Wednesday, January 23, 2008


(except for the third picture the rest represents the current condition of the building, taken from flickr.)

Berlage Institute Lecture Series (Netherlands)
-Robert Rubin, current owner of Maison de Verre. (Also restored Tropical House by Jean Prouve)
Tuesday, 22nd January 2008, 7pm

Either I was in an lucid and clear frame of mind, or Robert Rubin was extremely precise in his presentation. The running I did to catch the train to Rotterdam was well worth the short moment of breathlessness on the train.

Trivia aside, I found his lecture well worth the effort to spend some time to blog about. Mr Rubin buys the house with his wife, Stephane Samuel (who incidentally is a landscape architect) and proceeds to restore it and live in it. It was clear that the dwelling component on the onset was important to him as he more than once stresses the idea of restoration as being divergent when it comes to restoration for living in, or restoration as a museum piece.

The site context was interestingly restricted by this old lady who lived in the top floor or the building, who could not be evicted. Hence, the decision was to carve out the two bottom floors, make them into three, and slide the whole thing in. The building was occupied by the Dalsace/ Bernheim/ Vellay family till the 1970s. Dalsace was a gynaecologist so gynae artifacts are still preserved.

The building did not come into attention until Richard Rogers wrote about it in the 60s. Then Frampton picked it up in 68 and his writing was of course widely circulated so Banham took note of it as well. Mr Rubin compared Le Corbusier's aesthetic of the machine with Chareau's, noting how Corbusier's aesthetic preceded form while Chareau's starts from function. Banham describes the Maison de Verre as a techno-surrealist masterpiece, and thus qualified surrealism "as a permitted response to the machine".

Mr Rubin's concept to take possession of the home slowly, and live in it, became evident in the choices he made in altering the building. Firstly, he selected the period in which the house should be restored to, and after the removal of the art deco furniture by the previous owner, the house closely resembled its original condition before occupancy. Hence his choice was to restore the house to its condition of 1932. Mr Rubin also decided to restore the house beyond the plastic condition (the surface) and thought about how to change the building system so knowledge of the house is not skin deep.

And skin deep it is not, as his restoration involved things like rewiring the house so that it functions like how it does in 1932, remove 180 kilos (or thereabouts) of dust from the heating system, and hunting for the period lights in the flea markets that would light the building from the exterior. (they have dummy ones now, yet to find the period pieces). The furniture he chose were also low key so they did not interfere with the space. The only luxury he permitted himself was to restore a really contemporary shower in the laundry room.

Mr Rubin's obsession with habitation and precise documentation of the entire process is perhaps driven by his view that the house was a cultural project, and that the documentation of the house (a student is doing a PhD on this house) would be valuable addition to our understanding of modernity. I think he mentioned that he is in the process of understanding how modernism (or was it Chareau?) moved from French modernism to American Abstract Expressionism. Walter Benjamin was meant to give a talk at the place but apparently Dr Dalsace was ill on that day. He did mention how the fact that the house was going to house a talk by a political dissident (Benjamin) touched on the cultural richness of the situation but I think he was still formulating this part of his lecture.

Funnily enough, I did an analysis during year two on Maisson de Verre, and also visited the memorial of Walter Benjamin in Port Bou, Spain. I happen to love Benjamin's writing "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Read it 5 times before I understood it.

So in conclusion, I really enjoyed this lecture for the clarity and new insights it brought to my understanding of restoration- that to restore something, you had to decide which period to restore it to, that every part of the house had to be restored in the same intensity or else it would be set off by the other parts, that restoration was part of a broader cultural project, and in this case writers, political figures and multiple avant gardes. What I really liked was the idea of habitation in restoration, and how, according to him, that was the "least violent form of restoration". The only contention I had for his comment was that he mentioned how the building was out of the political limelight, and hence he had the creative freedom to alter without much political pressure; yet he talks later about a whole slew of advisors that would give him "talmudic" advice on what he should and should not do. I could have clarified this but then I was sitting to far back and only formulated the disjuncture when the mediator said thank you guys.

Good time spent. Plus good company.