The Parisian flat that American-born architect Michael Herrman shares with his wife, Cécile, and their 2-year-old daughter, Rose, had been nearly untouched since the 1790s, when it was built. "But I wanted to try and reveal some of its age in a fresh new context," Herrman said.
In his 1,500-square-foot, eighth-arrondissement space, the young architect revisited some of the same ideas Le Corbusier explored in a now-defunct 1930s Champs-Élysées penthouse and rooftop terrace built for eccentric bon vivant Charles de Beistegui. Only photographs of the work remain, but Herrman "had always been captivated by how Le Corbusier balanced the high-tech rigidity and minimalism of modernism there with the playfulness and extravagance of surrealism."
To blur the line between indoors and outdoors, Le Corbusier surrounded the roof terrace with eye-level walls that obscured views of all but the tallest landmarks and then introduced a towering periscope—for guests ensconced in Beistegui’s living room below—to scan wide city vistas. Banks of hedges could be moved up or down electronically to hide or reveal landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, as if—some observers have suggested—they were garniture to be rearranged on a fireplace mantel. To add to the terrace’s room-like illusion, Le Corbusier placed a faux, French baroque fireplace against one wall of the terrace and a replica of a formal wooden commode atop a "carpet" of lawn shared by an exotic parrot on a perch and gilded metal chairs. An oval framed mirror, hung above the fireplace so that it projected above the wall and against the sky, allowed viewers reflected in it to be "inside" and "outside" simultaneously.
Herrman—a Fulbright fellow and Rome Prize recipient who launched his architectural practice in France in 2005 before writing the book Hypercontextuality: The Architecture of Displacement and Placelessness—related easily to Le Corbusier’s attempts to disconnect viewers from the landscape. His 21st-century homage to Le Corbusier’s experiment with altered perceptions would, of course, have twists of its own.
When Herrman found his duplex space on the sixth and seventh floors, it comprised a dozen maids’ rooms stacked awkwardly under the eaves, all connected by a hallway and a service staircase. He promptly embarked on a redesign: demolishing the sagging seventh floor and interior plaster and oak-frame walls to allow for larger, taller-looking rooms. Using new steel framing, he added a clear glass floor above a living-dining area to bring daylight to both levels and "to pull the view of the courtyard and the sky deeper into the apartment," Herrman said. A central laser-cut-steel staircase leads up to an office, another living room, and a compact master suite. Beyond an open U-shaped kitchen in back, he tucked two small bedrooms and a smart, tiled bathroom.
While Le Corbusier effectively obscured the connection between the Beistegui terrace and the rooms below it, Herrman used clear ten-by-ten-foot sheets of fixed and sliding glass partitions to emphasize the connection between his L-shaped living-dining area and a light well that used to be hemmed in between his apartment and a parti wall. It is now an easily accessible courtyard in what is essentially a 20-foot-high vitrine, filled with Beistegui-esque furnishings, including a birdcage, baroque table and chairs, and a gilded clock and candlesticks atop an antique marble fireplace.
The open-to-sky courtyard allowed an unexpected element in Herrman’s Beistegui tableau: a vertical garden. Herrman’s wall, which resembles botanist Patrick Blanc’s Mur Végétal designed for the Musée du Quai Branly, where Herrman worked on the design of a rooftop restaurant alongside the museum’s architect, Jean Nouvel, was inspired "by the vegetation motifs of 18th-century wallpaper." Herrman’s 20-foot-high version abuts his neighbor’s windowless wall, and since it is often bathed in sunshine, he suspended a vintage bronze chandelier with solar-powered, waterproof LED bulbs embedded in resin alongside it. The fixture glows at night and appears to float near hanging vines and edible herbaceous foliage, while a gold-framed mirror atop the fireplace subtly catches its reflection.
Herrman also used innovative lighting—including backlit, computerized mirrors—and designed furniture and a rounded fireplace. He added modern pieces by designers such as Naoto Fukasawa, whose Déjà-vu dining chairs surround a mirror-top table.
"I wanted to play with the idea of inside and outside, upstairs and downstairs, and past and present as surreal reflections of each other," Herrman said.
Most 18th-century wood-frame apartment buildings, like Herrman’s, had strong stone sidewalls to support wooden floor beams and posts, held in place with metal pins, for the interior walls. "These beautiful metal joints were concealed under plaster. I decided to reveal them," Herrman said, pointing to the ancient pins. In the process, he also exposed 200-year-old wood framing and limestone walls; all are now complemented by white plaster partition walls. Herrman reused hexagonal terra-cotta tiles from the demolished seventh floor to patch holes in the original floor below; he extended the look outside by covering new wood decking in the courtyard with matching hexagonal pieces of woven vinyl Bolon tiles from Sweden.
Since the only other view from the living room is that of an interior courtyard, Herrman devised a high-tech "periscope"—a rooftop digital camera—that live-streams views of the Eiffel Tower, the roof of the nearby 19th-century neoclassical Madeleine church, and an occasional bird flying overhead directly onto a mirrored monitor hanging amid a group of framed mirrors on the stone wall.
Another electronic mirror—one that Herrman first exhibited at the SaloneSatellite in Milan—plays up his underlying design intent: When turned on, it "reflects" a postcard view of Paris as seen from a window that isn’t in the room at all.
"I wanted to distort reality," Herrman said. "I like to think of our apartment as a kind of observatory from where you can see the city past and city present, all at once."
Michael Herrman shares thoughts on creating an homage to a storied interior
"What was intriguing to me was how Le Corbusier bridged modernism and surrealism in Beistegui’s apartment. I was captivated by the balance between the high-tech rigidity and minimalism of modernism with the playfulness and extravagance of surrealism.
One of the first things I designed in Rue Vignon was the courtyard. All of the other adjacent spaces were designed after and in relation to it as the focus of the space. From the beginning (even before the sale had gone through), I knew I wanted to treat it as an interior room.
The outdoor garden was the most surreal part of Le Corbusier’s design for Beistegui—the fireplace and mirror, and the grass lawn as the ‘carpeting.’ It particularly intrigued me. I liked how in the Beistegui apartment the outside was a kind of reflection of the inside.
Another aspect of Le Corbusier’s work in general, and specifically for the Beistegui apartment, was how he would frame views of the urban context. Le Corbusier often controlled and framed views in very specific ways. A mirror above the fireplace in the Beistegui apartment obscured the Arc de Triomphe; the walls of the outdoor terrace hid most of the city but revealed certain monuments, and, of course, the camera obscura provided a panoramic view of the city."
Zahid Sardar is an author specializing in architecture, interiors, and design. He currently writes the Material World column for the San Francisco Chronicle.