Beyond Palais de Bois:
The Prototype for a Small-Scale Hospital and the Health City of Lille

So I was terribly influenced by him; when I finished school under his guidance I was doing Perret architecture. I spent at least two years trying to "kill the father." Then I found out how I could kill him. I found out I could overcome him by the fact that his architecture didn't respond to the needs of the individual; it responds only to the orderly collective needs. It was therefore an architecture "ordonnance," but this "ordonnancement" didn't permit responding to the individual. You had the same sized window whether it was a toilet or a bedroom. The composition was thus completely organized for ordered beauty, but not from freedom from order. I think Perret was the last really bourgeois architect.
Paul Nelson, Perspecta Interview, 1971

[CONTINUE] "A Serious Point of Departure": La Maison de la Rue St. Guillaume

Small Scale Hospital

In 1932, Paul Nelson, with Nitzchke as his head designer, began work on two medical projects: the speculative "Prototype for a Small-Scale Hospital " and the commissioned "Health City" of Lille." Both projects would employ an architectural vocabulary directly inspired by Corbusier, the Prototype using the same set-back terracing as the Durand apartment block, the Lille complex deriving its two primary buildings from the crucible forms of the Ville Radiuse.

Health City

In this regard the work is a decisive break with Perret's formal influence, which was still apparent in Nelson's Alden Brooks House of 1929 and Nitzchke's Karkov competition proposal of the same year.
In both the Prototype and Lille, only the extreme axiality of Nelson's student days seems to resurface, particularly in the planning of the medical complex. The strict "capture" of orthogonal space with explicit structure one sees in Perret designs seems replaced by a more confident, more embodied space-making. Like Corbusier's work, the disposition of program appears uniform, spread evenly across plan-derived spaces.


Though the ground plan of the Prototype appears burdened and unresolved, the plans of the three upper floors show a clarity and general programmatic disposition that will be kept and refined in Lille and Ismailia: all patient rooms would be east-facing, placed along a wing with a centralized nursing station / circulation core and peripheral stairwells on each side.

Though there is no explicit mention of Nitzchkes's work on the Prototype project, a careful look at the perspectives reveals his presence: the soft contour lines of the trees, the pronounced duotone washes of water color, and most importantly the ghostly single outline figures that were Nitzchke's signature as a student. In contrast, in Nelson's work one sees a predominant use of pastel and pencil for color, with his human figures more burdened, almost kite-like, and usually filled with additional line. They lack the subtle tension experienced by Nitzchke's figures, which touch the ground with hestitancy and appear pulled by the forces of their environs. Nitzchke had been working for Corbusier at Rue de Sevres for two years prior, and it is likely that he was responsible for the accomplished "Corbu" graphic style.

Lille Health City

In June of 1932, Paul Nelson was contracted by Dr. Lambret, a Lille surgeon, to create a "Health City" for Lille. The complex would be the first Medical Center in Europe. Though at the time Lille had various medical facilities and even a school, these were situated in very different sectors of greater Lille. The desire to concentrate these facilities into a complex was apparently one aspect of a larger ambition on the part of Lille's political machinery to establish the city as the "Metropolis of the North."

Lille Model

In the late twenties, certain members of the medical profession in Paris had seen Nelson's thesis project, a Homeopathic Center, and had been extremely impressed, encouraging him to do further research in the field. By 1932, he was one of a handful of architects with specialized knowledge of medical needs. The fact that he was an American probably further aided his appointment as the architect of the new "Health City," since the first attempts at a "scientific organization" of hospitals, as well as the condensed program of a Medical Center (hospital and school), had occurred in the United States.

There were already three medical centers in the U.S. by 1932: Vanderbelt University Medical School and Hospital (1923) in Nashville; Colorado School of Medicine (1927); and the Columbia Medical Center (1930) in New York. For the Health City proposed for Lille, Nelson seems to take his inspirations to a certain extent from Columbia, which was perhaps the most fully orchestrated attempt in that it grouped for the first time a hospital, outpatient clinic, and medical school into a high-rise complex. For his European scheme, Nelson would take Columbia's ambitious organization even further, with every floor having its own treatment and operating rooms. Each facility or department was given a level of self-sufficiency and expandability not previously realized at Columbia.

