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Maison de Verre, the other glass house

Diller Scofidio + Renfro creates a technology-forward exhibition about French architect Pierre Chareau’s influential—and overshadowed—1930s residence

Light inside Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre
Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum

There was a time when I wrote about many apartments. Apartments with rubber floors. Apartments with transparent bathtubs. Apartments with flip-up facades. Toward the end of interviewing their architects I would ask, almost as a throwaway, “is there a house that inspires you?” Nearly everyone answered, “the Maison de Verre.”

Maison de Verre—designed by architects Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet in Paris in 1932—is, as its name suggests, a glass house designed to solve a set of strangely familiar urban problems: a historic hôtel particulier; a tenant who won’t move out; a doctor who wants to work from home.

The result is a poetic machine, a two-story building set in a courtyard between two existing party walls, that creates a specific atmosphere out of its compromises through the deployment of translucent, textured curtain walls and movable parts—louvered windows, retractable stairs, pivoting screens. It makes those other glass houses, which only have to keep out the rain, look a little bit lazy.

Apparently, you have to see it to believe it, which makes the idea of a retrospective on Chareau (1883-1950) that’s not in Paris, home of his only remaining work of architecture, seem perverse at best.

The Maison de Verre, in Paris
Photo courtesy The Jewish Museum

But New York City’s Jewish Museum, which has just mounted such a show, guest curated by Princeton University professor Esther da Costa Meyer with museum curator Claudia Nahson, has deployed a secret weapon: technology. Or Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR). Or maybe they are the same thing. Chareau was a master of the modern interior and a maker of some very lush, expressionist furniture but one without the other could make for a very dull exhibition.

The retrospective, the first in the U.S. on Chareau, who lived in exile in New York from 1940 to 1950, occupies the same space as that on landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, which suffered in its own way for having no access to the outdoors.

“These pieces are meaningful in their native settings, but when they are removed from those settings they are orphaned,” said Elizabeth Diller at the press preview. “The period rooms that have been surgically extracted at the Met have the ability to transport museum visitors in time and space” but Diller would never stoop to a fake.

Instead, the exhibition design by DSR has remade Chareau in three ways, using their common architectural interests in movement, transparency, and unusual domestic arrangements without swamping the past in contemporary ribbons or wedges.

This Chareau-designed black-and-green table is among the furnishings on display in the exhibition
Photo courtesy The Jewish Museum

There are, however, screens. The first gallery has been divided into vignettes by sweeps of white PVC-coated polyester fabric that curve toward the ground like a photographer’s seamless backdrop. From the exhibition door you can see flickering movement, video projections of silhouetted figures working at the kitchen table, primping at a vanity, smoking in an armchair. The gestures seem slightly sped up, as if in an old film. Walk around the screen’s paper-thin edge, and you find the furniture without the figures, the stage set without the actors. The stationery furniture is enhanced, subtly, through the application of dramatic paper shadows, as if the contrast in the gallery was shifted to 100 percent.

The language used to describe Chareau’s furniture is full of action verbs: “a table that swivels out from an attached bookcase on an outsize ball foot,” a study for an ambassador whose walls “open and close like a fan.” Chareau also collaborated on the sets for a number of films with figures like architect Robert Mallet-Stevens and couturier Paul Poiret, understanding in the 1920s that decor told a story. The silhouetted actors stand in for all of us, longing to take a seat at such a beautiful table.

The furniture is legitimately spectacular: a sofa whose back comes to an expressionist point, a bed that looks ready to float downstream, a table lacquered in a queasy green, and, my favorite, the La Religieuse lamps, the nun’s habits made of undulating metal crowned with shards of alabaster. But how dispiriting it would have been to walk into a room with these pieces lined up against the wall, reduced to their sighing lists of luxurious materials.

In the next gallery you can go further into a virtual inhabitation of Chareauspace: Virtual reality goggles, set on tiny pedestal stools, await you inside a gray cube (called the “grand salon”). More of Chareau’s furniture is arranged on risers as it had been at the Maison de Verre and its garden, plus two other interiors (now lost). Through the lenses, you see Chareau’s spiky metal garden furniture behind the house, his lushly embroidered easy chairs (with bright abstract patterns by French artist Jean Lurçat) in the salon. Smoke curls from a cigarette in a virtual ashtray in the living room of the Farhi Apartment. (Kyle Szostek worked with DSR on the VR settings.)

Armchairs from the Maison de Verre #pierrechareau // embroidery by #jeanlurçat

A photo posted by Alexandra Lange (@langealexandra) on

While effective as snapshots, I wished there was a little more depth, and a little less garishness to the vignettes. They needed a historicizing Instagram filter. Were they really doing the job better than a combination of photographs and real furniture? The rendering style turned apartments in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s into over-bright contemporary hotel rooms, evocative in the wrong way. It was cute that they made you sit down for the experience, but an armchair would have better set the mood.

In the hallway around the virtual reality cube, a rail displays photographs and handmade renderings of more interiors. I was most taken with an isometric drawing of the house made by historian Kenneth Frampton in 1965 (he’s speaking at the museum on November 17), that, in today’s aesthetics, suggests the all-seeing viewpoint of the arcade. Would the last stage of our technologically enhanced journey be a Monument Valley-esque quest through a Maison of Virtual Verre? It didn’t seem like a terrible idea. I wanted in.

Instead, in the last room, DSR does something rather more clinical (to use a favorite word of Diller’s): a room-size digital reconstruction that moves you through the house from the opaque masonry front of the hotel particulier to the back garden, tracked on a plan of the house on the floor with a line of red light. It was a doctor’s office, after all. Here’s the firm’s X-ray moment, a technique it also deployed in its installation for the Met’s Charles James exhibition.

One of several Chareau vignettes in the exhibition
Image courtesy The Jewish Museum

What the successive sections show is the layered nature of the façade, as public gives way to private as you move from street to green courtyard. At times, the scan stops, and a red rectangle highlights a particular room: on the wall, actors playing a couple use that room, operating what’s operable.

Perhaps by 2017 we will also be able to operate such avatars? Or furniture exhibitions could develop their own version of Sensurround, allowing me to touch the upholstery? While undeniably impressive—Diller told me the base 3D model for the house's grand salon had been made by a German hobbyist, Bertrand Benoit—this way of rendering the house was architectural and distancing.

House clients don’t love sections, they like the realism of the plan (it feels like your own dollhouse) and elevation (an opportunity to admire the wallpaper). Chatting with Diller, she said one of the most interesting aspects of Chareau’s design was that it was “beautifully polluted.” Earlier she said it was “decorative and functional,” “clinical, gynecological, lush.” All of which might be applied to DSR’s work too, on a good day.

But this mode of rendering, in the only gallery devoid of actual Chareau artifacts, left out the tapestry and mahogany, the swirl of burled wood, the brutalism of the Modigliani sculpture, displayed in a vitrine, that was once part of Pierre and Dollie Chareau’s art collection. At the very moment when we are supposed to be able to inhabit the Maison de Verre, despite being in New York, it slips away.

A reassuring moment for architecture: It hasn’t yet been supplanted by the digital. But DSR’s technological feats make the Chareau retrospective far more inventive and topical than it has any right to be. Cue another round of homage.

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design at the Jewish Museum is open until March 26, 2017.