Maison de Verre, in the ultra-smart St Germain area of the city, is one of Paris' best kept secrets. Hidden behind a large courtyard door, and completely invisible from the street, this modernist marvel is the result of a collaboration between Interior Designer Pierre Chareau, Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet, and craftsman Louis Dalbet. The Maison de Verre, or 'Glass House', was constructed onto an existing building between 1928 and 1932, and the trio's vision emphasized three distinct design aesthetics: honesty of materials, variable transparency of forms, and a juxtaposition of industrial material with more traditional domestic interior.
The original owner planned to demolish the traditional 18th Century French apartment building, but couldn't convince the old lady on the top floor to leave. Undeterred, he instructed the architect to instead carve out his modernist vision beneath the remaining top floor flat.
The large steel frame of the structure is filled with an unbroken wall of glass bricks. I marveled at the sunlight bouncing off them on the insufferably hot July day on which we visited. However, Maison de Verre is cleverly ventilated through a series of ingenious (particularly ninety years ago) design tricks, with a series of movable traps built into the glass wall, and an uncomplicated weight and pulley mechanism opening the windows to allow air inside.
The house was designed to comprise two juxtaposing spaces for the owners, Dr Jean Dalsace and his wife Annie - the Doctor's gynecological surgery, and their private living quarters. A rotating screen would hide the stairs to the living area during surgery hours, while framing the stairs at night.
Chareau wanted the private quarters to 'float' atop the Doctor's surgery. A double height salon, lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, is framed on two-sides by balconies, as light floods through the glass wall illuminating the space. Louis Dalbet crafted the rolling ladder in the salon from a single piece of steel pipe, inlayed with wood.
The only views of the world outside are at the rear of the house, which looks out over a small courtyard garden. The brass window casements were constructed from the windows of an old railway carriage.
The house was occupied by the Dalsace family for over seventy years. In the 1980's Dr. Jean Dalsace's daughter approached the French Government to see if they would be interested in purchasing the house for the nation (as they had done with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye years before), but the Government declined. In 2006, retired Wall Street broker Robert Rubin acquired the house, and took on a team of architects and graduates to restore Maison de Verre to its former glory.
Visiting is tricky. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of Maison de Verre from the inner courtyard, and it's just as incredible as it appears in the photographs. My husband found a book on the house in our local library and was in love before he'd turned the first page. We were in Paris recently and got talking about the house as we wandered around St Germain. We decided to look up exactly where it was, and what do you know, we were only a couple of streets away. We didn't think we'd be able to see anything ... and we were right - the house is completely hidden from view. But as we were staring up at the anonmymous fascade, a lady let herself out of the imposing courtyard door. She saw me gasp as I caught a glimpse of Maison de Verre through the tiny cut-out door, beckoned us over, and let us into the courtyard.
So we didn't get to see the wonderful interior, and we were too chicken to ring the doorbell (we couldn't see anyone around, although a few of the windows were open). The owner does run tours, but you need to be an architect or in a related field. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with details of your qualifications and interests to reserve a place. Now here's the killer - a tour costs 40euros per person (20euros if you're a student).
Personally, I think its worth it. There is nothing like this house anywhere else, it's a true one of a kind. I love that it's so elusive, that it was built purely for the love of the aesthetic and the materials, and not at all for show - how could it be, when it's completely hidden from view.
You can see the house in all it's glory in this video: