Architecture Misfit #30: Robert Mallet-Stevens

Robert Mallet-Stevens was born in 1886 a year before Le Corbiusier and died in 1945 twenty years earlier. In the 1920s, they both published their own journals and founded their own associations. By the end of the 1920s, they were the two foremost architects in Paris, with largely seperate spheres of interest and influence. Mallet-Stevens was to design store fronts, a fire station, a theatre, a casino and exposition pavilions, but is most remembered for his private houses for wealthy clients – three in particular.

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The first was a 1923 villa for then leading fashion designer Paul Poiret but construction was completed to an altered design for a different owner in the 1930s. These images are as it stands today.

It doesn’t look that much different. The image on the right, below, is a 1917 Le Corbursier design Mr. Poiret rejected.

The caretaker’s house was recently on the market.

During the 1920s, Mallet-Stevens designed sets for some twenty movies of which Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 silent film L’Inhumaine [on YouTube] is best known. Mallet-Stevens believed a movie set should convey something of the character before they even entered the frame. 

Collaboration was very much in the air in the twenties. Mallet-Stevens designed sets for L’Inhumaine but so did Fernand Léger and two other designers. Pierre Chareau designed some furniture, René Lalique some glassware, and so on. A crowd scene is said to have included Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Léon Blum, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the Prince of Monaco. Mallet-Stevens was used to working with a team of artisans and craftspersons such as interior designers, sculptors, glaziers, lighting specialists, and ironsmiths. For a 1923-28 villa for the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles in Hyères, overlooking the Riviera, the team included Georges and Elise Djo-Bouregois (furniture, textiles), Eileen Gray, Pierre Chareau, and Theo van Doesberg.

The Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles were enthusiastic about surrealism and chose Mallet-Stevens after having interviewed both Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.  They were more than benefactors or patrons – they lived and breathed art and culture. * They threw large parties and costume balls, knew everyone, and were generally rather fabulous.

Their villa was photographed by surrealist filmmaker Man Ray and by acclaimed wartime photojournalist Thérèse Bonney.

Man Ray is said to have been inspired by the house to make his 1926 The Mysteries of the Château de Dé (The Mysteries of the Chateau of Dice) [also on YouTube]. 

Over the period 1926–1938 Mallet-Stevens designed and built five houses (six if you count the caretaker’s), including one for himself, in rue Mallet-Stevens in Paris. Five adjacent buildings by the same architect don’t happen by accident.

Plan rue Mallet-Stevens

The Mallet-Stevens family were well connected and well off so I imagine they owned the street that, after all, is a private road.

No. 10 is known as Hôtel Martel after the twin sculptors Jan and Joël Martel who occupied it.

It was recently on the market and we have architectureforsale.com to thank for these images.

The building on the corner at No. 12 is where the Mallet-Stevenses lived.

Relatively little is known about the other buildings, apartments change hands occasionally.

Together with sculptors Jan and Joel Martel, Mallet-Stevens collaborated on the design of the Cubist Garden at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts Paris in 1925. Their concrete trees were a sensation/scandal.

Mallet-Stevens also designed the Information and Tourism Pavilion, and the Hall of The Embassy of France.

I mention the 1925 exposition out of sequence because it leads to what was to be Mallet-Stevens’ defining project, the Villa Cavrois. The concrete garden was adjacent to the Roubaix and Tourcing Pavilion of Carpets and Upholstery Fabrics that housed an exhibition that included the products of the Roubaix factory of the textile entrepreneur, Paul Cavrois. Cavrois is said to have enjoyed the shock of the trees. 

Richard Klein, the person who knows more about Mallet-Stevens than anyone else, described it like this.

Adrien Auger, the contractor who built the tourism pavilion designed by Mallet-Stevens for the 1925 exhibition, became one of the architect’s sponsors: he entrusted him with the design of his home in Ville d’Avray . The wife of Adrien Auger, Marie Prouvost is at the same time one of the daughters of Amédée prouvost (1853-1927), one of the tycoons of the Roubais textile industry, a cousin of Lucie Vanoutryve, the wife of Paul Cavrois, and Cousin of Jean Prouvost, the founder of the Lainière de Roubaix, one of the largest French spinners.

M. Cavroix wanted a modern villa, something shocking.

This is other photograph I didn’t take. 

The house is big, but, compared to houses of only fifty years earlier, not that big as there aren’t that many different places for people to be. When at home and not asleep, Mon. Cavroix had the (admittedly capacious) living room, smoking room and his office. Mme. Cavroix had the living room and her boudoir. There were also the large terraces and gardens but the north of France is not as warm or sunny as the famously warm and sunny south. Windows are large and plentiful. The service corridor borrows additional light from the washroom and kitchen. Rather than have a bathroom window on the main façade, one of the boy’s bathrooms borrows light from the bedroom.

Each room had a telephone and wireless and, somewhat curiously, a clock. The circular black spots on the living room wall are speakers that could relay either wireless or phonograph. None of this is made a fetish of. The radiators are not painted red, for example, but given functional yet gorgeous surrounds of stainless steel bands.

Importance is given to artificial light but, apart from the entry hallway fittings and the light boxes at the salon entrance, the general lighting is concealed strip lighting bounced off curved reflectors. The many mirrors are used more for spatial effects than to amplify the sensation of light. 

Vestiges of much grander houses and the differentiation of function remain with the smoking room, the gun room, and the capacious and functional basement and wine cellars. There were three live-in domestic staff (cook, front maid and housekeeper) as well as the governess and chauffer. Day staff would have been employed for maintenance and gardening. Children are separated and their presence regulated, as is that of the domestic staff.  The house is thus a mixture of modernist sensibilities and traditional requirements – though Karel Teige would say bourgeois, and did, more than once.

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Karel Teige’s position on Robert Mallet-Stevens is at least clear and consistent. Architectural historian Willam Curtis’ antipathy towards Robert Mallet-Stevens seems to stem from the fact Mallet-Stevens not only wasn’t Le Corbusier, but denied Le Corbusier the chance to design and build possibly two more buildings for him to write about.

Mallet-Stevens simply doesn’t fit into any of the common narratives about modern architecture.

He refused to be a content provider. Mallet-Stevens requested his entire archive of drawings and writings be destroyed after his death. This is usually given as the reason he’s not better remembered but I doubt it’s as simple as that. An architect’s degree of recognition shouldn’t be determined by how much information they make available for that very purpose. One thing is clear: Mallet-Stevens’ disdain for the myth-making of architecture by depriving future historians of source material did nothing to endear him to them.

He was born into a family of wealth and privilege. He was naturally connected with the 1920s French world of culture and art. Once their villa was complete, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse of Noailles spent months attending furniture and art exhibitions so they could make better informed choices regarding its interiors. In the end, they chose Louis Barillet (decorative glazing), Pierre Chareau, Eileen Gray, Djo-Bourgeois et Francis Jourdain (furniture), Gabriel Guévrékian (garden), and Piet Mondrian, Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti (various artworks.) They don’t seem like the kind of people who, in 1923, would have chosen an architect on a whim or hearsay. They would have known Mallet-Stevens was more familiar the world they moved in.

There’s no evidence of an architectural agenda. Mallet-Stevens buildings were selectively modern but Curtis mistakes this for being superficially modern. But who needs a roof terrace when there’s a huge terrace or belvedere leading on to gardens just outside? The terrace at Villa Noailles is surely one of the world’s nicer places to be.

Villa Noailles and Villa Cavrois are modern anachronisms but there’s no way they would have benefited from incorporating any of Le Corbusier’s Five Points and, more to the point, no reason why they should have. They were built for people with very firm ideas of what they wanted their villas to be. They were progressive within the scope of their brief and not experimental beyond it. We should not see this as something negative.

His buildings can be seen as more style than substance. This follows on from the above. Books with titles like The Invention of Chic don’t help but, it must be said, Mallet-Stevens definitely had a way with staircases.

He made no notable effort to market himself. Personal recommendations are the best way to receive work and Mallet-Stevens’ circle of acquaintances and colleagues was wide, influential, and respected. Rue Mallet-Stevens was a private road but it had a very public inauguration in 1927. The opening of Mallet-Stevens BALLY store in 1928 was attended by the then French Minister of Commerce.

In the same way events such as these were cultural ones as well as architectural ones, Villa Noailles was also a social event, and at one time or another hosted André Gidé, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Rubenstein, Salvador Dalí, Balthus, Jean Cocteau, Ned Rorem, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, Francis Poulenc, Wolfgang Paalen, Jean Hugo, Jean-Michel Frank, …

Mallet-Stevens didn’t design everything himself. The “total work of art” was a recent affectation but Mallet-Stevens produced it by coordinating the efforts of others. The glass ceiling in the Pink Room at Villa Noailles is stunningly beautiful, but was designed by Louis Barillet, for example. The light boxes and the ceiling light reflectors at Villa Cavrois were designed by André Salomon. I get the feeling Mallet-Stevens had nothing to prove. This does not fit the accepted narrative of ambitious architects and career trajectories.

Mallet-Stevens placed too much emphasis on detail. Small things mattered. No bricks were cut in the making of Villa Cavrois. Instead, the house was clad with bricks all the same thickness but made to twenty-six different lengths. This is a triumph of detailing and bricklaying when there are horizontal joints as long as 60 metres. It’s a decadence of process yes, but it’s also amazing that someone thought it was important for who would have ever noticed? It’s a very handmade house that does not fit well with a notion of houses as metaphors for machines. Brick is not trying to represent the new plasticity.

Mallet-Stevens placed too much emphasis on craftsmanship. This next image is not of a Mallet-Stevens building but the one adjacent to Hôtel Mallet-Stevens on rue du Docteur Blanche. It has some exquisite mosaic work that illustrates exactly what I mean.

It’s a bravura display of craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibility. It’s not necessary (as it wasn’t with the equally bravura counterpoint on the window sill) but it’s there and it’s beautiful. It’s not a machine product, and it’s not wanting to be one. Mallet-Stevens could also design for mass production. He just managed to find some of the last clients who could afford and appreciate excellent materials and craftsmanship.

While architecture was moving in the direction of mass production and the larger market afforded by clients less wealthy, Mallet-Stevens was designing rooms where subtly theatrical spaces didn’t flow into each other, but presented a succession of scenes and spaces. Choice of materials often reflected the personality of the intended occupant of the space. This meant sycamore in the boudoir, pear wood in the office, zebrawood in the children’s dining room, black pear wood and Swedish marble in the dining room, Cuban mahogany in the smoking room, and so on. This was clearly not the way the market for architecture was moving.

Mallet-Stevens’ career never “progressed”. Architects are supposed to begin small, do a few houses and then move on to larger and more public commissions before international ones, aping the career trajectories of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Mallet-Stevens didn’t do this. His list of buildings is eclectic and follows no sequence. It tells no story other than that of not conforming to our expectations. The following list is taken from Contemporary Architects (edited by Muriel Emanued) but supplemented with information from robertmalletstevens.blogspot.ae which is the best resource I’ve come across. Whoever’s responsible has done a wonderful job tracking down photographs of most buildings on this list. I’ve mostly resisted adding them.

1914: Workman’s house, Saint Cloud, paris (project)
1922: Electricity Transformer Station (project)
1922: Aéro-Club de France Pavilion, Salon d’Automne, Paris
1923: Bookshop, Paris
1923: Vicomte de Noailles Villa, Hyères, Var, France (with others)
1923: Facades and interiors for the Cafés du Brésil, Paris
1924: Film sets for Marcel l’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine
1924: Poiret Chateau, Mezy, Seine et Oise, France
1924: Hotel des Roches Noires reconstruction, Trouville, France
1925: Pavilion of Tourism, Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (with others)
1926: House, Ville d’Avray, France
1926: Villa Collinet, Denfert-Rochereau, Paris
1926: Freres Martel House, Paris
1926: House, Boulogne-sur-Seine, Paris 
1926: 
Houses, rue Mallet-Stevens, Paris (1926/7)
1927: Mallet-Stevens House Paris
1928: Casino, Saint Jean de Lux, France
1929: Apartment building, rue Mechain, Paris
1929: (incl. the studio of Polish artist Tamara Lempicka)

1929: House, Pernambuco, Brazil
1929: Offices for the P.F. Department Stores, Paris
1929: Bally Shoe Shop, Boulevard de la Madeleine, Paris
1930: Municipal Theatre, Grasse, Alpes Maritimes, France
1930: Government Distillery, Istanbul, Turkey
1930: Delza Shop, rue de la Paix, Paris
1930: Shop front, rue d’Assas, Paris
1930: Worker’s housing, Roubaix (project)

1931: Villa Cavrois, Roubaix, France
1931: House/Studio for master glassmaker Louis Barillet, Paris
1931: Trappenard House, Sceaux, France
1934: Houses, Roubaix, France
1935/6: Fire Station, rue Mesnil, Paris
1937: Palais d’Electricité, World’s Fair, Paris Olympic Stadium, Paris
1939: Press and Advertising pavilion, L’Exposition du Progrès Social de Lille

 

The Press and Advertising Pavilion was Robert Mallet-Stevens’ last project. He did not work for anyone during the German occupation of France. He died in 1945, probably knowing he’d been fortunate in life and career.

• • •

Robert Mallet-Stevens!

for being very good at what you did,
and for leaving it at that.

misfits salutes you!

• • •

Villa Cavrois

Ground Floor

GROUND FLOOR: A. Entrance porch, B. Swiming pool, C. South Terrace, D. North terrace, E. Children’s staircase, F. Children’s entrance, 1. Main entrance hall, 2. Double-height sitting room, 3. Inglenook, 4. Smoking room, 5. Main dining room, 6. Children’s dining room, 7. Scullery, 8. Kitchen, 9. Pantry, 10–12. Servants’ rooms, 13. Bathroom, 14. W.C., 15, Service entrance, 17. Washbasin, 18. W.C., 19. Service stairs, 20. Cloakroom, 21. W.C., 22. Waiting room,athroom 24. Bathroom, 25. Young man’s room, 26. Young man’s room, 27. Bathroom, 28. Office, 29. Safe

First Floor

FIRST FLOOR: A. Balcony, B. South Terrace, C. Covered terrace, D. North terrace, 1. Void over sitting room, 2. Bathroom, 3. Girls’ room, 4. Governess’ room, 5. Bathroom, 6. Boys’ room, 7. Service room, 8. Corridor, 9. W.C., 10. Service stairs, 12. Linen, 13. Storage, 16. Master bathroom, 17. Master bedroom, 18. Boudoir, 19. Bathroom, 20. Main staircase

Second Floor

SECOND FLOOR: A. East terrace, B. West terrace, 1. Children’s playroom, 2. Storage, 3. Service room, 4. Study room, 5. Study room

Basement

BASEMENT: A. Swimming pool, B. Covered passageway 1. Wine, 2. Fine wine, 3. Bottling room, 4. Fruit storage, 5. Wood storage, 6. Boiler room, 7. Laundry, 8. Cellars and storage, 9. W.C., 10, Coal storage, 12. Oil tanks, 13. Service stairs, 14. Larder, 15. Flowers, 16. Cellars and storage, 17. Garage, 18. Trunk storage, 19. Lift motor room, 20. Gun room

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Architecture Myths #18: Beauty vs. Everything Else

MA: “Let me first thank you, Signor Palladio, for agreeing to this interview. To kick things off, would you like to share with misfits’ readers your thoughts on windows?”

palladio

AP: “If the windows are made smaller and less numerous than necessary, the rooms will be made gloomy; and if they are made too large the rooms are practically uninhabitable because, since cold and hot air can get in, they will be extremely hot or cold depending on the seasons of the year, at least if the region of the sky to which they are oriented does not afford some relief.”

MA: “I see. Yes. Some rooms will be colder in winter if they are not on the sunny side, or warmer in summer if they are not on the shaded side. So –”

AP: “– for this reason, windows must not be made broader than a quarter of the length of the rooms nor narrower than a fifth, and their height should be made two squares and a sixth of their breadth.”

MA: “Window size depends upon how big the room is then?”

AP: “Because rooms in a house are made large, medium and small, the windows must remain the same size in a given order or storey, when calculating the dimensions of those windows I like very much those rooms which are two-thirds longer than their breadth; that is, if the breadth is eighteen feet then the breadth should be thirty. I divide the breadth into four and a half parts; and with one part I establish the clear breadth of the windows and with the other two, adding a sixth of the breadth, I make all the windows of the other rooms the same size as these windows.”  

MA: “So you saying then, that, for the sake of beauty, all windows of a storey must be the same size, even if it means some may be too big for their respective rooms that will therefore be colder in winter if they are not on the sunny side, or warmer in summer if they are not on the shaded side?”

AP: ” – “

Palladio’s one-size-fits-all approach to design shows the rot had set in even though it was still not even a century since Alberti invented Architecture as aesthetic contrivance. If Palladio saw quantitative building performance and some unsubstantiable notion of architectural beauty as working against each other and was willing to compromise the former for the latter then we can’t really be surprised by anything that’s happened since. Compromising performance for beauty is simply hard-wired into the psyche of architecture, part of its very being, its existence and it’s not going to change in a hurry or at least without putting up a very strong fight.

And it does. An architectural climate that broadens the focus of architecture to include building performance occurs only rarely, perhaps only once or twice a century and, when it does, is almost immediately quashed by the forces of Architecture. This suggests building performance is counter to what architecture is. It’s not that Architecture actually defines itself by the denial of physical comfort, it’s just that it competes with the needs of our other senses and all senses aren’t created equal. Our notion of architectural beauty would be very different if humans had evolved to live on the bottom of the ocean.

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“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in darkness.”

In the 1920s, as soon as architects had devised ways to house people so everybody had a certain amount of sunlight and ensure an acceptable level of health and well-being, the quality of that light became an indicator of architectural worth [c.f. Getting Some Rays].

sunbather

Le Corbusier’s Five Points of 1927 seemed to definitively solve the problem of windows in favour of horizontal ones.

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It all went well for about 12 months. In the meantime, Richard Neutra completed the Jardinette Apartments in Los Angeles as his first commission in his new country.

Jardinette

Walter Gropius was full-on functionalist when it suited him but, at the first CIAM meeting in 1929, he framed the problem of housing as how to get the most sunlight to horizontal windows, so justifying the taller buildings he seemed to want to design. Richard Neutra reminded everyone present that, in the U.S., tall buildings were not a problem that required solving. That might’ve been the moment Gropius decided he’d better bolster the academic side of his CV.

At the 1931 CIAM meeting in Zürich, it was still being taken for granted that windows were now and would always be horizontal was again taken for granted when, amongst others, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Siegfried Giedion discussed “the importance of solar orientation in governing the directional positioning of low-cost housing on a given site. Le Corbusier couldn’t have not been there, but it’s still unclear why he was because, by 1931, he’d already made considerable progress in subverting Modernism’s quantitative concern for light with his own interpretation of what light was good for. By 1932, Karel Teige’s worst fears for the Five Points were confirmed.

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Karel Teige, The Minimal Dwelling (originally published as Nejmenší byt by Václav Petr, Prague, 1932) p.181

All this time, Philip Johnson had been lurking around Europe so, by the time the International Style exhibition came around, he knew which way the wind was blowing. Horizontal windows were stylistic affectation and a symbol of modernity. Together with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson did more to kill off performance-beauty in the US than Hitler did in Germany or Stalin in the U.S.S.R. [c.f. The Things Historians Do

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The twentieth century dragged on and it was acceptable for aesthetic reasons to not have windows where additional ones could have improved daylighting and ventilation.  [c.f. The Things Architects Do #1: Compromise

This Palladian Conundrum is insoluble as long as we have five senses and we rely upon the dimensions and quantity of a single building element to satisfy them all.

This doesn’t apply just to windows but to any building element having a tangible function and a visible presence. The problem is apparent in architect quotes such as “I would rather live in a corner of Chartres Cathedral with the nearest bathroom two blocks away than in …. [insert whatever building you care to name that has a bathroom].” I think it was Zaha Hadid who said that, presumably to indicate the strength of her sensitivity to those intangible qualities architects are imagined to be sensitive to. It also implies such sensitivity is incompatible with conveniently located bathrooms. This is not necessarily true. 

It’s the default attitude of starchitects. Frank Gehry is a well known critic of LEED and we assume it’s for reasons similarly artistic but Gehry has no doubt bumped up against LEED criteria a few times with property-developer clients suggesting certification as a selling point.

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Despite its forward-thinking architectural design, however, [New York by Gehry] contains few innovative sustainable design features. Although it has implemented some environmentally sound practices such as energy-efficient windows, Energy Star appliances and a greywater filtration system, New York by Gehry is not LEED certified.

The developers found themselves with a choice of selling points and decided to go the Gehry Accreditation route. Their decision raises the tantalising possibility that the value uplift of going with a branded architect is quantifiable in dollar terms. This report

business case

Business_Case_For_Green_Building_Report_WEB_2013-04-11

claims the value uplift of a green building is as much as 12.5%. The value uplift offered by a branded architect must therefore be greater, whether a building is green or not. A lot of things begin to make sense. Gehry’s objections now appear defensive, and with good reason. Perception management may be the dominant role of starchitects and development gain may be taken care of by the architect of record [c.f. Architecture Myths #23; Architecturebut if ever the value uplift of a high-performing building should surpass that which a starchitect can supposedly add, then the brand collapses and starchitects have to find something else to do. Palladio may have been the first starchitect.

