Thursday, 3 September 2009


An invisible line runs down the centre of Paris and through the Observatoire in the 14th arrondissement, marking the point zero of France. Beaten to the prestige of being the centre of the world by the Greenwich meridian in London, it has left Paris feeling slightly askew. A fraction off of this line, overlooking the Observatoire, is a curious anomaly in itself – a building which never knew what time to set its foot in, and which stands as a monument to a similarly unaligned individual.

What makes us different from the others? A child often craves similarity and hopes not to stand out from classmates, but if an accident or illness strikes and leaves lasting traces, the child knows that they must adapt to a world where they will always be seen as a kink in that safe line of normality. How the child deals with this determines the route their life will take.

Xavier Haas was born in Paris in 1907 to hotel owning parents. Two sisters quickly followed and life was idyllic until illness struck Haas when he was only 6 years old. He had contracted Poliomyelitis when on a trip to Alsace, and soon realised that he would be condemned to a life of health problems and physical suffering. A year after this incident, the First World War broke out and the father was sent off to battle. He would survive – just – but would never be the same afterwards having been gassed in the trenches.

The house where Haas was born with the construction his parents had built behind.

Amidst this suffering, Haas discovered art. His Uncle, a talented but depressive artist, lived on the ground floor of his building and the young boy would often spend time with him. Haas had problems walking but he decided that he would excel with his hands, and become an illustrator, sculptor and engraver. After his education in Paris, he spent much time in Brittany where he struck up a lifelong friendship with another artist, Xavier de Langlais.

A portrait of Haas by his friend Xavier de Langlais.

The parents of Xavier Haas supported him in his chosen career and decided to construct a building that would enable him both to work and give him a steady income. It would also prove to be his lasting monument in Paris. The construction at 12 Rue Cassini was entrusted to the architect Charles Abella* in 1930, and the result is a curious but fascinating mixture of forms and styles, completed by an extraordinary sculptured frieze by Xavier Haas himself.

The building was designed as a place where artists could live and work, and was built alongside the house where Haas had been born. It is seven stories high, with bay-window fronted studios and an incredible twisting tower of Babel staircase. It is a building that is very much caught on the cusp of modernism (in its forms and the fact that the functions are so clear) and the neo-classical (Abella chose a kind of pebbledash stone exterior rather than bare concrete), and certainly stands out from other structures in the vicinity.

Haas took a studio in the building and added the frieze at the entrance. For one who was so physically weakened, the creation is a muscular show of force and a robust celebration of art. The art deco styled figures - solid, winged deities - and the extravagant swirls and decorations make it a very powerful work.

Haas would create other works, notably in Brittany, but his influence would be felt more in other areas. He was behind the setting up of an organisation known as the Paralysés de France, and contributed to their magazine called ‘Faire Face’. He continued creating, but ill-health would catch up with him and he died in 1950 aged only 43. His friend, de Langlais, who had often painted portraits of him during his life, sketched him as he lay on his deathbed. It is a quickly scratched picture of calm repose, but Haas would probably want to be remembered more for something else - the vigour of his remarkable sculpture which ensured that he would always stand out from the crowd.

*Charles Abella was not a prolific architect and only designed two buildings in Paris (the other is another similarly curious mix of styles on the Avenue Hoch). However, his name is associated today with one of the most prestigious architectural competitions in France – the Grand Prix d'Architecture de l'Académie des Beaux-Arts. The first prize is known as the Prix Charles Abella, and is awarded to promising young architects.


Owen said...

You never fail to amaze me with the stories you dig up and the depth of your research... as they say in French... "Chapeau"... my hat is off to you good Sir... I wonder how much an apartment in the building would sell for today... actually, it's probably a case of, if you have to ask, you can't afford it ?

Starman said...


CarolineLD said...

Really interesting: I'll have to look for his work here in Brittany.

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