Pierre Chareau with Bernard Bijvoet, Maison de Verre (1931), Paris, sliding stepladder of the living-room blogcase
The most bewitching mechanisms are devoted to the most sensitive boundaries. The ground-floor entry hall, originally shared by the doctor’s office and a stair to the living space above, was a particularly delicate threshold that called for different degrees of modesty according to the time of day. The solution was a gauzy veil around the stair (p. 97), whose transparency could be adjusted to increase or decrease visual penetration. Access to the stair is provided by a quarter-cylinder of glass and perforated metal that rotates out of the way, but there is no immediately obvious method to open this unconventional door, which doesn’t fit into a frame of jambs and lintel, but instead hangs loosely in space. The pivoting points are largely hidden and the precision-made hardware and tracks guiding motion are only vaguely suggested by black steel arms above and below, nor is there a handle to reach for. It is only by taking this sensuous veil in the hands and setting it into tentative motion that one is able to glean how and where it moves.
Alongside are slender, perforated ‘butterfly’ screens (pp. 98 and 99). Each pair of vertical screens, set behind and attached to the pivoting frame of a large sheet of glass, can mysteriously fold open or closed to regulate visual contact between the domestic and medical worlds. Left closed they muffle the view, but when opened up to 90° they produce greater but still not complete transparency, and at its extreme the entire structure of screens and glass can be swung open to completely merge the adjoining realms. Yet here again the operation is neither apparent nor fixed in advance, and involves the doer in an intimate process of drawing near to peer into joints, then exploring the parts and their possible motions, a process involving incredulity and elation. Adding an extra dimension of play is the sensual surprise of each mechanism’s weight and texture, and smoothly gliding arc through space – a ‘startling unexpectedness’ that penetrates into one’s fingers, arms, shoulders and torso.
A different array of kinetic marvels is built into the master bathroom on the top floor. A pair of freestanding storage units of bent duraluminium can pivot open or closed to access or conceal their contents, and in so doing alter the room’s enclosure and link to corridors. The butterfly motion of each unit is twofold, combining rotation around a central pivot with the sliding of that pivot to fully insert the oblong volume into its shell. This scope of freedom exempt from any single function or obvious movement continues into other parts of the loosely defined room, from cabinets with overlapping doors rather than handles, whose drying racks pivot outward, to a dual screen consisting of both a pivoting towel rail and privacy panel of perforated metal that can subtly modify the visual ties of shower and bathtub.
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Paralleling Chareau’s kinetic inventions were the innovations with mobile sculpture that emerged in the 1920s and ’30s, but powered by electric current, rather than human hands. Just as Chareau was conjuring a realm of miraculous motions in which people are able to shape their own experience, Marcel Duchamp introduced the concept that viewers of art should abandon their passive role and become creative participants, if only mentally, in completing works devised to stimulate and sustain their involvement. Duchamp made his first attack on ‘retinal art’ with the mobile experiments of his Rotating Glass Plates, followed by the puzzling Rotary Demi-sphere and Rotoreliefs; at the same time, Naum Gabo produced his geometric Kinetic Construction. When activated, each of these works presents to the eye a virtual volume, a transient image traced in the viewer’s imagination by its scope of vibration or speeding trajectory. Several years later, in his first Light-Space Modulator, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy developed the idea of sculpture as ‘the relationships of energies’, merging theatricality with art and conceiving form as an unfolding event.
While kinetic sculpture has largely remained a spectator art, it has expanded our understanding of form to include the poetics of motion, and begun to envision the shapes these energies could take in space. But it took someone with the child-like instincts of Alexander Calder to loosen motion from the artist’s control and endow it with unpredictable forces. Calder began to employ mysteriously balanced and counterbalanced elements constructed from wood, wire and sheet metal that move collectively, as if by magic, in a slowly spinning and interactive temporal sequence that suggests an acrobatic playfulness. Unlike the programmed machines of his colleagues, Calder’s hanging ‘mobiles’ are free of preconditioned change since they are solely aroused by air movement or human touch, heightening their spontaneity and freewheeling character. Because of this quasi-random motion, whose chain of cause and effect appears as a series of connected trajectories, wind-sculptor George Rickey later described this art as ‘the morphology of movement’, an ambition still unfulfilled in its implications for decorating.
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