"The Problem of the House" and "New Uses for Space":
Helion and the Maison Suspendu

A person's day is made of a certain number of successive acts, enumerated, contiguous, not combined, contradictory. The day does not flow. It's divided into slices of successive acts. . . . How do you build a house for that?
Jean Helion, "Termes de Vie, Termes d'Espace," 1934

After the Ismailia Surgery Pavilion, there is apparently a separation in the Nelson/Nitzchke collaborative effort which will not resume until 1936 and CBS broadcasting building proposal for New York. In the interim, both would begin projects that they would personally consider the "most important" of their careers. Nelson would begin the Maison Suspendu, an architectural exploration into the nature of human communality and the contradictions of human need. Likewise, Nitzchke would initiate the Maison de Publicite, a profound project commenting on the nature of advertising in urban experience, and suggesting new levels of possible density for an urban program. Though both projects were speculative in nature (Martial, Nitzchke's client, had by this point disappeared to South America), they maintained a "buildability" that would make this French variant of constructivism quite distinct from its more fanciful Russian counterparts. [13]

In late 1935, Nelson began extensive work on the Maison Suspendu, a theoretical exploration of the house, the family dwelling. Though Nelson claims that research for the project had begun in the late twenties, it is most likely that the project becomes of real interest after Jean Helion's article "Terms of Life, Terms of Space" is published in Cahier d'Art, which, after lauding Nelson's Ismailia surgery pavilion goes on to discuss architecture and the problem of the house. Declaring "all architecture is colored by the problem of the house," he turns to question "whether the house could be something other than a 'dumb box' in which to pile up functions and could escape "the euclidian severity" that "mutilates and paralyzes the spirit." Ultimately the house should develop "in all dimensions," "an architecture in every direction, like a piece of sculpture, in which oblique, vertical, horizontal, and angular cuts are made without arriving at traditional solutions." [14]

As Joseph Abrams mentions,"it is likely that the Suspended House derives directly from Helion's analysis of Ismailia," though his thought that "the painter furnished the architect with a general theoretical framework and spatial ideal" is more difficult to ascertain. All interviews and "theoretical" articles that Nelson writes during this period follow the Helion article, and could be colored by it. Though Nelson and Helion would cultivate a strong friendship in the decades following the article, it is unclear when the friendship actually began. It is very likely that their friendship and intellectual dialogue began well before the article. Nelson's descriptions of his "revolt" from Perret, his conception of the individual need, appear in a similar language as the Helion article and were apparently inspired by a book, The Matrix of Man popular in France in the twenties. Nelson himself sees the Maison Suspendu as a response to Le Corbusier's published work La Maison, La Machine a Vivre, which the American found shocking in its fetishizing of the machine: "I was so shocked that I decided to respond and begin research on the house of the future so as to compare my findings with those of Corbusier." [15]

After a year studying the history of the house from its origins in the Roman villa, Nelson apparently "dug into the philosophy of what the house permitted in the response to the total needs of the development of Man: "So I turned to my philosopher friends (Helion perhaps) and asked them how does Man develop?" Nelson's philosophical conclusions are interesting in that they depart from the collectivist-oriented image of a "post-bourgeois individual" to be found in most of modern architecture, particularly Corbusier or the German Sachleikeit. His conception of man is far more nuanced, with an equal respect for individual privacy and public engagement. What keeps his conception of man from being traditional is that it posits something of a "non-essentialist" notion of human identity. Like Helion, who emphasizes the contradictory and disjunctive nature of everyday life, Nelson defines Man as the "perpetual dialogue" between society at large and an inner individual privacy. Amid these dialogic scenarios, man develops along two separate but concurrent lines of individual and collective development:

These two lines of development are never joined nor crossed, they are parallel . . . The discovery of these principles altared completely my conception of the house for it should constitute a place into which Man can retreat temporarily, not permanently. ( Perspecta Interview, 1971)

Unlike many modern architects that envisioned a definitive"New Man," Nelson posits a more of spectrum of experience, and an inherent contradiction between public stance and introspection, that as guiding principles send him to specific architectural solutions.

