Seeing in person la Maison de Verre, Pierre Chareau’s Modernist masterpiece, was a thrill. The house, which is privately owned, is currently being restored and rarely open to the public, so we feel very fortunate to have visited with the wonderful Mary Johnson, MdV docent and curator. Designed as both a home and office for a gynecologist, Maison de Verre was pioneering in many ways, including its construction from 1928-32 (the lower two floors were built entirely beneath a resident who insisted on staying put on the third). Materials were radical for a residence of its time: steel (used in the construction and left exposed); rubber floor tiles (easily washable in an era of hygiene preoccupation); exterior floodlights (borrowed from theatre); glass block walls (to let in more light on a dark northern exposure). The difference between original and newer materials is noticeable: the front facade that the house is known and named for has since been replaced and lacks the warm and diffuse light of the original sand-casted glass, which is still in the rear.
Previous to designing MdV, Chareau had been primarily a furniture and interior designer. For this project, he collaborated with architect Bernard Bijvoet and master ironworker, Louis Dalbet. Dalbet actually moved onto the site during construction and was responsible for all the structural metalwork, in addition to custom mechanisms for ventilation openings in the glass block; large rolling privacy screens; and glass and metal doors. Despite the industrial nature of the materials and the impressive mechanics, Chareau understood clearly how to create compelling interior space that reinforced the social customs of the time. There are sightlines or visual cues connecting the various realms of the house while maintaining modesty and confidentiality. He carefully considered acoustics. The glass block module corresponds to the proportions of the bookcases. In private rooms like the boudoir, one sees details borrowed from ships and trains to give the feeling of escape. All in all, it’s an extraordinary place and well worth the effort to get there. For the moment, tours are offered once weekly to design students and professionals and booked months in advance.