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Icon at Risk: A Paris oddity - saving Maison Zilveli
Peter Wyeth discovers an important modernist house in need of urgent repair
Imagine coming across the most radically modernist house you have ever seen, in the middle of Paris. It’s deserted and falling into ruin, its interior unchanged since it was built eighty years ago. Perched on a hillside with a distant view of Montmartre, it is today a sad sight: its street façade cracked, the elevations leaning alarmingly and the steel-framed windows askew. The house is supported – rather precariously these days – on cruciform pillars in reinforced concrete, rising almost five meters from the ground.
With its pilotis and its long façade at right angles to the street, the casual eye might attribute the house to an amateur Le Corbusier. In its present state, it is an image of modernism gone shabby – or moche (ugly), as an elderly neighbour described it, ironically referring to the house as ‘Le Chateau’ – but a monochrome photograph of the building when it was built presents a very different image.
We can learn more about the house by peeling back the historical layers to 1918 Vienna, when a young would-be architect arrived there to study under Josef Hoffmann but soon fell under the spell of Adolf Loos, arch-critic of Hoffmann. That student, Jean Welz, would go on to become one of South Africa’s leading painters, and by the time of his death in 1975 his architectural past was almost forgotten. Even the house in question is listed in the local town hall under the name of another architect.
There is a remarkable terrace of three attached modernist houses just outside the Paris périphérique, no 8 is by Mallet-Stevens, no 6 by Le Corbusier (Maison Cook), and no 4 is credited to Raymond Fischer (Maison Lubin) but according to Welz’s family, that house should be attributed to him. Welz worked for Mallet-Stevens and then with Loos on a house in Paris for Tristan Tzara, before becoming chef de cabinet in the Fischer practice. Welz was also a friend of Le Corbusier, who wrote him a letter of recommendation when he left for South Africa. Two houses were credited to him in the leading French magazine of Modern architecture of the time, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. The first, in 1931, has a short text by Fischer praising its ‘maison minimum’ contribution. The second, dated 1933, is credited to Weltz (sic). This is the radical house shown in these photographs, Maison Zilveli.
The site is an unstable hillside, created from the waste extracted to build the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in 1867. The most distinctive aspect of the site is hardly visible from ground level, but is perfectly served by Welz’s house on stilts, for few houses could claim such views. One large window faces west towards Montmartre and the basilica of Sacré Coeur, while the other faces south, with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Welz conceived a long box 20 meters by 4.5 meters, stuck five meters in the air and high enough to see beyond the building-line of its brick-built neighbours.
Apart from the priceless views, the budget must have been kept to an absolute minimum, as the house is very cheaply constructed. The street elevation exceeds the plainness of his master Loos, and must have been a slap in the face of its bourgeois neighbours. The long south facade bears comparison with the Villa Savoye, but it was neither skimmed nor painted, and it does not hide the fact that it was made in sections. It was topped by an extraordinary balcony (destroyed by the local prefecture without objection from the Architectes des Bâtiments de France) with its 10 cm beton brut supporting blade bearing the marks of its wooden shuttering construction. This is perhaps the first such finish in the history of Modern architecture, fifteen years before Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles and forty years before Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre.
That striking balcony had a built-in desk and seat, an outside office facing Sacré Coeur - echoing the view from the big ‘l’Esprit Nouveau’ end window. Loos’s Raumplan concept held that interiors should be divided into split-level spaces according to their functional importance, and his influence on Welz is clear, with three levels on the main floor alone. Altogether, the house is an oddity, but one intimately influenced by the heroic era of Modern architecture, while also making a highly distinctive contribution to it.
Saving Maison Zilveli
To try to save Maison Zilveli I have worked with a Parisian architect who brought in a top engineer to survey the structure. He visited several times and drew up recommendations to stabilise the ground beneath and the reinforced concrete above. The architect both devised a budget for the engineering work and the restoration project and researched a Foundation to which the house can be donated as part of a cultural project I devised. Les Modernistes Disparus would document the diaspora of modernist artists in every art who left Paris in the 30s either through the Great Crash of 1929 or the rise of fascism. Conserving the patina of the building is a major priority and the restored house would be a base for small exhibitions and research presentations across the modernist arts of the 30s, and a tribute to the rigorous creative imagination of Jean Welz.
Peter Wyeth is 'a builder with a little latin', a redundant film-maker, and is publishing a book on 'affective neurobiology and the Cinema' next summer.
Maison Zilveli in 2013
The original fitted table has been pulled from the wall by burglars but proved too heavy to remove
Loosian plainness: the street facade in 2013
The fitted table inside was made by a Greek sculptor friend
House on stilts: on completion in 1933. Note the sandpit next to the small child.