The glass house
Meeting with its owner, Robert Rubin
“We must understand the house as a very poetic idea of the possibilities offered by prefabrication, just as a car from 1896 is a very poetic idea of transport.”
Could you go back over your career path, and how you became interested in architecture?
I started far from architecture. Indeed, I have been a commodity trader on Wall Street for much of my life. First at J. Aron and Co in the 1970s, later as head of the commodities division at Drexel Burnham Lambert, before founding my own trading group. I have been a collector for a long time: before I started working on architecture and furniture, my passion was the restoration of collection vehicles. However, in the 90s, during an auction in Paris, I found myself with several pieces of furniture from Chareau, which was new for me. Later I discovered other architects, but the transition was really in 2000, when at the age of 48 I left my company to enter the doctoral school of architecture in Colombia. During this decade I bought one of Jean Prouvé’s Tropical Houses in Congo, before buying the Glass House from the Dalsace family in 2006.
Chareau's work: an avant-garde architecture
Could you come back to the creation of the house by Pierre Chareau and Louis Dalbet between 1928 and 1932 for Dr. Dalsace?
In fact, we can consider that three or four people are the creators of the Maison de verre: Pierre Chareau who was first and foremost known as a furniture designer, Bernard Bijvoët, a Dutch architect, but also Louis Dalbet, the ironworker, not to mention André Salomon who was in charge of lighting the projectors. Jean Dalsace was a recognized gynaecologist at the forefront of painless childbirth and family planning issues. Pierre Chareau had already fitted out the Dalsace apartment on boulevard Saint-Germain in 1919. In the early 1920s, he met Louis Dalbet with whom he began a fruitful collaboration, resulting in particular in the creation of Chareau’s own wood-metal furniture. When the Dalsace family wanted to move into rue Saint-Guillaume, a constraint would emerge: indeed, it would not be possible for the architects to touch the top floor and the attic, they would have to build under it. The work lasted from 1928 to 1932, with a double goal: the house must be both a place for family life and a medical practice. This explains in particular the presence of the sliding glass door in front of the large staircase, which allows the living area to be insulated during the opening hours of the office.
The house seems very difficult to access. The facade is smooth, the glass tiles opaque. Yet it is open to the back. Already a first separation from the outside?
For me, the question of difficulty of access disappears when you understand how the whole thing is conceived: the house is built like an inversion of a classic private mansion. This is why the facade overlooks the garden while the back is on the courtyard side. This also explains why the main staircase seems to go up in the opposite direction when you enter from behind. The glass blocks allow the house to be integrated into the 18th century part because they mark a continuity with the paving stones of the courtyard. As for the roof, if the modernists thought that one day perhaps the third floor would be razed to the ground, that is out of the question. A great Australian architect once told me: “The glass house showed me how modernism can live with the past instead of destroying everything. You can build something modern while maintaining harmony with the past.
The architecture is resolutely avant-garde, whether through its apparent structure or its mixture of artisanal materials such as wood, and modern materials such as metal and glass. Through its layout, its technical solutions, its “interweaving” in the courtyard mansion, the house also makes the most of the space…
Pierre Chareau’s architecture was looking for as much light as possible. Moreover, concerning the different types of materials, it should be remembered that he was originally not an architect but a decorator. Thus the initial constraint, inserting a house under a pre-existing floor, proved to be an opportunity. In this way, the architect was not forced to think about the roof or the positioning of the house. However, it is in the exploitation of these limits that the genius of the Maison de verre lies. Chareau focused on the layout, the transitions between the different interior spaces. For light, he used after a first failure of the Nevada glass brick. Thus, the entire dwelling reflects a combination of materials from industry and other more traditional crafts. It also had a particularly modern electrical installation at the time.
The unique project of a machine house
It seems to be a real “machine house”: all its mechanical elements give it a surrealist aspect, which may remind us of the works of Alexander Calder, but also of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times…
It is interesting to talk about a machine house about the Glass House: the big difference between this place and the houses built by an architect like Le Corbusier is its very well thought-out ergonomic operation. Le Corbusier adopts an a priori approach when elaborating his constructions, he is very doctrinaire in his ideas. He was trained as a 19th century architect and, if he has aesthetized the idea of the machine a little, his creations cannot really be considered as living machines, which is the case here. Moreover, Le Corbusier’s architecture is no joke, whereas surrealism is everywhere here. There is a sense of humour that is reminiscent of a Calder’s.
The Glass House gives the impression of being conceived as a closed vase, which is paradoxical, because while the light shines through you can’t see inside, Chareau himself talks about a “blind wall”.
I don’t think this house is a closed vase, I think it is very open to light, especially natural light. Besides, the headlights at the front were not there when I arrived, they had been removed because they were bothering the neighbourhood. I had them delivered because they were designed from the beginning to light the house at night. This is the only time I’ve ever had a missing element rebuilt: they are replicas based on the original projectors still present at the rear.