The same position has been restated at length by Patrik Schumacher in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I. [c.f. Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1 The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)]. A November 2014 post, The Mystery of Beauty mulled Schumacher’s argument/need for a concept of beauty. To paraphrase, “a concept of beauty gives architects something to work towards, even if they don’t know what it is. What’s more, attempting to resolve the beauty/function thing is what makes architecture architecture.” He’s right in a weird way and not in a good way. Appearing to aspire to something unknowable yet somehow lofty, is a good way to distance oneself from supposedly more prosaic concerns having definite and optimum solutions.

In our current media environment where the last thing we expect or are presented with are facts, it’s obscene to talk about value per unit area and user value. Things like these are not the stuff of architecture wishes to be evaluated on and so are not they are not the stuff of architecture as it gets presented

Without a vision, architects become no more than technicians, and it is our ability to shape functional requirements to create a piece of “magic” where we can really flourish as a profession.
Jerry Tate (from an article “Why is Sustainability Boring?
BD Online 6 November 2012)

But we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.
Patrik Schumacher (The Autopoeisis of Architecture, p38)

It might be too early to speak, but there’s one dim glimmer of hope things might be different in the future. You might remember this image from back in March, when Bjarke Ingels was cross with us for not seeing more than one female director in this picture.

The visible one is Sheena Søgaard, general manager and CEO of BIG. She wrote a piece for DESIGN INTELLIGENCE, outlining the reasons for BIG’s success. It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s read Yes Is More! but Søgaard’s first point was that design and business go together. So was her second point, “Focus on Financial Health” and which was much more illuminating.

“To rethink the traditional fee approach [!] and to gain our fair share of the value we were creating for our clients, we began to focus on documenting proof of our value creation. We are able to show clients that our projects provide more value per square foot sold, more program to any given site, and better value for the users; all of which helps us achieve a greater share of that value which we assist in unlocking, i.e., better design fees.”

I’d suspected this in June 2105 when I roughly calculated that BIG’s proposal for World Trade Center 2 had 14% more rentable area than the Foster+Partners proposal, yet all we got to read about was the aesthetic backstory of some staggered boxes with plants on top and lights on the bottom. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center.

My problem with this is that value delivered should never have been hidden in the first place, let alone snuck back into public perception and presented to us as corporate revelation. It remains to be seen if this new value is any different from the old value. What is clear is that if the perception management precedes the development gain by too much, then everyone gets to see the ongoing process of development gain engineering at work and the image of industrious creatives fades to one of compliant yes men. 

When there’s one justification for clients and another for those to whom their media face is directed, it shows just how deeply the problem of perception management vs. development gain is embedded in today’s system of architectural production. It’s the Beauty vs. Everything Else thing still playing itself out.

There’s no sign it will end anytime soon, especially when editorials such as that of the Spring 2017 “Pure Beauty” issue of San Rocco are still pushing back. Irénée Scalbert’s essay Beauty Without Taste, is a paean to Foster+Partners’ 1991 Stanstead Terminal building. She praises its beauty as incidental and without admitting any attempt of Foster to create it – as does Foster, for that matter.

stanstead

This feels like progress but it’s effectively a re-statement of Johnson and Hitchcock’s position that an aesthetic other than one of beauty is still an aesthetic of beauty.

“It is, however, nearly impossible to organize and execute a completed building without making some choices not wholly determined by technics and economics. One may therefore refuse to admit that intentionally functionalist building is quite without a potential æsthetic element. Consciously or unconsciously the architect must make free choices before his design is completed. In these choices the European functionalists follow, rather than go against, the principles of the general contemporary style. Whether they admit it or not is beside the point.”

I usually enjoy San Rocco’s bloggy editorial essays that put provocative ideas out there with nothing but a train of thought to justify them. This one however, repeats the opinion that “Modernism” wanted to erase the notion of beauty from architectural discourse, and that Hannes Meyer sought to eradicate beauty rather than merely pursue a different notion of it.

pure beauty.jpg

It didn’t matter. For the proponents of a single, absolute beauty as pure as it was vague, it amounted to the same thing, and ever since then people have been scrambling to put the cat back into the bag for we can now identify two types of beauty. One is the type of performance-beauty pursued by Meyer and the other is everything else that consciously succeeds at trying to be beautiful. Who’s to say there aren’t more types out there? Emmanuel Kant left room to think the problem may not be with the universal but with the our subjectivity.

kant do that.jpg

Kant leaves open the possibility that our subjectivities can remain subjective yet still respect some universal determinant.

San Rocco, however, prefers to champion the autonomy of the universal rather than question the autonomy of the subjective – and which is no less romantic a notion.

food for thought

Points a~f repeat the Schumacher position in which the existence of a single beauty is posited as a difficult (i.e. impossible) goal in order to validate work towards it. Points e and f do too, but add further qualifications couched in quasi-religious language to lend said work the appearance of virtuous endeavour, if not moral imperative.

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Window Checklist

lunar prisms

illumination

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ventilation

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insulation

observation

relaxation

separation

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information

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contemplation

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inspiration

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gratification

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Misfits’ Guide to PARIS

1902

rue Franklin Apartments
Auguste Perret
rue Benjamin Franklin, Paris

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We all know about the concrete frame, its concealment and subsequent re-expression of its presence but the reason for the shape of this frontage tends to be neglected.

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Modernist space maybe, “inspired by statutory light courts” perhaps, but why would someone want to do that? The shortest distance between two points isn’t a good thing when many rooms are needing windows. Perret managed to give windows to five, as well as to the kitchen off to the left and outside the formal organization of the building but following the social class prejudices of the time and the functional prejudices of ours. Don’t believe me? Compare the functionally sanitized plan from our architecture books with the original plan. We learn that the sculleries have side windows and so the gas cooker probably had a degree of cross ventilation in the kitchen. The bed was rather awkwardly placed in the bedroom. The frontmost room on the left is the smoking room and the one with the alternate means of escape is the boudoir.

