Another Glass House

This novel project has taken me down winding roads lined with glass architecture.

My research process consists of following my obsessions. I browse photos of modernist houses, looking for glass and how it was used, with which materials it was paired, who or what inspired the designs. And now I have fallen in love with another glass house, the Maison de Verre (House of Glass) in Paris.

Construction on the Maison de Verre began in 1928, one year after the construction of my fictional glass house. It was a collaboration between Pierre Chareau (architect and furniture designer), Bernard Bijvoet (architect), and Louis Dalbet (ironworker), who were presented with two unique design challenges:

  1. The house had to be built around/under/into the fourth floor of an existing building, so as not to displace the tenant there.

  2. One of the people for whom they were building, Dr. Jean Dalsace, was a gynecologist who wanted to house his offices on the first floor.

The Maison de Verre
In the 1930s, this room was the site of a salon attended by painters and writers and thinkers including Pablo Picasso and Walter Benjamin. The owners, Jean and Annie Dalsace, were members of the French Communist Party, and Dr. Dalsace founded Paris’s first family-planning clinic.

It seems that Chareau and his collaborators responded to these design constraints by becoming even more inventive, even dreamier. The architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called the house “a lyrical machine.”

This episode of Architectures, a documentary series produced by the European public television channel ARTE, gives you an idea of the home’s mechanics: the louvered windows, the hidden cupboards, the rolling stairs, the sliding screens and walls. This is a house built by people who wanted a better world and thought they might invent it.

I missed the Jewish Museum’s 2017 exhibit on Chareau, but you can see parts of the VR tour they created online, including the salon and the garden.

My fictional architect’s glass house is very different from the Maison de Verre, but each glass house I study has its influence. I have yet to fill in all of the design details, but as I write more scenes that take place in the house, the rooms take shape. I wrote a mini-scene set on the sofa during a rainstorm, so now I know where the sofa goes and how lightning illuminates the whole house. I wrote a scene that moves into the sleeping area, so now I know that the bed is wide and the L-shaped wardrobe, which cleverly shields this corner from the rest of the house, nearly empty.