Moral Exhibitionism and the Maison de Verre

Robert Wiesenberger
| Jun 22, 2011

Mr. Robert Rubin, who so generously opened his home to us this past Saturday, has asked that we not make interior photography of the Maison de Verre (MdV) freely available online. So, this blog post will be light on images. On the one hand, this is too bad: I was surprised to discover that, as much as the MdV interior has been beautifully documented in photographs, the wealth of ingenious details that abound—from the spring-loaded closures of the cabinetry, to the tiered bookshelves, to the removable chromed treads of the stairs—exceeds all the published photography I have seen.

On the other hand, photography (and certainly not mine) would not capture the subtlety of these details, and no still medium could capture their animation— the lively way they swing, articulate and pivot along their prescribed planes and arcs. Nor could photographs suggest their remarkable feel— the close tolerances, precise weighting and positive click that the furniture and cabinetry still have after 80 years; the way the doors close slowly by themselves. And the MdV is as much a house of grand, spatial gestures, as it is of minute, artisanal details. These too escape my photographs. So it really is for the best: I will try to describe here how the MdV feels.

The only photographs that I am able to post are of the facade, which is the aspect of the house I least want to illustrate. This is not because it is uninteresting, but rather because the MdV’s titular feature is so widely exposed. It does give me an opportunity, however, to discuss how the house has been represented photographically. Here it is, for example, as shot by François Halard, and included in Nicolai Ouroussoff’s New York Times review, “The Best House in Paris”:[1]

Maison de Verre facade (François Halard)

This lovely image is typical of recent representations of the home: a dead-on elevation of a monumental, glowing lantern. Yet my experience approaching the MdV that Saturday morning belied the expectations set by heroic images like these.  Passing through the unassuming street entrance to 31 Rue-St. Guillaume, and into the small courtyard, the view surprised me. It is cropped out of these photos (even more by the NYT than in Halard’s original), but the MdV only occupies about two thirds of the vertical real estate of the masonry structure into which it is inserted. Its scale feels like an almost humble intervention— except, of course, for its formal audacity.

Facade (author)

The dead-on treatment also collapses perspective on a house one might expect to project into the courtyard. Yet on foot it becomes clear how much the MdV is truly built into its 19th century host, complicating the narrative of a monumental modern icon. (It should be noted that the upstairs neighbors, whose refusal to vacate introduced the peculiar constructional challenge of the MdV, some years ago renovated their facade to widen the windows and jettison a mansard roof, slightly lessening the starkness of the original stylistic disparity, and bowing to the modern character of the new construction they had resisted.)

Perhaps the greatest surprise in approaching the presumably luminous “House of Glass” is that, by the light of an overcast Parisian morning, the glass facade appears quite dull, even muddy— not far off, tonally, from the gray plaster of the adjacent wall. This quality changed with exposure to high sunlight, which emphasized the geometry of the circles inscribed within the glass brick lenses. These bricks have been replaced, after some cracking, with an approximation of the original sand-cast Nevada blocks produced by Saint-Gobain, which remain on the better-protected rear facade. The original glass has a slightly greener cast, thanks to its iron content, and creates a more intense dappling effect across a concave surface dimpled like a hammered metal bowl.

Flood light track on facade (author)

It is by night that the MdV famously glows. Light from within meets large floodlights attached to tracks projecting from the facade. Our tour leader, Mary Vaughn Johnson switched these lights on during the afternoon of our visit, so we could see their yellow-gold effect inside and out. Elevations of the facade foreshorten this scaffolding. In person, the projection of these tracks flanking the entry is hard to ignore, and creates the impression of approaching from behind-the-scenes of a stage set. Critics have observed not just the choreography of circulation in the MdV, but also the cinematic character of its interior.[2] It is striking, then, that even after seeing the apparatus of this home’s cinematic effects as one approaches, its immersive, dematerializing quality and intoxicating cinematic glamour are undiminished once we have set foot inside.[3]

Entry doorbells (author)