These are rather nice one-bedroom flats, suggesting their owners had houses in the country and used these apartments as what we call in English pied-a-terres.

Only the week before last did I belatedly learn there’s some quite nice gardens across the road. The six windows of the upper apartments must have impressive views of the entire Trocadero Gardens as well as of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the lower apartments can’t be unlike this view from the Hotel Eiffel five doors up, on the corner.

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I know of no book, architecture or otherwise, that has ever mentioned this. In 1904 when these apartments were completed, The Eiffel Tower had already been a feature of the Paris skyline for 15 years but it was still uncertain if it would be a permanent one. We forget not everyone was keen on having it around forever.

The upper levels of the building are very special and I have hiddenarchitecture.net to thank for these images.

This image is probably as close as you and I are ever going to get to seeing a view of anything from one of the rue Franklin apartments.

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I used to think the lengthened facade was simply about getting daylight and ventilation to six rooms. I now suspect view was another factor. There’s also something else. The non-linear frontage creates a vertical column of space shared by three of the five habitable rooms. This void is physically unuseable space but it’s a building amenity of sorts for, without compromising privacy, it provides an awareness of people in other rooms of the same apartment and, to a lesser degree and without compromising privacy, of activity in the apartments above and below.

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Everyone not only gets a view of the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero Gardens, but also gets a warm feeling of bonhomie for sharing that view. It’s a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath, on a lesser scale.

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Anyway, the rest is history but, as a footnote to history, I believe Perret set out to achieve much more than a reinforced concrete frame for us to learn about in architecture school.

1903

7 rue de Trétaigne
Henri Sauvaage and Charls Sarazin

7 rue de Trétaigne, Paris

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I’m unsure how much bonhomie was felt at the time by the many Parisiens sharing a shaft of airspace on sites less central and less spectacular. With his 7 rue de Trétaigne low-rent apartments, Henri Sauvage tried to do his best for these people.

The tidy configuration has six apartments per floor accessed from an approx. 4m² landing – it simply can’t be any less. Area saved is diverted to make the lightwells as large as possible for the single aspect apartments facing them. We think of Henri Sauvage as the Art Nouveau guy good at tendril ornament but he had a proto-Modernist sensitivity to how quantity of light benefits well-being. I say that because one third of the 29 apartments are the three-room apartments responsible for the unevenly sized light wells. Placing them on the south of the trapezoidal site would have equalized the lightwell areas somewhat but since rue de Trétaigne runs approximately north-south, the northern light well is larger because windows opening onto it receive less direct sunlight. Note also how openings between rooms are next to the window wall, allowing light to be borrowed from adjacent rooms.

1912

Housing rue Vavin
Henri Sauvage
rue Vavin, Paris

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This building is also T-shaped with paired apartments left, right and rear, but has a larger footprint and height. With this, Henri Sauvage introduced the terraced apartment typology pre-empting Antonio San’t Elia (who, in 1914, sketched some terraced apartments). However, only the front to rue Vavin is terraced and not the rear facades that could better benefit. The main advantage of terracing apartments is that everyone gets a vertical slice of the sky in addition to whatever view there is. The architectural price paid is a large and largely unlit space below that needs to be justified. Sauvage did so by moving his office and studio into at least part of what is quite a substantial length of building.

I’ve no idea of this building’s history of repair and nor can I tell, but it’s looking good for 105. Glazed ceramic tiles are the perfect cladding.

1922

Grandin Building
Henri Sauvage
10 rue des Amiraux, Paris

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A decade later, Sauvage was to again explore terraced apartments but this time on three sides of a building. This created a much larger space that needed filling but this time he was fortunate to have it accommodated by a municipal swimming pool.

Despite this building being a better example of the advantages of the terraced typology, it’s simply not possible for all buildings to have a swimming pool inside. I don’t know why. I’d been looking forward to a 3€ swim but, when I visited the week before last, the pool was closed for major restoration.

This is what I’d been hoping to see and experience.

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1958

Le Cité de L’Abreuvoir
Émile Aillaud with Edouard Vaillant
1 Rue de Téhéran, 93000 Bobigny, France

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This post-war housing project is sixty years old and its original surface has been overclad and is probably good for another sixty. The site layout still works. Eleven-storey tower blocks are surrounded by a curvilinear four-storey perimeter buildings with apartments accessed by stairs from the outer side. Local residents and apartment occupants alike use the existing streets to enter and use the open space to access the market and buses along the main road running through the site. The open space is open to everybody to use as a thoroughfare but only the apartments of the development have a direct view of this open space as a visual amenity.

The tower blocks add incident – a Victorian concept of the picturesque. It’s when something is made to happen when it would be dull for something not to. This isn’t a meaningless gesture however, for the tower blocks increase density and allow the enclosed open space to feel open. In some cities high-rise housing is a more efficient way of using land but here it’s just an different way of using land.