One consequence of this research is apparently "a new conception for the use of space." In the design of the suspended house, space is conceived as "the scene of human regeneration, for rest, study, and leisure." In a 1938 article, Nelson would call this "non-functional space." The opening up of an intentionally non-functional space ties back to Helion's belief in an architect's realizing of unanticipated new needs for growth:

In architecture, as in all the arts, there is a way of following man so as to ultimately lead him. The comprehension of the immediate and known needs of Man leads the architect to discover for the Man subsequently other needs which he himself never suspected did exist ands yet are essential to his growth. ("Termes de Vie,"1934)

The Maison Suspendu is consciously "composite," composed of two interlocking structures of different materials and tectonic strategies: one, the so-called "service group" of compressive concrete and glass block, and the "habitational group, " a series of metal cabins suspended from a continuous columnar-roof support of tubular, arc-welded, stainless-steel frames. From the edges of this structure was hung a diamond-mesh envelope of infilled translucent glass. While the upper level of the "habitational group" contains the bedroom and bathroom quarters, suspended beneath this upper level of "living requirements" was a second level of the library and "pensiorres" connected to the upper tier by a looping, leisurely ramp.

Spatially, the project appears unprecedented, even by the Maison de Verre. With the columns placed beyond the envelope and a suspension structural system employed, Nelson approximates a "free section" with interior space entirely free of columns and partitions. A"high concentration of useful space" further serves to "release space for leisure activity." [16] This "spatial release" provides for a "freedom of form and volume" and which contrasts sharply with the restrictions imposed by the traditional cubic room or by the usual arbitrary division of a "house" into "floors." The "tensile strength" of steel first lauded by Fuller seven years before this emerges as Nelson's way of generating a unique experience of space and program, and serve as an architectural analogue to his concept of the individual and collective. According to Nelson:

Suspension in space (of the upper level bed and bathrooms) heightens the sense of isolation from the outside world. . . . Furthermore as one advances into the uppers of the house, it becomes more and more the realm of the individual up to the top where the individual nest is suspended, where one finds oneself alone." (Perspecta Interview, 1971)

Oddly, the Maison Suspendu seems equally derived from Fuller's enthusiasm for tensile steel and compacted program and the more introspective spatial experience of the Maison de Verre. Consciously or unconsciously, Nelson seems intent on inflecting the empirical Dymaxion House with an art-filled, Parisian "existence-maximum" and rendering an American-styled, mass-producable form to the Chareau masterpiece.

In addition to this, Nelson perpetuates the impacted compression of space and "vivid functionalism" found in Ismailia. In discussing the work, Nelson says he intended "a play of functional spaces" evoking a feeling of what Giacometti called "Legende": "Legende, you move through it, you disappear, you reappear. . . . a mystery at no given moment could you recognize the whole and yet it was there at a few strides. .. " [17] Orthogonal clarity is replaced by an extreme plasticity to the poche, with each element of the program apparently made supple and forced into tighter proximity with one another. In plan, the allusions to organic forms appear extremely direct: the abdomenal confinement of the service group, the embryonic library and thinking cabins, and the rather obvious "umbilical cord" that ramps from habitation to thinking quarters.

Whereas the organic metaphor of the embryo for a "pensiorre" is obvious enough, the contoured, flowing steel roof appears more enigmatic. The structure was apparently co-designed by Vladimir Bodiansky, a gifted engineer with real knowledge of steel construction who worked primarily with Marcel Lods and Eugene Baudoin and began his career as an aviation engineer. In 1941, Nelson would discuss this as an example of "continuous structure," which is:

...much less abstract, is closer to natural forms than assembled design. The form follows the continuity of stresses and strains as they occur; the resulting design discloses the laws of gravity and is therefore closer to forms of nature. . . . the design of continuous structure is based almost entirely on experimentation.
("My Approach to Architecture," 1941)

He would go on to use the examples of aquaducts by Maillart and developments in aeroplane design beyond the "assembled bi-plane," as other examples.

Like Helion's simultaneous metaphor of metalic density and the organic found in "Termes de Vie," this proximity of metal and the biomorphic seems to be in accord with other articles being published at the time in Cahier d'Art, particularly R.V. Le Ricolais' article "Vers l'age de l'acier" published the prior year (in February 1934). In that article, Le Ricolais, an architect from Nantes, eulogizes the "biological responsiveness" and efficiency that could develop in architecture from the use of steel:

Metals themselves once considered inert are now considered adapted to the rules of evolution. Scientifically, one now has to consider metal as capable of internal reactions, very close to those of a living being. . . . Reactions ou intervient nonseulement son existence concrete et immediate, mais encore ses detinees anterieures, autrement dit son heredite. . . . Comment alors ne pas etre persaude de cette marche naturalle vers une meileurre efficience organique, vers un"profilage interne" dirige en vue d'une adaptation toujours plus parfaite au milieu?
(Cahier d'Art, 1934)

[CONTINUE] "Poisson Soluble":Architecture, Advertising, and the Maison de la Publicite

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