Pierre Chareau: Maison de Verre
(1883, Bourdeau -1950, NYC)

"The phases between a conception of a work and its realisation often escapes to someone in the presence of a creation of the human mind."
-Pierre Chareau

Pierre Chareau (sh-ROH) designed one of the greatest houses of the International Style, adding materials the movement had never used before in such an extent to create a work of architectural genius -- a structure that is fully FUNCTIONAL and fully AESTHETIC in its SIMPLICITY.

Many great books, lectures and websites make brief references to him and La Maison de Verre (VEH-RR, Paris, 1932, hereafter MdV), but information on him and the MdV is frustratingly hard to get a hold of.

Interior Designer Chareau joined efforts with Licensed Architect Bernard Bijvoet (BEE-vo-ay) and Master Craftsman Louis Dalbet to design what would be part gynological clinic for Dr. Dalsace and part private residence for the doctor and his wife, Annie. The structure is well-known for its glass block and steel strut combo and for its really impressive interior spaces. Before going any more in depth, let's get a little history of the site at 31 Rue de Guillaume in Paris that this building was plugged into.

"Finalized" plans (as far as I can tell, plans are never really "finalized" until the building is BUILT), were completed in 1927, and MdV was supposed to be a three-story project. Unfortunately, the lady who owned the top floor of the 18th century row house refused to move. Thus, when construction began in 1928, Chareau was forced to build around her. Or, rather, beneath her. Now, if you can imagine kicking the majority of the load-bearing masonry structure out from under a top story to erect an entirely structurally unassociated construct beneath it and admit that this in itself is an amazing feat, then you understand the ga-ga attitude many hold towards Chareau. The upper floor was propped up from below by the beloved steel frame and concrete slab of the International Style. Not too shabby, considering the structure technique was probably originated for subway systems. Piece by piece, the masonry structure was replaced by steel, and then the masonry was removed. When the masonry was replaced, the concrete slabs were set in place. Construction took four years and cost somewhere around 4 million francs. In this day and age, that's just over $500,000 USD.

The steel frame allowed for complete freedom of internal space. The construction photo above spotlights this idea - you can see the tall beams stretching ceiling to floor, allowing for free-standing design around the beams. Walls and floors could be placed within the space, totally independent of where the beams provided support. The glass block wall itself, which is why the apartment is called La Maison de Verre (The House of Glass), is able to stand alone without a heavy frame breaking its pattern.

Ventilation through the glass block wall is provided by a series of movable traps. A not-so-complicated weight and pulley system opens the window panels, allowing for natural ventilation. This unique system causes a minimum of visual impact on the glass facade of the structure.

This photo shows how Chareau arranged the floors inside the steel frame structure. The floors appear to float within the space, although this is all due to the antithetical idea of the "magic of engineering technology". Stanchions and girders welded together with bearing plates allowed Chareau to begin and end floors wherever he wanted. The photograph at the top of the page shows the dramatic results Chareau procured. The tall living room space is perhaps the coup de grace of La MdV.

These two photos give an example of how Chareau's doors worked. The top photo shows the door open, and on the bottom, the door is shown closed. This glass and steel frame door between the staircase and the clinic is suspended between steel tracks on the floor and ceiling. Just the slightest push, and we have open sesame.

Chareau opened up the space options by implementing sliding walls in La MdV. Aluminum partitions equipped with acoustic insulation in the clinic created the ultimate multi-purpose space, available for confidential consultation or private examination.

And here we have another example of sliding goodness, compliments of Chareau. Retractable steel and aluminum stairways on rollers allow throughout-the-house access between upper and lower floors.


I would be doing Mssr. Chareau a great disservice if I didn't spill every bean I know about materials in La Maison de Verre. For starters, the materials are raw. I don't mean they're uncooked and bloody to the touch -- I mean they're all showing. They're not covered up by plaster or drywall or even a coat of paint or varnish. For the most part, the materials of La MdV are unforgivingly bear and naked. Make no mistake: THIS is a GREAT THING. You can see every rivet of what holds this house together. Every connection is there for the inspection of the naked eye. Just by keeping your eyes open, you can see how the wonderful mechanism of this house functions. Steel, aluminum, and glass are exposed to the touch of the curious human finger and hand. In this way, as it is in many other ways, La MdV is shameless ... okay, what'd ya expect? Some kind of invoice list of materials? Do I look like a big, green Sweets Catalog to you?

Chareau is considered a master of design and space, a true advocator of French craftmanship, and a founding member of early modernism and the Parisian Art Deco movement. All this factors into Chareau's best known design -- La MdV. He subscribed to the idea of "machine a habiter" -- roughly, a machine of habitation. MdV is exactly that; every door and window works like a well-oiled machine, where gliding open a sliding door in this house takes less effort than it does to push the lever down on a toaster. I remember drooling over this house and the flawless quality my professors would describe during lecture. To my knowledge, La MdV still works like a well-oiled machine.

The knowledge I provide here comes from three years of on-the-side research I've done on the beloved Maison, and countless journal articles and bits of pieces of a variety of textbooks have been ingrained in my memory, but for those of you who need some immediate research, I provide for you:

A Biblio ... of sorts

Pierre Chareau, Designer and Architect, Taschen Verlag, Cologne, 1992 (in English, French and German)


Pretty Words on the MdV

Special thanks to Ashley who provides the following information:
Courtesy of Paris Access (1994 Ed):
"You can get a glimpse of the exterior from the courtyard, but for a look inside of the early 1930s building - a tour de force in glass-block-and-steel construction - you must make a reservation in advance. * Send requests to : A.P. Vellay-Dalsace, 31 Rue. St.-Guillaume (between Blvd St.-Germain and Rue de Grenelle), 75007."

Of course, I am not a well-oiled machine. If I've made any mistakes, feel free to correct me and chastise me wholly.

Links to nice Chareau sites are also appreciated.