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1968

EDF Housing
Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge (Jean Renaudie, P. Riboulet, G. Thurnauer, J.-L. Véret) 1968

4 bd du Colonel Fabien, rue des Péniches, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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This corner of Paris is all about electricity – EDF’s in particular. In English, this project is known as EDF Housing. I’ve yet to find plans and work out how these buildings are configured, but it looks like what you’d get if took a two-storey, interlocking, L-shaped module not unlike this,


and rotated it 90° four times, elevating it two storeys each time. As with the towers of the previous project, these have no preferred orientation because different rooms within the apartments face different directions anyway. This is a useful characteristic. [c.f. The Inscrutable Apartment]

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1969

Jean-Baptiste Clément Housing
Jean Renaudie
rue Jean-Baptiste Clément, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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Jean Renaudie again, but this time sans Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge. It’s impossible to find a single location from which to photograph this development because it wasn’t designed for the sake of a photograph. Its complex geometric plan is based on triangles overlaid in three dimensions and produces courtyard spaces and a vertical gradation of activity as one progresses up from street level through the internal shopping arcade and up to the residential levels.

All apartments have private terraced outdoor areas

and the levels overlap and sequentially recede according to some logic sensed but never comprehended.

Whatever its rules of organization are, they can be infinitely extended and varied to account for local conditions yet still produce an identifiable whole. It’s not very often you’ll see anyone attempt designing a three-dimensional amorphous matrix for mixed-use living.

1977

Les Tours Aillaud
Emile Aillaud
Cité Pablo Picasso, Nanterre, Paris

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I’ll stick my neck out and disagree with Robert Hughes on this. Where he sees concrete I see mosaic tile, and no boxiness either. The rooms aren’t large but who’s to know how many or how large they might well have been? The floor layouts are sensibly designed with right angles where furniture needs to be placed and curved external walls where it is less necessary.

The buildings’ shape, their surface pattern and the shape(s) of their windows could be what Hughes meant by gimmicky. The shape we can discount as it looks like an early attempt at a rigid tube structure [such as 432 Park Ave’s]. It probably produced some engineering advantage and consequent construction and materials savings. This hypothesis is supported by the relatively small window openings. If laid properly, glazed ceramic tile is a perfect cladding but there’s no justification for the pattern of this cladding or for the three shapes of window, particularly the teardrop-shaped ones. These features are what English-speaking commentators writing about French architecture are keen to disparagingly label “gesture”. Gesture is assumed to be a bad thing and, if it’s no more than an architectural gesture for our amusement, then I agree.

However, consider this next recently completed project for runaway/homeless kids in Perth, Western Australia. Many of the elements we see in this image – the angled columns, the cantilever, the different finishes and materials, the bright colours, overlapping planes are all architectural gestures of some sort and none is particularly expensive to make.

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They’re all architectural gestures that could be seen as gimmicky but in this context they are all human gestures showing somebody cared enough about the users of this space to make it a little bit more than it could easily have otherwise been. 

I feel something similar happening with Les Tours Aillaud. It’s fifty years old. It’s the only ungated development. It’s not been dynamited. It’s only few stones’ throws away from La Défense. It must still be social housing for rent for, if it weren’t, it’d have been gentrified long ago.

1981

Le Viaduc et les Arcades du Lac
Ricardo Bofill
Allée Jules Verne, 78180 Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France

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This is the first and most photogenic of Ricardo Bofill’s Paris projects and, because of that, a media “classic”. It seeded development of the lake periphery and beyond.

The Les Arcades du Lac component is the lesser photographed. It contains 389 subsidised apartments and, as shown above, has been given a strong controlling geometry recognizable as a French garden with buildings instead of hedges.

Much of the space around Les Arcades du Lac consists of hard landscaping interrupted by occasional trees and views out,

and also by moments of incredible lushness. We simply can’t say if the people who look at these or at the lake all the time have a better appreciation of them than the people who experience them afresh every time they encounter them in the course of going home. I wasn’t aware of any car parking and nor did I think to look for it.

The buildings are in impeccable condition. Its mix of prefabricated concrete panels and terracotta tile cladding is approaching timelessness.

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How well the project as a whole has aged is obvious when compared with surrounding developments that attempt a similar grandness of mass without following through with construction and materials.

The lake is astounding in size and the surrounding parkland well maintained. It must be nice for the majority of the Les Arcades du Lac to know they are close to it even if they can’t see it. Once again, we can’t say if their appreciation of the lake and park is any better or worse. The lake and park are also amenities for the neighbourhood to enjoy. Other than proximity, what makes the occupants of Le Viaduc and Les Arcades du Lac special is that they share a geometry. For the first time I thought such a simple thing as geometry is a very real way of making people feel part of something greater. I began to think of axes and symmetries not as wannabe Versailles but as something that can be used in low-rent housing developments to produce the sense of comfort that comes from knowing one has a place within some grander design. These fundametals of configuration are more visible now the post-modern frisson of surface design has evaporated. It was with this in mind that I viewed the next project.

1982

Les Espaces d’Abraxas
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
1982 pl des Fédérés, Noisy le Grand, Marne la Vallée, Villes Nouvelles, Paris

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Again, there are glimpes of lushness, but fewer and more controlled.

It’s the same things happening again, with even fewer elements working harder but for the same reasons. Here, the shared feature is the amphitheatre – an architectural form in which something happens, even though all that happens is people going to and from their apartments. As with rue Franklin Apartments this space shared both horizontally and vertically unites users and spectators no more or less than with any stadium.

Bofill said it’s more than a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath. And as with Le Viaduct, a number of apartments are made into a focal point for the development – a plot device that, in the absence of players or actors, gives meaning to the space. According to the description on ricardobofill.com “L’Arc”, with its modest dimensions (20 apartments over nine floors), was placed in the center of the interior space. We wanted to render functional a symbol considered non functional throughout its long historical use. Diverted from its usual symbolism, its final aspect will be that of a romantic, rather than a triumphal arc. For all, it is the focal point of the scheme.”

