"A Serious Point of Departure":
La Maison de la Rue St. Guillaume

Something else could be done with contemporary architecture -- maybe less flashy -- but where the architect's philosophical sensivity will allow the physical and spiritual program of this new contemporary life to be established and to express itself in architectural plan; and where the technical knowledge of the construction will allow this plan to be arrived at and made to work. A Parisian doctor gave Chareau the opportunity to prove it.
Paul Nelson, "La Maison de la Rue St. Guillaume," 1933

[CONTINUE] Leger Analysis

Publishing an article in Architecture d'Aujourd`hui in 1933, Paul Nelson was one of the first to write on Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre. The essay is pertinent in that it articulates three specific qualities Nelson would admire in the project, qualities which are most clearly carried over into the Ismailia Surgery Pavilion of 1934:

According to Nelson, there is a specific "gearing down" ("demultiplication") on the part of Chareau from the traditionally overvaulted formal ambitions of the architect. "Chareau knew how to limit himself and that is why he created a beautiful thing which is the starting point of a true architecture.. . . Pure esthetic research was not its goal." [6]

The "purpose-made" attitude toward construction of the Maison de Verre was probably known to Nelson through Dalbet, a personal friend and the craftsman who had modeled in aluminum the Lille medical complex. Apparently shop drawings for the residence were prepared on site prior to the manufacture of any particular component. "Once the initial broad concept of the design had been established, the total work seems to have gradually evolved like a "montage, stage by stage, element by element, with each of Dalbet's craftsmen possibly given an individual task. [7] The building thus emerges as an "assemblage," a "heteroglossia" of architectural micro-events, with the various furniture, shelving, and closet fixtures all endowed with a unique articulation and spatial presence. This approach to the building as a collection of distinct solutions to specific habitational problems would be an enduring touchstone to Nelson and Nitzchke, inspiring an intentionally, disjunctive, composite quality in their later work.

Equally prophetic of later work is Nelson's remark that "purely through technical research this building approaches surrealist sculpture. " Nelson seems intrigued by the possibility of this form of "purpose-made" fixtures and construction lending an inflected, sur-real experience to certain segments of the domestic environment. The ovoid surgery rooms in Ismailia and the columnar-roof structure of the Maison Suspendu are examples of this "vivid functionalism" that Nelson will cull from the Maison de Verre. With Nelson and Nitzchke, however, this vividness will take on a far more biomorphic cast, due in part to articles being published in the early thirties relating steel and anexact geometric form.

The third major point that is made by Nelson in his article on the Maison de Verre is his discussion of the "spatial," and its emphasis on "dimensions and dimensionality:"

What has to be done now is to valorize in this space (limited by translucent glass tiles) the fourth dimension, by contrasting dynamicism and statics. The statics in architecture is the bone frame, carrying what is or should be eternal, immobile. Totally independant from this, a dynamicism expressed in the horizontal and vertical distribution by mobile partitions, and the irregular distribution of functions. "La Maison de la Rue St. Guillaume," 1933

Along with Rietveld's Schroeder House, the Maison de Verre is a unique example in modern architecture of the "transformable plan, " a "highly flexible system of space division, permitting the transformation, modulation, and subdivision of the basic spatial enclosure to accomodate changes in use." [8] Implicit to this, and recognized by Nelson, is a responsiveness of the architecture to the individual's complex of needs. The "transformable plan,"and its resulting flexibility of extension and enclosure, will be an enduring feature to the Nelson, Nitzchke work of the thirties, as will the full glass "facade libre," which will be found in every project up until the dissolution of their collaborative efforts in 1938.

Compressed plan," Composite structure:
Ismailia Surgery Pavilion

The scope of this project is such that it provokes opinions on all the fundamentals of architecture, from the technical aspects of building to a conception of social interaction, from the very idea of living to the plastic act of making life through shapes and colors.
Jean Helion, "Termes de Vie, Termes d'Espace"

In 1934, the Campagne du Canal de Suez contacted and ultimately commissioned Nelson to do a "model study" for a surgery pavilion intended to enlarge the hospital facilities at Ismailia, a mid-way station along the Suez Canal. According to the clients, the design of the new facility had to take into account the intense Egyptian climate and the high incidence of post-operative infection.