Lille Plan

In dealing with the medical program, Nelson quickly recognized the necessary flexibility of interior distributions. Citing the "greatest fault of medical architecture is to give a lasting form to quarters destined to be altered against any `rigid forms.'" Nelson would develop a new exterior wall system that he would ultimately patent in 1933. With columns placed free of the exterior wall, the facade became a metal frame which allowed for interchangable opaque, translucent, and transparent panels of a 49cm area. This wall was to be hermetically sealed and fully insulated. To obtain hermetic tightness and protection against the wind, these panels are tightened from the outside from floor slabs extended beyond the facade to facilitate these very adjustments. Because the structural columns were placed outside, the wall was no more than three inches thick, thus allowing a great gain in floor area and the use of flexible partitioning for internal distributions.

It was perhaps through Nitzchke's presence on the team that Christian Zervos published a special Cahier d'Art edition on the project, writing the introduction himself. In 1928 Zervos had been so impressed with Nitzchkes's metal housing for the Strasbourg Ironworks to seek out the architect and ask for further documentation. The two became close friends through that encounter, and Nitzchke would be introduced to numerous artists and architects through Zervos and his wife, Yvonne. The publication for the Lille project was tri-lingual and implies the broad scope of interest the project was expected to receive. Even Corbusier, in an article in a separate publication, compared the project to the Van Nelle Factory as a "great collaboration of modern times," in which a "connection of elites" --scientists, industrialists and architects--come together to generate a responsive human environment.

Though the Prototype and Lille Complex show very little in terms of formal originality, dependant as they are upon a Corbusierian vocabulary, the process and methodological concerns developed during the projects would inform all later work of the Nelson/Nitzchke partnership. In Lille particularly, one finds an emphasis on internal flexibility and expandable use that would endure up until the Palais de Decouverte of 1937. In later interviews, Nelson makes clear that it was only out of the programmatic considerations and the issues of human need relating to the medical program (initially in his thesis project, the Homeopathic Center, and then in the Prototype of a Small-Scale Hospital) that allowed him to develop his own conception of architecture beyond that of his teacher:

Hospital needs led me to new forms, because these new problems were intensely human. Thus the tremendous moment had arrived when I could revolt against Perret. [5]

Nelson in particular took an extremely conscious approach to architectural design, aggressively guarding against stylistic formation in modern architecture. As early as April 1928, in an article for the Chicago Evening Post entitled, "Modern Architecture is based on Contemporary Life," the very definition of modern architecture for Nelson is as a "non-formulaic" approach to design. It is in fact through this article that Nelson will be approached by Buckminister Fuller, and be exposed to his 4-D house, an even more empirical, non-stylistic attitude towards architecture.

In the course of the thirties, Nelson would become steadily disgusted with the stylistic connotations that had become attached to the word "modern":

The term "contemporary architecture" must be preferred to "modern architecture" as being more exact and unequivocal. Modern architecture has taken on meanings opposed to the vital architecture that it should be . . . One should ever guard against the idea of "style" and decoration, which it evokes, and behind which may lurk the same errors in fundamentals as in what is called "traditional architecture."
(Nelson, "A Method of Procedure in Architectural Design," 1938)

It is little wonder that Nelson was so profoundly taken by Pierre Chareau's Dalsace residence on Rue St. Guillaume. Apparently untainted by stylistic presupposition, it seems to spell a method and approach that Nelson would immediately recognize in his own agendas. The employment of a "pan verre" facade in the Lille project, as well as the fantastic precision given to the architectural projection of the larger medical equipment, seem to allude to the profound influence that Chareau's Maison de Verre was exerting on Paris even before its completion in 1932.

[CONTINUE] "A Serious Point of Departure": La Maison de la Rue St. Guillaume

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