The house looks like a special object in the history of architecture. Indeed, it is a unique project, far from modern architecture, collective housing or standardization that will develop at the time of its creation. It is a prestigious house for private individuals….
We must understand the house as a very poetic idea of the possibilities offered by prefabrication, just as a car from 1896 is a very poetic idea of transport. Chareau understood that it was possible to build cheap houses in an industrial way, but he looked at it with poetry. Here he was able to use industrial materials, while spending a lot of money to adapt them. But what is incredible is the tension between the manufactured and the artisanal that emerges from this space. Paul Nelson built the Suspended House project based on the Glass House project, while trying to apply more affordable prices. You have to see the place as a pre-war Mercedes, the creators involved are all poets. Architects such as Jean Prouvé, Edouard Albert or Paul Nelson de Le Corbusier are often distinguished by grouping them under the label of Ecole de Paris, with a concrete and a metal part. These people are driven by the idea of poetic functionalism. Architecture does not exist a priori as with Le Corbusier, who starts from an aesthetic point of view. For them, aesthetics follows a project and analyses the functioning of man in the interior.
The Glass House has been the subject of debate since the publication in 1933 of an important dossier in L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. But it is perhaps Pierre Chareau who speaks best of his vision of architecture: “Architecture is a social art. It is both a crowning achievement of all the Arts and an emanation of the masses of men. The architect can only create if he listens and understands the voice of millions of people, if he suffers from their suffering, if he struggles with them to deliver them. He uses the iron they forged, he guides them to the future because he knows what belongs to the past.“
The artistic life of the Maison de verre was particularly rich in the 1930s. What happened to him during the Second World War?
Jean Dalsace was a member of the Communist Party. Very involved in culture, the Maison de verre naturally found itself playing a role in the 1930s and was able to welcome a number of artists, including surrealists. Cocteau, Eluard or Aragon have passed through here, but it seems that the house has also greatly influenced Walter Benjamin’s thinking. The house was not occupied by the German army during the war, as the facades did not meet the curfew requirements. The Dalsace family returned after the war.
Preservation and future of the site
What are the main difficulties in maintaining and preserving the house?
When we arrived the house was in very good condition, but not habitable. We had to rebuild the electrical system, clean the heating ducts, repair the exposed roof in the service wing. Now we are studying the structural issues to anchor the house in the future. For us the objective was to live in this house in the 21st century to show the possible daily use of modernism and not to remain on the feeling of rigour that emerges from it. It was not intended to be a museum, nor was it intended to be transformed for any other use, such as the headquarters of a luxury home or foundation.
Access to the house is very restricted, the building is almost unknown to the French public. Is it a choice to keep the property secret?
The choice to keep this place as private property, and therefore closed to the greatest number of people, is an operation of resistance at a time when everything is so much in the media. The secret surrounding the place is voluntary, we refuse the majority of requests from tourist guides, but also from photographers, with the exception of two or three well-known ones. At that time, when the medical practice was still in operation in the 1970s, the carriage gate was open all day long. Now this is no longer the case even if many architectural tourists come to see the facade. On the street sidewalk there are always people looking in vain for where it is. Nevertheless, we organize visits for schools of architecture, with experts as guides. Admission fees are used to finance scholarships. Before our arrival several architects had the key and could return at any time. What is special about Chareau’s legacy is that he has no heirs. I suppose that in this absence, as inhabitants of the property we could say no to the photos or have a say in the reproduction of furniture.
What future do you see for the house?
It is difficult to imagine that the glass house could be transferred to another private individual or become the property of the French State. Indeed, I have a problem with the functioning of the French cultural system: I am amazed by the power given to the directors of the major cultural institutions. Never in the United States would a person from outside the cultural sector be given discretionary power. Although it may seem paradoxical, all major museums are managed by curators who are good at administration. Here it is the opposite: the conservatives are replaced by enarques and culture loses out. It would seem obvious to me to entrust the keys of a major institution such as the Centre Pompidou to the best architectural curators in the world. An American foundation will operate through controls and audits. I could think of a kind of scientific committee with links to schools of architecture, but it is still difficult to set up because I do not want an institution with a president who would take advantage of it to set up. We could also think of a residence for architects, researchers and artists with people who know how to appreciate it.
I have been occupying this place for ten years now. I plan to stay there for another thirty years, which gives me time to prepare the next step. Looking back, I am more and more confident in my choices. At first, everyone in the architectural community had an opinion on the issue. Such a house is a poisoned gift. If I don’t like a painting I put it up for auction, or put it in the cellar and forget it. Maintaining such a home is a big job, but it is important.
Pictures: Archives of the Glass House & Quentin Gassiat & Rights reserved.
Documentary realized by Stan Neumann and Richard Copans (2004).