Maison de Verre

No house in France better reflects the magical promise of 20th-century architecture than the Maison de Verre. Tucked behind the solemn porte-cochere of a traditional French residence on Rue Saint-Guillaume, a quiet street in a wealthy Left Bank neighborhood, the 1932 house designed by Pierre Chareau challenges our assumptions about the nature of Modernism. For architects it represents the road not taken: a lyrical machine whose theatricality is the antithesis of the dry functionalist aesthetic that reigned through much of the 20th century.

Its status as a cult object was enhanced by the house’s relative inaccessibility. For decades it was seen only by a handful of scholars and by patients of a gynecologist whose offices took up the first floor. Later it was mostly used as occasional guest quarters for friends of the doctor’s family, who had long since settled into a traditional 18th-century apartment across the courtyard.

So when I heard over dinner here with some friends a year or so ago that the family had sold the house to an American entrepreneur, I was astonished. My dinner companion, an architect who had never met the new owner, lamented the sale as evidence of France’s cultural decline, akin to the construction of Euro Disney. Waving a dismissive hand, she invoked the cliché of the ugly American, pockets stuffed with dollars.

As it turns out, although the buyer, Robert Rubin, made his money on Wall Street, he is far from a crass trophy hunter. After buying the house, he embarked on a painstaking renovation of its intricate — and for its time, ingenious — mechanical systems. He enlisted a corps of architectural historians and graduate students to decipher its secrets. With the first phase of the renovation completed, he plans to open it up eventually for limited tours. In his loving devotion to the house and its historical particulars, he has emerged as a role model for those who seek to preserve an architectural relic without turning it into a mausoleum.

Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times