Paul Nelson (1885-1979)

Centre Homeopathique, Atelier Perret, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, circa 1927 Centre Homeopathique, Atelier Perret, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, circa 1927

An American-French architect educated at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Paul Nelson contributed significantly to the theoretical and pragmatic dialog between American and French architecture in the mid-twentieth century, designing a range of building types, both built and unbuilt. His most famous work, the much-studied Maison Suspendue, remains a landmark of elegant modernism married to prefabricated technology. This small collection documents Nelson's career and professional interests through papers, photographs, architectural drawings, writings, and published materials.

Paul Nelson was born in Chicago in 1895 and after a brief stint at Princeton University in 1914 and service in the United States Air Force in World War I, he moved to Paris in 1920 to begin a rigorous study of architecture at the highly-regarded Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Nelson entered the atelier of Emmanuel Pontrémoli and moved to the atelier of August Perret in 1925, becoming the first graduate of Perret's studio in 1927. In this heady environment, Nelson was introduced to the fluid vocabularies of Art Deco, Classicism, and Constructivism. Nelson, in particular, recognized the life-long influence of Le Corbusier's writings and architecture in his own work.


Nelson opened his professional practice in Paris in the late 1920s and practiced primarily in France for the remainder of his career. Among Nelson's earliest commissions was a residence in Paris for Alden Brooks, the American author, in which he employed a rigorous geometry on the exterior façade, while the rear of the house was a transparent skin of glass, looking out on a small garden.

Influenced by the International Style and emerging structural technologies, Nelson's work became more experimental and cerebral over time, reaching its apogee in his most recognized design, the Maison Suspendue, in which interchangeable prefabricated units were literally hung within a structural metal armature, allowing for endless freedom and adaptation to modern living. This unbuilt project was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and established Nelson as a major figure in the European architectural scene.

Maison Suspendue, section, circa 1936-1938. Maison Suspendue, section, circa 1936-1938.

Ever interested in the cross-pollenization of American and French architecture, Nelson also maintained close ties to the American engineer, inventor, and polymath R. Buckminster Fuller. During a lengthy return to the United States in 1927, Fuller began a correspondence with Nelson that would grow into a long and rich collegial relationship. Indeed, Nelson served as the official representative in France to promote Fuller's 4D House project, which later evolved into the Dymaxion House. As well, Nelson expanded Fuller's knowledge of current French architecture, especially that of Le Corbusier and Perret. In return, Nelson was introduced to the use and properties of metal in architecture, which he found especially appealing in such later projects as the Maison Suspendue.

Exploring the modern movement's affinity for using technology to improve quality of life, Nelson returned again and again to prototyping medical and health care facilities, largely in France. Among his major projects were the Franco-American Memorial Hospital in Saint-Lô (1946-1954), additions to the American Hospital in Neuilly (1951), and the joint design of a "compact" hospital in Dinan, France (1963-1968) and a large hospital near Arles (1965-1974). Numerous competition and unrealized clinic and hospital projects also show Nelson searching for the balance between functionalism and aesthetics.

Hopital Memorial Franco-American, Saint-Lô, circa 1954. Hopital Memorial Franco-American, Saint-Lô, circa 1954.

During an extended sojourn in the United States between 1957 and 1960, Nelson received a number of prestigious appointments, serving most notably as a visiting professor at Pratt, Yale, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as technical advisor to the U.S. Public Health Service, as a Fellow of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and as a researcher for the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and MIT. Returning to France, Nelson continued his academic career as professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then at the Ecole d'Art et d'Architecture at Luminy, Marseille.

Nelson also nurtured close relationships with major writers, artists, and film figures, including Georges Braque, André Derain, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. In 1930, Nelson designed the luxurious International Style set for Gloria Swanson's film What a Widow! Among his later commissions was a house for Ferdinand Léger's daughter and a museum for Léger's paintings, both unbuilt. Nelson died in Marseille in 1979.