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Pierre Chareau. architect. refugee. modernist?

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Pierre Chareau was another architect whose career was destroyed by WWII. With almost his entire archive lost, his reputation rests on a single building in Paris. But what a building! Considered a cult masterpieces by architects everywhere,this luminous glass and steel building known as La Maison de Verre was built from 1928-32, and is one of the first examples of a glass curtain wall. ( The term curtain wall is used to describe the condition when the exterior wall does not carry any weight, all the weight and loads of the building are carried through internal columns. The invention of the curtain wall system created the "skyscraper" glass tower.) Hidden in a courtyard and privately owned, even many Parisians have never had the opportunity to see this masterpiece in person. With its use of industrial materials such as steel, rubber and glass, one would think it fell neatly into the modernist camp and yet throughout his life Pierre Chareau was consistently excluded from this category by peers and curators.

Although there is scant biographical information about Pierre Chareau, we do know that he was born in 1883 to a Jewish family in Bordeaux. Although he wanted to be a designer from a young age, he failed his entrance exams to the famous French architecture school, l'Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. He didn't let that stop him and found work as an apprentice at a British furniture company based in Paris. When WWI arrived he served in a French artillery unit.

Somehow by the mid-twenties he had two interior design shops in Paris, which is most likely how he met Dr. Jean Dalsace, for whom he designed La Maison de Verre. Like Robert Mallet-Stevens, he worked on the films of Marcel l’Herbier and this influence is evident in the house, where natural lighting is manipulated to dramatic effect. It's essentially a stage set for the inhabitants. Pierre Chareau and Robert Mallet-Stevens collaborated on many projects together.

In 1927 Jean and Annie Dalsace had purchased a townhouse in St. Germain which they had intended to demolish and build a gleaming new modern building in its footprint. However the elderly tenant on the third floor had other ideas and refused to move out. Pierre Chareau's solution to this problem was to insert a new three level space below her floor on the courtyard side. The problem of supporting the existing floor above as well as trying to get some natural light into a narrow courtyard building led to this incredibly innovative design featuring a steel structure and one of the first glass curtain wall systems. It was immediately a huge success. In addition to the architecture, every piece of furniture, lights, and millwork were designed by Pierre Chareau and custom-built for the home. Sadly Chareau's success was short lived as he and his wife Dollie were forced to flee Paris during the Nazi occupation in WWII.

They landed in New York City in the forties where they became involved in the burgeoning art scene. In 1947 he designed a house for the artist Robert Motherwell. But the building was heavily criticized by the press and his design career in the US ended before it could even get started. Philip Johnson was not a fan, and this may have dramatically affected his career. he was rejected by the architecture and design department (headed by Philip Johnson) for an exhibit of his work . He and his wife Dollie made ends meet by selling pieces from their extensive art collection and giving cooking lessons until his death in the fifties. Similarly, to Robert Mallet Stevens there are almost no existing drawings of La Maison de Verre, no archives, and as a result Pierre Chareau all but disappeared from architectural history. Some even claimed that it was his collaborator Bernard Bijvoet (who did presentation drawings for the house), who was actually the talent behind the design and detailing. When noted architect Richard Rogers wrote about him for Domus magazine in 1966 and Kenneth Frampton in 1969 his work began to be appreciated again. Although the lack of information makes it extremely difficult for curators to study his work in 2017, the Jewish Museum of New York mounted the first exhibition of his work..

Today la Maison de Verre is considered an architectural masterpiece and has become an obsession with architects. Its industrial aesthetic and exquisite detailing have influenced generations of designers and architects and his original furniture pieces are now in many museum collections. The influence of Pierre Chareau can be seen in the work of many of the world's greatest architects from Italian modernist architect Carlo Scarpa to present day architects Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel.

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