Among the greats
'If you ask French architects who were the greatest members of their profession in the 1920s and 1930s', says Frédéric Migayrou, onservateur en chef of architecture and design at the Centre Pompidou, 'they will almost inevitably reply Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens, Lurçat, Perret and so on. Ask a foreigner, and you will get the same answer without Mallet-Stevens.' The new exhibition at the Pompidou is intended to put MalletStevens into perspective and restore him to the pantheon of French culture.
Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) was born into a rich Franco-Belgian family and was a nephew of Adolphe Stoclet, for whom Joseph Hoffmann built the fabulous Palais Stoclet in Brussels between 1904 and 1911.
The banker poured riches into his marblewalled house, which was decorated by Klimt murals and was fitted out as a virtual Gesamtkunstwerk by the Wiener Werkstätt.
Naturally, having been exposed to the creation of this great work during his formative years, Mallet-Stevens was initially very Hoffmannesque, tending towards the abstract Classicism of the older architect's last period. He never lost the elegant precision he learned from the Viennese master.
Mallet-Stevens had little opportunity to build before the First World War, and the designs he made of buildings for ideal cities between 1917 and the early '20s show the Hoffmann influence gradually giving way to the more ascetic ethos of De Stijl ?? some of Mallet-Stevens' early film sets could have been by Rietveld or Mondrian.
His first major building was the Villa Noailles, a small country house at Hyères that was started in 1923 and gradually added to until 1928. Here was all the apparatus of Modernism made possible by reinforced concrete (or facsimiles of it): irregular cubic massing, horizontal strip windows, interpenetration of internal and external spaces, terrace roofs, lack of external ornament and the rest.
Other commissions for private houses followed rapidly. One of the best preserved groups is in the Rue Mallet-Stevens, a short private Parisian street formed out of hôtels particuliers built between 1925 and 1934 by the architect for his friends (who unanimously voted to name the street after him).
His own five-storey house was on the corner and, like its neighbour, a studio built for the sculptor brothers Martel, is a masterpiece of domestic planning created in a dense urban setting (something that Corbusier seemed to be always trying to avoid).
Mallet-Stevens' use of half levels and complex vertical circulation allows a degree of interpenetration and variety of volumes (and ingenious daylighting) that rivals the Raumplanung of Adolf Loos at his most intense - though there is no evidence of direct Viennese influence at this stage of the French architect's career. Modern lighting, construction and hygiene were embraced enthusiastically - for instance, the metal sash windows are opened by winding handles like those in a car.
By 1925, Mallet-Stevens was sufficiently well established to be asked to make the Pavillion des Reseignements et du Tourisme for the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs (the one at which Corbusier built his Esprit Nouveau manifesto). The tourism pavilion had a tall De Stijl-influenced tower and a graceful hall lit by a glass ceiling, as in Wagner's Post Office Savings Bank. In the same show, Mallet-Stevens' garden, with its Cubist concrete trees (made in collaboration with the Martel brothers), attracted much popular argument and acclaim.
In the late '20s, Mallet-Stevens collected commissions for commercial projects like shops and car showrooms, as well as a continuing flow of private houses. But the 1929 crash dramatically cut the flow of new work.
Yet the huge Villa Cavrois at Croix continued and was finished in 1932 as a most elegant exercise in Dudokian brick massing with a grand and finely honed plan. Other '30s work included furniture, and often grand designs for industrial, commercial and municipal buildings (only a fire station was built). He made several elegant temporary pavilions for the 1937 Exposition des Arts et Techniques and a curiously Classical design for the École d'Architecture at Lille, of which he became director in 1938. Then the Second World War intervened. Mallet-Stevens fell ill and retired to the south of France, where he died, having asked that his archives should be destroyed.
So it is remarkable that the curators of the exhibition (under the direction of Olivier Cinqualbre) have managed to make a thorough and revealing exhibition. Mallet-Stevens was unlucky: he started quite late and died rather young, so there is little early work and no great post-war corpus, unlike Corbusier and Perret. He was protected by his wealth from having to be as pushy as Corb or as municipal as Perret. His sources were perhaps too obvious. He toyed with Art Deco for too long. And possibly he was too conscientious a constructor - his buildings with their cills, cornices and drips can seem rather clumsy in comparison with those of Corbusier, who was largely indifferent to such mundane matters.
But the Pompidou show demonstrates that Mallet-Stevens was far more than the jazz-age pasticheur that most of us believed him to be. He was a master of space and light, building and urbanity, who deserves a place among the immortals - even if his throne is not quite at the summit.