Jean Prouvé had a philosophy on factory-built, portable housing that is as needed now as it was in his day.
Born on this day in 1901, Prouvé was intensely engaged during the 1930s and ’40s with designing and building prefabricated structures to house armies and refugees before and during World War II. Today, his pioneering ideas are being celebrated even as events around the world remind us of the importance of shelter in times of crisis, from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina to Syria and the exodus of refugees.
At Design Shanghai last month, Bally, the Swiss luxury brand, exhibited a refurbished Prouvé Demountable House from 1944, one of only 15 remaining out of several hundred built for a project of the French government to house families displaced by the war in the Lorraine region. The Shanghai exhibit was the last of three staged to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Demountable House. Other shows were in Miami and Basel, Switzerland.
The Demountable House was designed with a steel skeleton, like most of Prouvé’s structures, and a pair of two-legged columns to support the roof, which eliminated the need for load-bearing walls. Resembling a draftsman’s compass, the columns had their origins in the 1930s and became a hallmark of Ateliers Jean Prouvé. A small structure needed only a single column; a larger model, like Bally’s 20-foot-by-30-foot unit, used two columns. The exterior of the house is sheathed in wood and the roof is shingled in corrugated steel.
Prouvé’s structures were factory-made and typically shipped unassembled in flat packages for easy transport to building sites, wherever that might be. The Bally house was designed to be assembled by three people.
“Why factory made?” he asked. “Because it is no longer just about making one or more small elements of a home to be assembled, but making all the elements correspond to those of a machine that is mounted entirely mechanically, without necessity of producing anything on-site.”
Prouvé’s ideas were forged in his early life as a blacksmith’s apprentice and later as a metal worker. He was a self-taught architect and designer and throughout his life applied the training of his youth, which tended toward metalwork, combined with the influences of his artist father and the art community in his hometown of Nancy, France. Aside from architecture, his designs include furniture and lighting and he worked closely with, among many others, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret.
Prouvé died in 1984. His portable buildings and original furniture are collectors’ items today. Among the reported collectors is Brad Pitt, who also has been active in developing and deploying portable and prefab housing, especially in New Orleans.
Time-lapse video of crews assembling the Demountable House last fall in Miami.