Fighting disease with design: The Maison de Verre

maison de verre
CC BY 2.0 Kelly Rossiter

Our previous post, Fighting disease with design: Light, Air and Openness showed a photo of the Zonnestraal Sanatorium and credited it to Jan Duiker; in fact, it should have been jointly credited to Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet. Interestingly, Bijvoet is also credited as a collaborator on the Maison de Verre in Paris, below Pierre Chareau. This is no coincidence; both buildings are designed to maximize light, air and openness.

The Maison de Verre was designed for a doctor, Dr. Jean Dalsace and his wife Annie in 1931 and was covered previously in TreeHugger here. Like Dr. Lovell in America, Dalcace was obsessed with cleanliness. Perhaps that’s why Bijvoet collaborated on the house, and became a direct link between the most important sanatorium building of the era and one of the most important modern houses of the 20th century. Paul Overy writes in Light, Air and Openness:

The Zonnestraal was a sanatorium building with medical facilities and accommodation for a hundred patients plus support staff, with enormous areas of rolled glass to intensify and refract the rays of the sun and to allow fresh air to circulate freely. It was designed to shine forth brightly as a symbolic embodiment of health and hygiene, of physical and mental rehabilitation through rest, relaxation and fresh air. The Maison de Verre was as sheltered site of intimate family life…where light was mysteriously diffused, and sight alternatively permitted and blocked.

But oh, like the Zonnestraal, it was as clean as a house can be. As Mary Johnson explained when I toured the Maison de Verre, and I wrote earlier:

Living between the discovery of germ theory by Koch and Pasteur, and the invention of antibiotics, Dr. Dalsace was crazy about cleanliness. Any permanently fastened material was washable; stair treads could be lifted out and cleaned; the few carpets were pinned rather than laid conventionally so that they could be removed and cleaned. Natural light and air was everywhere. Bathrooms were big, bright and you actually pass through them to get to the bedroom.

Also, in an era where most people usually shared one bathroom, this house was just loaded with them; according to Michelle Young, " In a house designed for just four, there are 6 bidets, 6 toilets, 12 lavabos (bathroom sinks), 3 bathtubs and 1 shower. Just as telling are the dimensions: the size of the master bathroom equals the size of the master bedroom."

There certainly are a lot of places to wash your bottoms and your hands.

When Jan Duiker visited his former partner Bernard Bijvoet, he was apparently disgusted at how their visionary work at the Sanatorium turned into this house. According to Overy,

For Duiker, the clean and hygienic haute bourgeoise machine for living in represented an affront to the social hygiene and collectivist ideals that he and Bijvoet had striven for in the Zonnestraal Sanatorium.


But it is clear that the source of our obsessions with hospital-like bathrooms and spotless kitchens, as well as the continuing interest in minimalist interior design, descends directly from the modernist obsessions with hygienic design that formed in the years before antibiotics, and that we can learn from to help cope in the years after antibiotics are gone.

Tags: Antibiotics | Green Building | Health | Healthy Home

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