It is with the Ismailia project that, for the first time, the Nelson/Nitzchke partnership would develop beyond prior stylistic influences. What makes the project such a unique point of departure for Nelson and Nitzchke is the disjunctive,"composite" nature of the building, each sector of the building the result of itsown deeply specific problem solving and expressive potentialities. This will lead to very different formal and spatial properties within the different segments of the building. The two overarching client concerns -- climatic and antiseptic control -- would lend the project a "creative tension" which would force precise solutions devoid of stylistic preconception. Though utilizing the Maison de Verre as an inspiration, Ismailia pavilion ultimately goes beyond the Chareau work. The impacted, plastic, spatial quality of the pavilion's ground plan is simply unprecedented by the modular coherence of the Dalsace home, while the "building within a building" strategy only alluded to in the Maison de Verre is applied quite literally here.

Due to the torrid climate of the Suez pennisula, Nelson came up with a "para-soliel envelope," a novel mechanical apparatus in reflecting heat and light away from the building. A "climatic interface" buffering the building of concrete and translucent panelling from its hostile environs, the apparatus was initially inspired by a painting of a palace in Thebes around 2,000 B.C. which used textiles hung out beyond the wall to keep the sun off the structural walls.

In this modern interpretation, the metal apparatus is fitted with horizontal louvers that stand on slender metal columns 3.35 meters in front of the facade and a thin slab of concrete that hovers approximately 50 centimeters above the actual roof. These curved, adjustible slats could be then oriented accordingly to reflect sunlight away from the facade. In this apparatus one sees the real specificity of the problem solving. Even the sizes of the louvers themselves are variable: on the Nile side, the screens are large (three meters wide) while on the other side, which would receive less sun, they are only a meter wide. They are painted white on one side to maximize reflection of sunlight and black on the other to lose heat from the building through convection. [9] In addition, the device allows a large volume of air to be placed in shadow, which, due to its immobility, has lost its sand and is thus capable of being drawn into the air conditioning units.

Pushing "purely technical research" to the level of "surrealist sculpture" in what seems to be a rather intentional fashion, Nelson and Nitzchke develop the ovoid surgery room. In an attempt at modulating all the necessary factors surrounding the surgical operation, lighting and air ducts are embedded at set points in the room's curvilinear roof, providing the surgeon with a way of modifying light angles for different operational needs. This apparently also dispensed with the need for complex apparati in the room, making for more room, better cleaning, and higher antiseptic levels for each chamber. This form approaches what could be called a "vivid functionalism," in that it also gives appropriate poetic expression of the life and death struggles that occur during invasive surgery. Looking at the pavilion's ground plan, the four surgery chambers take on the coherence of a heart, ventricles densely situated within the larger space of the architectural body.

Unlike Mendelsohn and other architects of the early twenties, however, Nelson and Nitzchke keep their expressionism on the level of architectural micro-event, subsuming it in a larger rationalist building type. The Pavilion's heliocoidal stairwell is an example of this. The stairwells -- placed on the north and south peripheries -- descend like knotted rope to the ground, their sculpted, gun-metal opacity in brilliant contrast to the rational, translucent paneling. Only with the Palace of Discovery will this lyrical form-making rise to the level of the entire building and in some respects lose its evocative power.

Both the parasol envelope and the ovoid surgery chambers are specifically designed to offer a spectrum of alternatives to the individual. In this regard, they are "deeply functional," breaking with the simple form-function analogues of more dogmatic modernisms. This building marks Nelson's true break from the architectural "ordonnance" he so disliked in Perret's work.

On one level, the disposition of program in the upper level Ismailia hospital wings utilizes many of the developments of Lille and the small-scale hospital prototype: the axis of east-facing patient rooms, a hermetically sealed facade with replacable translucent panelling, stairwells located on either end of the wings, and a centralized nursing station and circulation core per floor. The only noticable addition is the controlled entrance vestibule in each patient room which, with its closet and water basin, allows surgeons and nurses to avoid cross-infection.

The most significent spatial development one finds is the impacted quality of the pavilion's ground plan. Its spectrum of densities and spatial plasticity is immediately picked up by Jean Helion in his essay "Terms of Life, Terms of Space," a review of the building published in Cahier d'Art in 1935. After describing the project's masterful functional accomodation, Helion proceeds to tell the reader to forget everything and concentrate on the plasticity of the spaces, for with its "compressed plan," fully adjusted and modulated by differences, the plan attains "the density of metal and the suppleness of a hollow organism. "

In the Ismailia project, one sees for the first time the quality of space that Nelson would develop in later projects and discuss later in terms of "spatial release" amid programmatic density. The origins of this extreme plasticity to poche can be found, oddly enough, in discussions of Leger paintings of the early thirties.

[CONTINUE] Leger Analysis

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