Two Parisian modernist landmarks

Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

I was very lucky recently to be taken on a guided tour of a hidden away modernist gem in the back streets of Paris. The Maison de Verre was designed by Pierre Chareau and his collaborators for the gynaecologist Dr. John Dalsace to act as both family residence and practice centre. The house is privately owned but opened up to a limited number of architecture enthusiasts for guided tours of the public spaces and garden.

The house owes its name to the fact that its walls, front and rear, are constructed almost entirely of glass bricks. Such a design is the supreme expression of a hygienic architecture that had its origins in nineteenth century theories about the importance of light and air circulation to counter the threat of disease in the home or clinic. If you’re wondering how anyone could maintain any privacy in such conditions Chareau, who had experience in  theatre design, installed projectors that flood the front and rear of the house with light so that the movements of the residents are indistinguishable to an external observer.

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Family areas (understandably) are off limits on the tour, which is a shame as one of the wonders of the building is its ingenious use of sliding panels, curtains and interlinking architectural features to allow the interior of the house to be adapted for use as consulting rooms, salon or domestic residence as the occasion demands. I’m still curious as to how such imaginative use of space could be applied in a 1920s kitchen or bathroom on a miniature scale.

Maison de Verre from the garden

Maison de Verre from the garden. There’s an interesting story behind the absence of glass brick on  the top floor.

Our guide emphasised that while the house may look like a draft for of a 1920s house of the future it was in fact very much grounded in existing practice; especially in using techniques and materials appropriated from railway carriages, cruise liners, aircraft and theatres. The Maison de Verre has many similar features to the houses of Le Corbusier but rather than being a cerebral, theory-led project along Corbusian lines its emergence was rather more of a bricolage of trial and error that I think gives it a more homespun feel than the (very few) Le Corbusier projects that I’ve seen.

The house is beautiful and if you have a chance to visit, take it.

While in Paris I also took the time to visit another modernist, or quasi-modernist, project in which I’m interested as an academic. The Monument Frantz Reichel, which stands beside the Stade Jean Bouin in the west of Paris, was erected to commemorate a sportsman-journalist who died at his desk at Le Figaro in 1932. It was sculpted by Alexandre Maspoli (who was also a wrestling champion in his youth!) and designed by the modernist architect Tony Garnier, a contemporary of Chareau.

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Reichel is something of a forgotten man in French sport – the closest figure I can compare him to in England is CB Fry, the great cricketer of the early twentieth century. Reichel, like Fry, was not just an all round sportsman. He was also an intellectual who made his living from journalism who saw sport as being central to the development of society.

Reichel competed at rugby, the 400m and the 110m hurdles at the Olympic Games in 1896 and 1900 and was also Boxing Heavyweight Champion of France in 1904. All the while he produced enormous amounts of journalism, as well as being a central figure in French and world sports administration right up to his sudden death of a heart attack. His Monument bears the simple legend, ‘Le Sport Français’. It is as if at his death he somehow embodied sport in France.

Of course the idea that someone like Reichel (or Fry for that matter), an upper-class, white man could embody something as diverse in participation as sport is something that has been broken down over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries as people of different genders, ethnicities and physical and mental abilities have seen their participation and excellence at sport celebrated.

However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the career of someone like Reichel, especially in the week that the final of the Rugby Union World Cup is to be played. Reichel really was the driving force behind French rugby as both participant and organiser for some twenty years before the First World War. And he was forward looking for his time. My thesis touches on how Reichel encouraged multi-racial rugby in the 1900s, with the French team that played South Africa in January 1907 being captained by Georges Jérome, a grandson of slaves.

The history of Reichel’s memorial is a chequered one – melted down during the Occupation it was shifted to make way for the Périphérique in the 60s and now stands forlornly in a shabby corner of a barren traffic intersection. The weather staining to the stone is natural, the graffiti is not.

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

With the Parc des Prince just a stone’s throw away I wonder who is responsible for the neglect of this formidable statue. I’m currently finishing a paper on the history of the statue for a conference next month and hope to complete an article on Reichel by the end of the year, if anyone out there knows more information about him or his statue please get in touch.

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