After ringing one of the doorbells to adapt the home’s programmatic function to the visitor (patient, guest or service call), all entrants pass down a narrow hall walled in glass to a secretary, who provides another sorting function. I will not attempt to describe the circulation of patients through Dr. Dalsace’s ground-floor medical practice in detail (he was a preeminent gynecologist, later nationally recognized for championing birth control), as it is better seen in plans. Yet I would like to comment on the remarkable choreography of privacy, professionalism and respect staged on this floor. A series of sliding doors, metal screens and different treatments of glass work as layers and veils to balance privacy and openness. Dr. Dalsace’s consultation room—backed by a double-height glass brick wall that telegraphs transparency and trust—has a desk with a rolling leaf on casters, so that he could maintain professional distance or lean in to hear patients’ privileged information, whispered in confidence. Seeing his patients out of the room, Dr. Dalsace was forced to bow deeply, as he ran the lock from high to low down its arc-shaped track.

The most dramatic experience of the home begins when social visitors turn a sharp left down the entry hall. An ostentatiously delicate hinge mounted on the ceiling slides a semicircular screen away, and leads to the grand, ship-ladder staircase, which faces the main facade’s double-height wall of glass. Mrs. Dalsace was said to receive visitors from the landing, silhouetted before a wall of glass, as her guests climbed the wide, railing-less stairs, which drop off vertiginously to either side— cinematic to be sure. Walking up myself, and convinced no one was looking, I had the urge to throw my arms out to either side while climbing these stairs— probing the space, and perhaps mimicking a tightrope walker, as one thinks keenly of balance.

Grand salon (Todd Eberle)

I was not able to capture the quality of light in the grand salon, though some very fine photographs do justice to the space. Analogies to a massive cinema screen are not far off, and the diffuse yet intense quality of light made me squint by midday. The effect is of natural daylight, albeit severed from the cues or distractions of nature—”a world within a world,” as Kenneth Frampton put it. The house feels clean, with light playing off every surface, and a sense of crisp clarity even affects the acoustic space. Mary Vaughn Johnson analogized the interior atmosphere by night to a casino, as it becomes difficult to note the passage of time. We took lunch in the grand salon, sitting on Mr. Rubin’s newer furniture (most of the originals are now in the collection of the Pompidou), but still resting our drinks on Chareau’s handmade brass fan table (I searched desperately for a coaster).

Mary urged us, during her excellent slideshow in the introduction, to resist coldly aestheticizing the house— seeing only line, light, shadow, and the industrial quality of the materials. This is surely the nature of most representations of the house, such as those of architectural photographer Todd Eberle.[4]

Electrical detail (Todd Eberle)

I have to confess, though, that it is difficult not to aestheticize the house in this way. The module of the glass bricks in the facade corresponds to the proportions in the furniture and even to the squares of round stud rubber flooring that resemble my childhood kitchen tiles— except these are now cracked like a rhino’s skin, with each tile progressing at a different rate of decay depending on its orginal batch of natural rubber. This geometry contributes to a sense of harmony in the house— that everything fits together in a certain way. This is what Chareau, Dalbet and Bijvoet were working out over the four-year, on-site design and construction process. The Maison de Verre reflects this precision, but never at the cost of warmth, lyricism, and even wit.

* * *

Before I conclude, I want to turn briefly to one significant reception of glass architecture in the modernist historiography that relates closely to the MdV, and with which I tried to square my own impressions while visiting the home.

During the mid-1930s, Dr. Dalsace’s home served as a salon for Paris society members, Marxist intellectuals, and Surrealist artists and poets. In April of 1934 the German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who had fled Nazi Germany for Paris, was to give a series of five talks at the MdV on German literature and the current politics of the left. The talks were canceled on short notice when Dr. Dalsace took ill, with only fragmentary notes remaining. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Benjamin knew the MdV well, and that it contributed to his position on glass architecture.

Shortly after fleeing Germany in 1933, Benjamin wrote the essay “Experience and Poverty.” Here he describes the social and cultural aftermath of the Great War, in which the value of experience had been destroyed in the face of unknown horror and new technology— for which man’s accumulated experience was wholly unprepared. This kind of “resetting” of experience has a virtue, he argues, in a “new, positive concept of barbarism,” for it forces the culture and its individuals to “start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way.”

