A Machine for Living

The Dalsace family home, known as the "House of Glass," La Maison de Verre, was built between 1928 and 1932. Widely regarded as a 20th-century masterpiece, it does not abide by any of the accepted standards of architecture, engineering, interior decoration or product design.

Three buttons lettered in red Art Deco font punctuate the panel of the intercom at the entrance to the Dalsace family home on a small affluent street on the Left Bank of Paris. The top one is meant for patients of the gynecological clinic that used to be here, the middle one for guests, and the bottom one for servants or messengers. Each button has a distinctive sound, intended for a different set of ears. Their order reflects the hierarchy that once characterized the house, serving as a modest introduction to the elaborate technical systems installed within. It was with good reason, it appears, that Aline Dalsace, the daughter of the building's original owners, complained that it was a "weird" house, which was not inviting to her playmates.

The Dalsace family home, known throughout the world as the "House of Glass," La Maison de Verre, was built between 1928 and 1932. Widely regarded as a 20th-century masterpiece, it does not abide by any of the accepted standards of architecture, engineering, interior decoration or product design. Rather, it is more like an uber-design, an example of architectural haute couture, if you will.

An exterior view of la Maison de Verre. - La Maison de Verre, Thames and Hudson, 2007
La Maison de Verre, Thames and Hudson, 2007

The architect Pierre Chareau (1883-1950 ) devoted four years of his life to planning the house, and his attention to detail is evident in every corner. There is not a single item that has not been planned using the latest technologies available and taking into account the meticulously ordered way of life of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Goethe wrote that architecture is "frozen music"; in the case of the House of Glass, it is a symphony in machinery.

The myth surrounding the house was created over many years thanks to (or because of ) its inaccessibility to the public. Apart from a few fortunate architects and scholars, and the women who were patients of Dr. Dalsace's gynecological clinic, no one entered. After the death of the owners, in the 1970s, the building served as a kind of guest house for close friends of their daughter, Aline.

The current owner of La Maison de Verre is the American businessman and collector Robert Rubin, who bought it from the Dalsace family about five years ago and is busy restoring it. He recruited a team of architects, historians and engineers to reactivate the delicate mechanical systems installed throughout the house. "I fell in love with the architectural genius of the house at first sight," he relates. "I fell in love with the astonishing play of light and with the lucid mechanical feeling that emanates from the building."

As an inveterate lover of architecture (see box ), Rubin knew the house well from the professional literature. The idea of buying it came up in a conversation he had with Prof. Kenneth Frampton, a historian of architecture from Columbia University, who had supervised his doctoral thesis. Rubin will not say how much he paid, but cautious estimates put the figure at many millions of dollars, and a few more million are being invested to fully restore it.

Last month, on a fine spring day, Rubin conducted a special tour of the house for six architectural reviewers and journalists. Our guide was Mary Vaughn Johnson, an American historian from Columbia University who is currently working on her doctoral thesis, devoted to the house's sanitation systems. It may sound esoteric, but she says that each of the 12 bathroom systems in the House of Glass represents a different aspect of modern technology and social proprieties.

Johnson joins a long list of researchers from a wide variety of fields who have to date generated about 20 books devoted exclusively to this particular house, along with hundreds of articles about its components - from lighting to plumbing to the life of the domestic staff. Rubin says he is trying to avoid "fetishizing the house," but it is difficult to ignore the attention it draws.

The old woman's refusal

The House of Glass was born out of an engineering constraint. In the mid-1920s, Annie and Dr. Jean Dalsace bought the first two floors of a typical Parisian building and wanted to put up a new house in its place. But living above them was an old woman who wanted no changes. As a result, the architect, Chareau, had to quarry the new house, so to speak. He hung the woman's house on a metal construction and only then began the construction of the Dalsace home. (The woman's daughter still lives in the original apartment. )

Chareau had already acquired renown as a decorator of luxury homes and expert in the design of mechanical furniture, then considered very fashionable. In Dr. Alsace he found a partner for his sense of aesthetic adventurism and an eager competitor in the race for modernism. He suggested an entirely new concept for a residential home. Instead of focusing on one or two items of mechanical furniture, why not design a house that would be one large machine?

The distinctive design of the building strikes the visitor from the first instant, as he enters from the narrow street into the inner courtyard and encounters a two-story facade built entirely of glass bricks. For Parisians of the 1930s, this was revolutionary: Until then glass bricks had been used for tiling in factories and not as an exterior envelope. The house's industrial image is evident in almost every corner, in some cases aesthetically, and in some cases in the use of genuine mechanisms, such as the rear windows in the residential level, which were taken from train cars.

The glass facade, which over the years became the building's trademark, served several purposes. To begin with, it made it possible to illuminate the interior spaces while preserving privacy. Second, it created plays of light that give the impression of a film screen rather than the exterior of a private house. At night the glass-brick wall is illuminated by means of large projectors installed outside on steel frames. The effect is spectacular.

The tour begins on the ground floor, where Dr. Dalsace's clinic was located. The main entrance leads into a broad corridor which connected the waiting and examination rooms with the main staircase, which ascends to the grand salon in the private quarters. A large glass door covered in perforated tin divides the corridor and the staircase.

