Monday 25 August 2014

More Paris Modernism - Mallet- Stevens, Le Corbusier and a modernist surprise.

Musee Mendijsky Ecoles de Paris, Square Vergennes. Built 1932, architect Robert Mallet-Stevens.
After  a long gap, I have resumed an old habit of visiting Paris each year. This is mainly due to my having discovered the wonderful modernist and art deco heritage the city has which includes theatres, cinemas, educational and religious buildings and many beautiful houses, apartment blocks and villas. 

This year's Parisian trip took place last week and I was able to see another house, which is now a museum, designed by the genius Robert Mallet-Stevens, an artist's home and studio designed by none other than Le Corbusier as well as some wonderful 1930's brick work (!) and a beautiful modernist house tucked way near Parc Montsouris. 

First things first. Taking the 7.30. Eurostar from London St. Pancras, I arrived in Paris in time to have dumped my bags at the hotel at 11.15 and to be back on the metro heading for the building that is now home to the Musee Mendijsky - Ecoles de Paris and which was designed by one of my architectural heroes, Robert Mallet-Stevens. The museum is tucked away in a tiny and very beautiful private side street - Square Vergennes in the 15th arrondissement, just across the road from the Vaugirard metro station.

Built in 1932, this former studio stands at the very end of the street, surrounded by trees and on even a relatively dark day, the huge double level facade window floods the building with light. To the right hand side of the building there is a four levelled curved protrusion, with the upper level recessed from the others, giving the building a slightly nautical look. But, the most outstanding feature is the beautiful grey, black and silver stained glass window from just above the small central door almost to the top of the facade. On the day of my visit the museum was closed as a number of smaller Parisian institutions and businesses still maintain the somewhat quaint custom of an August closedown. The building houses the works of Maurice Mendjisky, a Polish Jewish artist born in Lodz in 1890 and who came to study at the Ecole des beaux arts in Paris in 1906. He later lived at the heart of Bohemian Paris and mixed with, amongst others, Fujita, Man Ray, Soutine, Modigliani and Zadkine. He also had a brief affair with the famed Kiki of Montparnasse before she left him for Man Ray. An active anti-fascist in the 1930's he avoided capture by the Gestapo during the German occupation and survived the war, only to die of cancer in 1951. In his final years he devoted much time to producing drawings dedicated to the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Detail from stained glass window at Musee Mendijsky Ecole de Paris.

Interesting angles, Eglise St. Antoine de Padoue, Boulevard Lefebrve. Built 1931-33, architect Leon Azema.
Back on the metro, I headed to Porte de Versailles station from where a ten minutes walk along Boulevard Lefebvre leads to the Eglise (church) of St. Antoine of Padoue. Built between 1933 and 1935 and designed by architect Leon Azema, the main tower dominates the skyline along the boulevard with its beautiful red brick construction and decorative concrete lattice work. Standing 46 metres high, it has representations of saints at each corner - saints Francis, Louis, Clare and Elizabeth who keep watch across the arrondissement. 

The foundation stone was laid in 1931 by Cardinal Verdier, a leader of a Jesuit movement. He wanted to improve living conditions in the outer arrondissements in the 1920's including building new churches to serve the suburban poor. Verdier was an interesting character, speaking out against the excesses of Kristallnacht in 1938 and writing a letter of support for Leon Blum's Popular Front government in 1936. Architect Azema was also an interesting character, wounded and held as aprisoner of war during the First World War before going on to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he designed a number of buildings in Cairo and Alexandria before being appointed Architect of the City of Paris in 1928. He also designed the pavilion for the City of Paris at the Brussels International Exposition of 1935.

I like the angular design of the church and the way the various levels fit together below the main tower. Adjacent to the church there is a day care centre for young children that appears to have been built at the same time as the church. Built in the same red bricks as its taller neighbour, it also has a beautiful curve, with a slight nautical reference and a more recent extension at the rear. The church, the day care centre and one or two other buildings in the vicinity give an idea of how modern this part of Paris must have looked during the 1930's…and to some extent, still does now.

Main tower, Eglise St. Antoine de Padoue, Boulevard Lefebvre.
Children's day care centre, Boulevard Lefebvre.
From the Eglise, it is a further ten minutes walking to the Groupe Scolaire/ College Modigliani at the junction of Rue de Cherbourg and Rue des Morillons. This very large structure takes up a whole corner site and is home to both a primary school and a college. Built between 1932 and 1935, it was designed by architect Pierre Sardou. Immediately striking for the freeze above the corner entrance, which shows parents and children taking part in various sporting activities, this is a red brick stunner with curves, lines and angles that are reminiscent of the Amsterdam School of architecture in the Netherlands. Sardou was yet another graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, graduating in 1901. He went on to become Chief Architect of Historical Monuments in Paris. In addition to the patterned brickwork, the College also has decorative metalwork covering the windows and in the main entrance for students in Rue des Morillons.

Groupe Scolaire/ College Modigliani, Rue de Cherbourg. Built 1932-1935, architect - Pierre Sardou
 Groupe Scolaire/ College Modigliani. Built 1932-1935, architect - Pierre Sardou.
Amadee Ozenfant was a Cubist painter who together with architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret who became known as Le Corbusier, founded the Purist movement. The two met in 1917 and expounded the doctrine of Purism in their book Apres le Cubisme. They also jointly published La Peinture Moderne in 1925. Le Corbusier designed Ozenfant's home/ studio in 1922 in Avenue Reille, the first house that he designed in Paris. The house is made of reinforced concrete with a double facade, one facing Avenue Reille and the other with views over Square de Montsouris, a private (and very charming) street. Both facades feature large glazed areas at each level, letting in light at different times of the day whilst the exterior of the stairwell is also glazed. The house is designed over three levels with a garage at ground floor level, the artist's studio at first floor which is accessed by a curved concrete staircase and additional quarters on the top floor. There is also a roof terrace.

Villa Ozenfant, Avenue Reille. Built 1922, Le Corbusier.
Villa Ozenfant, Avenue Reille.
Just around the corner in Rue Georges Braque there are a number of interesting buildings including a modernist beauty at number 9, designed by Louis-Raymond Fischer and built in 1929. Known as Hotel Kielberg, its white cement exterior, squared off balcony and roof terrace could easily pass for Tel Aviv. As with the Ozenfant House, the glazing is a major feature with a huge, protruding 48 paned window on the facade topped with a further eight sloping panes that filter light from above. The ground floor appears to be taken up by garage space with the main entrance to the house being up an elegant flight of stairs that curves at the top. Like Mendjisky and Azema, Fischer studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts before going on to work with Loos in Vienna and was also linked with the Bauhaus School in Weimar. 

Hotel Kielberg, 9 Rue Georges Braque. Built 1929, architect Louis-Raymond Fischer
Hotel Kielberg, Rue Georges Braque
Paris is large city and holds many architectural secrets. The modernist buildings described in this post are all located in the outer 14th and 15th arrondissements but are easily accessible on public transport. I am looking forward to discovering some more of these treasures on my next visit.

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