Benjamin takes architecture as a prime example of this new start. Deeply influenced by Sigfried Giedion’s book Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete of 1928, Benjamin singles out the new “constructors,” like those at the Dessau Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and Adolf Loos (or artists “modeling themselves on the engineering spirit” like Paul Klee) as addressing this new condition. Benjamin champions modern materials like iron and glass— crucially put to modern formal uses, and rejects the decorated, historicist, bourgeois styles of the 19th century.

In particular, he celebrates the utopian writer Paul Scheerbart as a prophet of the new potential of glass architecture. Scheerbart dedicates his 1914 work Glass Architecture to the expressionist architect Bruno Taut, who in turn dedicates his 1914Glashaus pavilion in Cologne to Scheerbart. (Scheerbart’s prophecies, which rhyme better but are no less eccentric in German, are emblazoned on the frieze of Taut’s pavilion; e.g., “Colored glass destroys hate.”) Kenneth Frampton notes that no conscious link can be proven between Scheerbart’s work and the MdV, but he nevertheless argues that the house “curiously echoes, however unconsciously, Scheerbart’s vision,” and that it embodies “an altogether richer and more total realization of this vision than either he or his professional alter-ego Bruno Taut were to achieve.” Remarkably, between Taut’s 1914 pavilion and the MdV, begun in 1928, “no structure exists in which glass lenses were used as the primary protective skin.”[5]

For Benjamin, the use of glass suggested by Scheerbart and realized at the MdV is a kind of cultural necessity. He writes in “Experience and Poverty”:

It is no coincidence that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed…. Objects made of glass have no ‘aura.’ Glass is, in general, the enemy of secrets. It is also the enemy of possession.[6]

Benjamin takes up the chorus of one of his artist/constructivist exemplars, Bertolt Brecht, when he declares “Erase the traces!” Such traces, Benjamin explains, typify the “cozy” bourgeois interiors of the 1880s, where “there is no spot on which the owner has not left his mark.

And in a 1929 essay on surrealism Benjamin would write:

Living in a glass house [like living with the doors open] would be a revolutionary virtue par excellence … an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need.[7]

Detlef Mertins aptly traced Benjamin’s influences in glass architecture to the group surrounding G magazine, to which he contributed, and in whose pages, for example, Theo van Doesburg would praise modern uses of glass by Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Adolph Loos and Frederick Kiesler. In 1923 van Doesburg would describe his own program for a house for the artist Léonce Rosenberg in a letter to him as follows:

Your atelier must be like a glass cover or like an empty crystal. It must have an absolute purity, a constant light, a clear atmosphere. It much also be white. The palette must be of glass. Your pencil sharp, rectangular and hard, always free of dust and as clean as an operating scalpel. One can certainly take a better lesson from doctor’s laboratories than from painters’ ateliers. The latter are cages that sting like sick apes.[8]

The MdV of course has the qualities of both an operating room (which it includes on the ground floor), and an artist’s studio, in the light-flooded grand salon— capitalizing on both the hygienic and atmospheric properties of glass brick.

As Maria Gough has noted, Benjamin’s reading of Scheerbart (influenced by figures like van Doesburg, who along with many Dadaists of the day, deeply revered Scheerbart) is much more interested in his constructive characteristics than his fanciful expressionistic ones (usually associated with Taut).[9] I would add that this is by no means a misreading of Scheerbart, whose 111 chapters on glass are as concerned with its phenomenal and spiritual effects as its functional properties and constructional requirements. The MdV thus embodies a vital, neglected side of Scheerbart. While he calls for colored glass, the thick translucent bricks of the MdV facade are still more for the atmospheric effect of diffuse light or “phenomenal transparency” that Scheerbart seems interested in than for any kind of literal transparency.[10] Similarly, Scheerbart’s focus on hygiene (he devotes a chapter to exterminating insects) was a central concern for Dr. Dalsace, in whose examination room microbes should leave no “traces” (to borrow Brecht’s term). Indeed, every surface of the examination roof is covered with glass, metal or tile— all non-porous, easily cleaned materials.

The poignancy of Gough’s article, entitled “Paris, Capital of the Soviet Avant-Garde,” is to highlight Benjamin’s attempt to salvage a constructivist creative model in his new refuge of Paris that had just fallen to the right in Germany and to Party aesthetic policy in the Soviet Union. This is what he calls for in his April 1934 Paris speech-turned-essay, “The Author as Producer,” and perhaps what he might have suggested in the salon at the MdV, just six years before France would fall, and he would take his own life attempting to flee at the border to Spain.