Also, as with the other projects, movement on ground level is made visible wherever possible but, as with Bofill’s 1975 Walden 2, bridges and open staircases are used to make movement on the higher levels more visible.

The usual photograph by which this development is summarized doesn’t do it justice.

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1985

les Échelles du Baroque
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place de Catalogne, Paris

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There are 274 apartments over seven floors. In all respects, this project was so much more than I’d anticipated.

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Again, the same elements are used and with more economy and to the same effect. Bofill’s use of social housing to provide an amenity for the neighbourhood builds upon what Aillaud did in Bobigny three decades earlier.

1986

Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place des Colonnes, Cergy Saint Christophe, Cergy, Cergy-Pontoise, Villes nouvelles, Paris

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By now I knew what to look for but this was more than I anticipated. The central shared object, the amphitheather and the grand axes were all present here and stronger. The approach from the railway station is a major axis culminating at the eponymous column.

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Off to the left from the column is another axis leading out of the development. From here on is known as either l’Axe Majeur de Cergy-Pontoise or as Parc François Mitterand as it’s one of the Grand Projects. And grand it is for, once past the arcade, there’s a path leading to some more columns and a view of Paris in the distance.

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One is drawn towards it between rows of espaliered apple trees.

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Only when you get to the distant columns does the view open up, and magnificently so.

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It’s a trek, but one I’d be very happy to live near to. Whether or not they residents have a view of this, the residents still benefit from an embracing geometry. The people of Cergy can access this space from roads passing across it but the people of Paris accessing it from the centre of town or the station will invariably pass through the space with the column.

This is a very intelligent project. Some of its architectural details are superficially post-modern but the important ones are all very real, physical things that refer to nothing else but what they are. They don’t pretend to give – they actually do. Bofill did something very important with these projects that, though ostensibly Post-Modern, aimed higher and had a rationale beyond.

• • •

Les Espaces d’Abraxas is the most vivid of these four projects but probably the least successful as it’s bounded on three sides by busy roads and, unlike the others, a destination only for the people living there and the occasional Bofill rediscoverer such as myself.

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1995

9-17 rue Émile Durkheim
Francis Soler
9-17 rue Émile Durkheim

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This project is just to the south of Dominique Perrault’s 1994 Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the choice of such a location is already a human gesture to its occupants. The project was much maligned in an Architectural Review review of the time. Reference to French architects’ supposed love of “gesture” displayed the mindset that occupants of social housing aren’t allowed anything unique. The main cause of this ire was the graphics applied to the windows.

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The implication was that occupiers of social housing shouldn’t be gazing at art [but aspiring to fitted units and tile splashbacks with decorative borders?] In 1995 or 6, I scanned this image because I liked the clarity of the design and its priorities.

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The architect’s website explains that the full-height double glazing offered construction and structural savings that freed budget for the window graphics showing details from Giulio Romano’s fresco of the Feast of the Gods, but in the style of Roman Cieslewicz [a Polish photographer and graphic artist notable for, amongst other things, his use of collage].

The intention was to provide a poetic dimension and the necessary intimacy without obstructing daylight. It’s a different way of looking at things. This problem of cross-Channel perception has nothing to do with architectural gesture and everything to do with the concept of a human gesture I mentioned earlier. The UK’s neoliberalist filter for aesthetic perception precludes social housing from ever being beautiful, regardless of whether an effort is made or not.

2016

Social Housing
Antonini Darmon Architectes

Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris

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This project featured last year in MARK magazine and much was made of the arches and their shadows and shading. “The modern reinterpretation of Giovanni Guerrini’s 1940 Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome is a welcome addition to the western suburbs.” The apartments are decent enough and the balcony width increases in line with the need for sun control, apparently.

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There was little need for sun control when I visited.

Driven by views and the river promenade as amenities, the area has much new development and is more about to happen. “Each building designed by a different architect” is mentioned as if it were a good thing. Jean Nouvel’s name is mentioned likewise.

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This social housing is within a courtyard development and ostensibly its centrepiece. Opportunities to see into or out of that courtyard are few because as many of the surrounding apartments as possible are attempting views to the west across L’Île Seguin to the hills of Meudon – or at least their living rooms are, leaving many bedrooms facing the courtyard and the building. There’s a slim chance this building has its archy facade as a human gesture to its tenants, but it’s more likely an architectural gesture to those who have a view of it. It could be a case of those arches being a human gesture to one set of occupants and an architectural one to the other, thus extracting maximum value from a human gesture and also somehow missing the point.

The building itself is no doubt there because of some condition of planning permission. On the plus side, at least it’s there and not on some remote site.

• • •

This post didn’t begin as a critique of attitudes to social housing in Paris but, even from these few examples, it’s clear that enthusiasm to build it has waned along with the idea that better housing for everyone is something architects should be concerned with. Even as late as 1985, architects such as Bofill were still trying to house people in ways that nourished not only the occupants but their environs as well. By 1995 the attempts had become smaller in scale but still with a sense of priorities. The era of such brave attempts seems over and the trend is for social housing projects to be even smaller in scale and begrudgingly provided by developers, as has long been the norm in the UK.

Having said that,

misfits’ salutes France, for having kept it going for longer than anywhere else. 

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More:

Jean Renaudie
Atelier de Montrouge
Bofill in France
Émile Aillaud
Cité d’Abreuvoir
Francis Soler
ricardobofill.com – A generous website with much information and many downloadable images. Sketches are a bonus but more plans would be nice. An excellent resource nevertheless.

Many thanks to F. and S.

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