Pierre Chareau made a lasting name for himself in the annals of architectural history with one seminal work, the Maison de Verre in Paris, completed in 1932. He did, of course, do other things. With the opening last month of Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design at the Jewish Museum in New York, we get a comprehensive look at his work for the first time in the U.S. But the exhibition does more than that. Its designers, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), have taken on the challenge of how to display architecture in a groundbreaking way.
Organized by guest curator Esther da Costa Meyer, professor of the history of modern architecture at Princeton, the exhibition includes four distinct sections. The first is dedicated to Chareau’s furniture designs—a peculiar mix of a decorative and machinelike aesthetic—including a coatrack, makeup table, daybed, side tables, armchairs, and lighting, displayed in several vignettes. In front of those arrangements are scrims of PVC-coated polyester weave that roll down from the ceiling. Scenes of shadowy silhouettes of people using the furnishings are projected onto those screens. It is surprising and playful, but also gives the viewer a feel for the Parisian interwar era in which the eclectic objects were created. “Part of our brief was to situate Chareau in the sociopolitical context,” explains DS+R founding principal Liz Diller, who counts the architect—often pushed to the margins of the discipline —among her heroes from when she was a student of architecture at Cooper Union.
Chareau and his wife were avid art collectors, but were forced to sell some of their best pieces as they fled German-occupied Paris. The next section of the exhibit brings together for the first time artworks they kept and others that have been identified as once belonging to them. The most stunning of the group is a caryatid sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani, displayed in a protruding glass container embedded within a partition separating two display areas to expose its front and back.
The third section focuses on Chareau’s interior design, featuring some of the work he did after arriving in the U.S., including a house for artist Robert Motherwell in East Hampton, New York. Built from an existing army-surplus Quonset hut, it was completed in 1947 and demolished in 1985. But the star of this part of the show is the virtual reality (VR) interiors. Four stations are set up around select pieces of furniture. Visitors take a seat on a swiveling chair at each to peer through VR glasses and get 360-degree views of those select pieces in their original settings. DS+R recreated the context around the furniture in the virtual environment using historical photographs and drawings for the interiors of the Chareau studio and a client’s Paris apartment, which no longer exist, but gathered information from the Maison de Verre’s interiors during a visit there earlier this year. Each piece of furniture in the gallery was digitally scanned, measured, and remodeled to a high degree of detail, then placed strategically within its historical context. In one case, smoke gently streams from a lit cigarette in an ashtray.
The exhibition culminates with Chareau’s masterpiece, the Maison de Verre, and it is no exaggeration to say that DS+R’s design for its display is a stroke of genius. Long before completing any buildings, Diller and partner Ric Scofidio first came to prominence in the early 1990s with a series of provocative art installations. Aside from their current design for the Jewish Museum, they’ve recently staged innovative exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the Cartier Foundation in Paris, and this year’s Istanbul Design Biennial.
Chareau’s touchstone house, somewhat hidden within a Paris courtyard and famously clad in square, textured glass bricks, is privately owned and not easily accessible to the general public. DS+R was given access to film the house, and has used that footage to great effect here—giving a real sense of the space to the many who will not be able to see it in person.
The house’s plan is laid out on the floor of the exhibit’s last room. Hanging above it, a screen offers CAT scan–like sectional views of the house, constantly moving to reflect different spaces as it scrolls over the layout illustrated beneath. When the screen stops moving, a red box highlights a specific area and a video of actors using that space appears on the wall beside it—climbing a stair, removing cleaning supplies from the broom closet, washing up in the bathroom, entering a sleeping chamber as an alluring female waits on the bed. Chareau did, in fact, conceive the highly transparent house as a venue for viewing and being viewed, and DS+R does voyeurism as well as anyone.
This isn’t the only way to display architecture, but it makes a strong case for the artful combination of digital technology with beautiful objects and drawings.
The exhibit Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is on display through March 26, 2017.
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