It was the early 1970s. Richard Rogers and I were working on the Centre Pompidou in Paris. We were two young and curious architects looking for an example of a brave building in the city – and here it was.
The Maison de Verre was built in 1932. It is a structure of glass blocks and steel by Pierre Chareau, and occupies part of an 18th-century courtyard on the Left Bank. It was commissioned by a French doctor called Jean Dalsace, who owned the site. But the woman on the third floor refused to move. So Chareau replaced just the first two storeys. It took courage to build something like this in such a conventional space in Paris. But the house is not arrogant or aggressive. It is a masterpiece of lightness.
The light here is wonderful whether you are inside or out. You have the light that comes into the building during the day, which is beautifully diffuse. Then, when you stand outside the building at night, the light comes out as though from a magic lantern, and you can see the graphic lines of the steel frame and the grain of the glass. The combination of strength and fragility is the key to the poetry of the building.
When you go inside, the first experience is the stairs. Making stairs is extremely difficult, and the set in the Maison de Verre, which lead to the main living room, have no vertical supports. They seem to fly or levitate. As you move through the house, there is a constantly changing sequence of light and dark. You go from spaces that are vast and generous, to ones that are compressed and shadowy.
And yet wherever you go there is a sense of integrity. It has nothing to do with style, but rather the quality of the craftsmanship. Chareau, who was also an interior designer and furniture-maker, was in love with metal, and every item and joint is beautifully designed – the steps, the bookcase, the railings. Each time I visit I get great pleasure from moving around and discovering the details. There’s an innocence to the way it all fits together: the innocence of a little boy playing.
This building has been seminal for many of the things I have done. There is something Japanese about the framing of the Maison de Verre, and when I made an office for Hermès in Tokyo, I made it out of glass blocks like Chareau’s. More recently, I’ve finished a neuroscience-research centre for Columbia University in New York, which is all about the play of light. It is a space used by 1,000 scientists where illumination comes in during the day and a glow comes out at night. It too is like a magic lantern.