March 10: Patron Saint of the Whiplash Curve

2016/03/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1867 Hector Guimard was born.

Best known as one of the leading lights of Art Nouveau Paris, Guimard (d. 1942) is famous for something even non-architecture people love, his fabulous metro stations with their curvy iron, frosty glass and whoopy ceramic panels.  Surely if anyone mastered the coup de fouet it was Monsieur Guimard, but that’s not all he was about.  Most of his work was much more solid, even a bit lumpy–but engagingly so, like a really good dog from the pound.  He did a whiplashy version of Classicism and there is a marvelous sinuous nature of freewheeling lines in his furniture.  But his earlier work shows more of Art Nouveau’s germ than its blossom: a kind of vernacular-medieval challenge to use every building material known to man, exemplified in the detail above (a house from 1893) as well as in Guimard’s breakout project, the  Castel Beranger (1898), which is the calling card that garnered him beaucoup commissions upon its completion.  Although a trace of the great medievalist/structure guru Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc is in them, a person is really rather hard-pressed to make the case that Viollet and his followers were really as “rational” as so many writers like to say.  Seriously, look at that picture above.  There is nothing rational about using that many materials and structural elements, especially as chamfered and edited and patchworked as they are.

Guimard’s fanciful approach to design would face rising challenges from the increasingly dour profession in the following decades.  It is true that he experimented with new ideas of what would later be called open planning, and with long-span structures, and prefab systems (especially in the Metros).  But none of that was done in the service of industry, as would be the case of the next generation who eclipsed and ignored him.  Guimard could just not stop himself from making stuff up.  Wacky combinations of materials and details, the fun of ebullient ornament and quirky references to tradition:  joie de vivre de architecture.  The architects who got famous in the first part of the twentieth century (like this guy) were not really known for their joie.  Sour Germans took over and glared the life out of architects who were energized by itchy creativity.  Starting in the 1910s, Guimard’s commissions dwindled rapidly; by the late ’20s he was pretty much done (or, rather, the world was pretty much done with him).  In 1938 he and his (Jewish) wife moved to New York, where the couple lived off her family money.  At the time of his death in 1942 Guimard could only have believed that his reputation, like his many buildings, lay in complete ruins.

But later he might have observed, from architect’s heaven, a happier generation, hungry for architectural imagination and artistic joy after the long cold hungry winter of mid-century, reviving his legacy: they have preserved his buildings and installed, in wonderful shrines like the Musée d’Orsay (which holds over 2500 objects–furniture, door handles, drawings), relics of this patron saint of Art Nouveau.

image: detail of 41, rue Chardon Lagache Paris 16e, Hector Guimard, 1893 (from this source)


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