villa before abandoning it: In September 1936, six years after the villa’s official completion, Madame Savoye com- pressed her feelings about the performance of the flat roof into a (rain-splattered) letter [to Le Corbusier]: “It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp, and the wall of the  garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods Metaphorically ... furniture often performs a defining role in the understanding and apprehension of interior architectural space, serving as a direct mediator between the human occupant and the building structure.   Journal of Interior Design  Volume 34 Number 1 2008 17 NEGOTIATING A MODERN DOMESTICITY EDWARDS AND GJERTSON in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight.” … “After innumerable demands on my part, you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 is unin-habitable,” admonished Madame Savoye in the autumn of 1937. “Your responsibility is at stake and I have no need to foot the bill. Please render it habitable immediately. I sin-cerely hope that I will not have to take re-course to legal action.” Only the outbreak of the Second World War and the Savoye fami-ly’s consequent flight from Paris saved Le Corbusier from having to answer in a courtroom for the design of his largely unin-habitable, if extraordinarily beautiful, ma-chine-for-living ( de Botton, 2006  ). In the case of the Farnsworth House (1945 – 1951), the owner and the architect fought in court and out over problems with the glass structure, and its heating, plumbing, and electrical systems. In addition to these problems, their conflicts included different conceptions of how to furnish the interior. Dr. Edith Farnsworth intended to use her family heirlooms and other acces-sories redolent of traditional domestic environments, while Mies sought to minimally furnish the house with his own designs, including his Barcelona chairs to be upholstered in pink suede. “These, [Dr. Farnsworth] claimed, would not only be too heavy but would ‘make the house look like a Helena Rubenstein studio’” ( Friedman, 1998 , p. 143). In the end, her struggle with the lack of privacy in her glass house drove her out. After twenty years, Farnsworth abandoned the fight: Having sold the house … and moved to Italy in the early 1970’s, she looked back on the experience with bitterness. … “I would  prefer to move as the women do in the Old Quarter of Tripoli, muffled in unbleached homespun so that only a hole is left for them to look out of.” Best of all, she said, the world outside would “not even know where the hole was” ( Friedman, 1998  , p. 147). Despite their arguable lack of success as domestic edifices, however, both of these modern houses, the Villa Savoye and the Farnsworth House, have con-tributed significantly to the critical discussions of twentieth-century domestic architecture. In addition, they are much more frequently illustrated and dis-cussed in the context of interior design history and theory than is the Maison de Verre. The Maison de Verre in the Literature of Interior Design Interior design historians from the ’80s through 2000 have generally dismissed the Maison de Verre as a unique example of a “stylish” modernism. Their criticisms seem based on the degree to which the house deviates from the rhetorical concerns of early modern architects. Massey (1990) states, “Designers like Cha-reau … incorporated modern materials and tubular-steel furniture into their designs to provide a modish effect, and cared little for the aims and ideals of Le Cor-busier or the Bauhaus” (pp. 100 – 101). This statement by Massey seems to suggest that to the extent that the modernism of the Maison de Verre represents a style rather than a theoretical position, it can be dismissed as insignificant to the critical history of interior design. Authors Tate and Smith (1986) , who provide a gener-ally thorough and balanced overview of twentieth-cen-tury interior design, limit their discussion of the Maison de Verre to a brief description of the interior insofar as it expresses the Machine Age Moderne style. This de-scription includes acknowledgment of the technical in-novations of the mechanical operations of the house: It has black metal bookcases, a ladder, and industrial rubber flooring among its furnish-ings in the two-story living room; upholster-ies on Chareau-designed sofas were tapestries by the painter Jean Lur ç at. The mechanical system in the Maison de Verre is integrated into the structural system:  grilles along perimeter platforms supply duct-ed warm air. Electrical and telephone wiring is conveyed along the steel columns, with clustered control panels for both switcher and outlets. Up lights at the upper level reflect ambient lighting from the ceiling (p. 305). Interior design historians from the ’80s through 2000 have generally dismissed the Maison de Verre as a unique example of a “stylish” modernism.   Journal of Interior Design  Volume 34 Number 1 2008 18 NEGOTIATING A MODERN DOMESTICITY EDWARDS AND GJERTSON  The degree to which these innovations may or may not have contributed to the livability of the house, however, is not analyzed. In contrast they devote over three pages and several illustrations (among them the plan and the living room of the Villa Savoye) to “The Purism of Le Corbusier” (pp. 305 – 310) thus ascrib-ing much greater significance to his work in their dis-cussion of interior design history. Suzanne Trocmé in Influential Interiors ( 1999 ) devotes only a single paragraph and one illustration to the Maison de Verre, again merely describing its use of industrial components. She reiterates the assertion that Chareau “did not share the social aims of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier or care much for theorizing, but welcomed the industrial materials and general ideas of the Modern movement” (p. 99). Pile (2000) , in A His-tory of Interior Design, similarly limits his coverage of Chareau and the Maison de Verre to one paragraph and one illustration. Pile acknowledges that Chareau’s furniture designs for the house are suggestive of “a move from Art Deco to the International Style” (p. 309), but this remains a stylistic observation, not an examination of the spatial complexities and or the livability of the house within the larger context of modern interior design. Again, the emphasis is on the style rather than the substance of the house. In Interior Architecture Kurtich and Eakin (1996) rec-ognize Chareau as a master of interior space, but they neglect to mention the Maison de Verre. Instead they reference the Dalsaces’ two-room apartment that Cha-reau designed for them in 1918 (p. 340). The Dalsaces lived in this apartment for ten years before commis-sioning the Maison de Verre. This commission attests to their satisfaction with and faith in Chareau as the appropriate designer to realize their intention to build a modern house that would accommodate the doctor’s office and surgery along with a family residence. Pierre Chareau and the Early Modern Movement There is evidence that Pierre Chareau was, in fact, sympathetic with many of the aims of the early mod-ern movement. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s Cha-reau’s designs were published in the contemporary press and regularly exhibited in public venues that in-cluded both the avant-garde Paris Salon d’Automne as well as the more conventional Salon des Artistes Déco-rateurs (a salon supported by the French Ministry of Culture). He eventually broke with the Société des Ar-tistes Décorateurs to help found the Union des Artistes Modernes, a group that embraced the industrial mate-rials and formalist ideas of the modern movement. In addition, he served on the editorial board of the maga-zine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui that also was iden-tified ideologically with modern architecture. He, along with Le Corbusier and other avant-garde architects and designers, was a founding member of the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). This organization sought to define and pro-mulgate the principles of a rational and functionalist modern architecture. In its La Sarraz Declaration of 1928, CIAM (1970) made the following pronounce-ments regarding the new architecture: 1) … The true problems of dwelling have been pushed back behind entirely artificial sentimental conceptions. The problem of the house is not posed. Clients, whose demands are motivated by nu-merous factors that have nothing to do with the real problem of housing, are generally very bad at formulating their wishes. … The tradition is created of the expensive house, the building of which deprives a large part of the population of healthy living quarters. 2) … A body of fundamental truths could be established forming the basis for a domestic science (for example: the general economy of the dwelling, the principles of property and its moral significance, the effects of sunlight, the ill effects of darkness, essential hygiene, rationalization of household economics, the use of mechanical devices in domestic life, etc.). ( CIAM, 1970  , p. 111) Chareau and Le Corbusier, along with twenty-two other architects, signed this declaration on June 8, 1928. This commission attests to their [the Dalsaces] satisfaction with and faith in Chareau as the appropriate designer to realize their intention to build a modern house that would accommodate the doctor’s office and surgery along with a family residence.

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Mar 17, 2018
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