At this point, Johnson asks us to stop and listen to her "favorite sound in the house." She extends her hand and with a light touch of a finger pushes the door, which must weigh 150 kilograms. The tour participants listen closely but hear no sound. Total silence.

This is one of the virtues of the House of Glass. All its mechanical systems, which operate effectively and noiselessly, were designed in close collaboration between Chareau and the French master ironworker Louis Dalbet, and represent a superb standard of quality. The close ties forged between the two enabled Chareau to execute almost every idea he conceived, including complex sliding doors, a system of rollers that controls the air vents, and a folding staircase that connects the couple's bedroom to Madame Dalsace's boudoir. The ascent via the main staircase is particularly impressive, conjuring up soirees and parties the family held in the house. It also gives the feeling of boarding a plane since the last step is deliberately detached from the first-floor level. The absence of a handrail obliges the visitors to walk erect and proceed cautiously step by step. Just opposite was the interior section of the glass-brick wall - and Madame Dalsace, waiting to greet them.

The salon that comes into view is not very large, but with simple tricks of perspective, Chareau made it look much grander than its true dimensions. The enclosing walls do not end in an encounter with any other walls but continue toward an unseen corridor or niche. The dim light that emanates from the wall of glass creates an almost abstract sense of time and space: It is not by chance that researchers have likened the house to a Surrealist work.

Above the salon stretches a gallery that leads to the bedrooms. To preserve eye contact but also create privacy, Chareau used a system of perforated metal shelves which enclose the gallery. In fact, he made extensive use of metal, glass and sliding panels throughout the house in order to create different levels of privacy.

The eye does not easily take in the complexity of the salon space, but even more intriguing is what is missing from it: curtains and carpets, which were commonplace items in the interior decoration of Parisian dwellings. "At the end of the 19th century, the connection between germs and diseases was discovered for the first time, and a scare seized Europe that the germs hid in textiles," Johnson says, pointing to the gray rubber flooring of the salon. "Accordingly, many sections of the house were built with hygiene in mind. For example, the staircase that leads from Dr. Alsace's clinic to his sitting room can be dismantled into small parts for cleaning and is easily reinstalled."

The second floor, which houses the residential quarters, is the most private section of the house. Each bedroom has its own bathroom, and each one is the fruit of meticulous planning. The mechanisms they contain are extraordinary by any standard and bring to mind a Robotrix game. The mirror revolves to reveal a cylindrical closet for towels, and the bidet can be moved and hidden in a closet after use. According to Johnson, the preoccupation with bathrooms is another reflection of the great interest in hygiene in the 1920s and 1930s, a response to the typhoid fever epidemic which killed millions in Europe at the time. The only medicine for typhoid fever was "fresh air and natural light," she says. The House of Glass has an abundance of both.

The tour of the house thus provides evidence not only of the technological innovations of the time and a unique architectural project but also of the prevailing social and cultural mindset. For example, because the Parisian bourgeoisie had largely lost its capital after the World War I, Chareau designed quite a small wing for the domestic staff, intended for the housekeeper and her husband (who was chauffeur and gardener ). Chareau also found an interesting design solution for the housekeeper: He situated the ironing room at a strategic position that looks into the salon and out to the other rooms. This way, the housekeeper could keep a sharp eye on what was happening in most parts of the house even as she starched Dr. Alsace's shirts.

Bedroom innovation

La Maison de Verre was built at a turning point in 20th-century architecture. About a decade before its inauguration, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier began to talk about "machines for living" and to articulate his vision of a functional house that would serve its occupants optimally. But while Le Corbusier and his colleagues were trying to advance the industrialization of residential construction and make it inexpensive and accessible, Chareau chose to treat the term more literally. He created a machine, which is effectively a residence, a distinctive assemblage that cannot be emulated. The changing lifestyle evident in the attention paid to hygiene, the natural ventilation and daylight also reflects a conceptual watershed separating the old world from the new.

The House of Glass inspired many 20th-century architects. "Richard Rogers, for example, who in the 1970s designed the Pompidou Center [together with Renzo Piano], was very impressed by the aesthetics of the exposed tubes and bright colors," Johnson says. "The result is easily discernible." She adds that Rogers' wife had been treated in the gynecological clinic of the House of Glass.

The major challenge now facing Rubin, the new owner, is to preserve the building faithfully but not with excessive nostalgia. It already contains contemporary furniture and, believe it or not, hanging on the wall of one the bedrooms is a thin television screen.

Rubin believes that the exceptional qualities of the house should be preserved, but at the same time, the ravages of time should not be ignored. "A clear distinction needs to be made between dust and patina," he says, referring to the green layer that accumulates on the metal. "If you decide to clean that, too, then it's better simply to demolish the house and rebuild it. The primary challenge at the moment is the large financial investment that's needed in every part of the house and the complexities involved in rehabilitating the historic infrastructure systems, such as electricity and plumbing."

Rubin says that in the future he intends to move into the House of Glass together with his French-born wife, Stephane Samuel. He will continue to open the house to occasional visits by small groups of architects and designers. What would he ask the designer of the house, Pierre Chareau, if he could speak to him? "I would like to know what his plans were for the old woman above," he replies with a smile.