To conclude by returning to Benjamin’s observation that “Glass is… the enemy of secrets and possession,” it is indeed true that the MdV remains impervious to some kinds of traces. For one thing, it is a difficult place for art collectors like Dr. Dalsace and Mr. Rubin alike to hang two-dimensional works. In this sense perhaps, it is an enemy of possession.

Nevertheless, a great paradox of the MdV is that it is in fact full of secrets— in many cases precisely about where to keep possessions (it is, after all, difficult to truly live without traces). One thinks of the full-height lacquered closets that appear as a wall along the second floor gallery; the plush lined drawers for silver, artfully concealed in the dining room; the separate, walled-off service staircase; and the small swinging door built into wall of the lady’s boudoir that allows a cup of tea to “appear” in her room without the service staff’s visible intervention. These last two are only as modern as the development of the corridor to separate and hide service functions in some of France’s great 18th century hôtels particuliers.

The family’s life, too, is rendered mostly opaque to the outside world. Despite all the glass, the powerful floodlights provide privacy, such that only shadowy signs of life can be discerned from the outside. The “moral exhibitionism,” then, is not one of life, per se, but of lifestyle. To be sure, the Communist-Jewish Jean Dalsace was not an introvert: he made no secret of his left-wing affiliations, as a founding member of the legally-constituted French communist party (PCF), and he was outspoken on the causes of pacifism and birth control, then banned in France (opening a birth-control clinic in a Paris suburb cost him his job as laboratory head at a major hospital). Still, privacy was crucial to the Dalsaces. I could not help but wonder, too, if some high-level discussions within the Soviet-funded and directed PCF might not have occurred in the MdV as the political climate in Europe began to shift in the mid-1930s, though this is idle speculation. Nevertheless, there is a tension, not necessarily irreconcilable, I think, between the MdV as a house of secrets and as a place of moral exhibitionism.

The MdV is a deeply contradictory house. It features modern materials assembled in the tradition of old-world craftsmanship, negotiating a way between the standardization of the German Werkbund and Le Corbusier, and the retrograde crafts tradition on display at the 1925 Paris Exposition (where the term “Art Deco” was born, and at which Chareau’s furniture appeared).

And the MdV is also a house of secrets— such that a gaggle of architects and architectural historians could spend a day in the house conjecturing and debating about some of its more mysterious details, and our extremely knowledgeable guides Andrew Ayers and Ariela Katz could discover new facets of the home for the first time. After eighty years, the MdV remains fertile ground for new research.  And this—both its openness and coyness—is precisely the Maison de Verre’s charm. Thank you to the SAH, our able guides, and Mr. Rubin, for letting us in on the secret.

[1] Nicolai Ouroussoff, “The Best House in Paris,” The New York Times, August 26, 2007.

[2] Paul Nelson, “La Maison de la Rue Saint-Guillaume,” reprint of review inL’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (November 1933) no. 9,  in Pierre Chareau, La Maison De Verre, 1928-1933: Un Objet Singulier, ed. Olivier Cinqualbre (Paris: J.-M. Place, 2001), 28.

[3] Alice Friedman, who has given some architectural credence to the notion of “glamour” in mid-century American design (see American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, Yale 2010) was also on the tour. She would occasionally turn to me and remark, with adulation, “glam,” as new details or vistas presented themselves.

[4] Alastair Gordon, “The Court of Modernism,”, February 25, 2011

[5] Kenneth Frampton, “Maison de Verre,” Perspecta 12 (January 1, 1969): 77.

[6] Walter Benjamin, “Poverty and Experience,” in Selected Writings (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), 734.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 1st ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 177-192.

[8] Cited in Detlef Mertins, “The Enticing and Threatening Face of Prehistory: Walter Benjamin and the Utopia of Glass,” Assemblage, no. 29 (April 1, 1996): 14.

[9] Maria Gough, “Paris, Capital of the Soviet Avant-Garde,” October 101 (July 1, 2002): 57 ff.

[10] See Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,”Perspecta 8 (January 1, 1963): 45-54.

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