The architectural product was a simple demountable barracks, but Jean Prouvé’s system-based approach predicted the importance of speed, rather than force, in modern combat
In today’s digital era, the idea of a ‘systems’ approach to design is now so commonplace it hardly requires explanation. And yet, before the 19th century, the concept of a ‘system’ did not really exist. As late as 1950, when the US Air Force produced a report outlining defensive strategies against the USSR, the word was so restricted in its scientific usage, and so unusual to even military experts, that it had to be carefully defined. One example they gave was that of the ‘solar system’, which does not describe any specific objects or events, but rather tries to group them into a self-contained order of interdependent and interacting ‘components’.
There is therefore a strange anachronism to Catherine Coley’s books on Jean Prouvé, which refer to his demountable architectural structures as ‘systems’. This doesn’t mean the usage is wrong, but rather shows how far ahead of his time Prouvé really was - as early as the 1930s he was designing temporary and modular housing that could be flat-packed, shipped, bolted together on site and inhabited within a matter of hours. As a result, Prouvé’s architecture is never built as much as deployed, always retaining the option of removal or reuse.
Prouvé was in many ways a predictable product of his upbringing. Raised among a famous group of creatives in Nancy, like them he drew no boundary between art and industry, and believed the highest goal of a democratic society was popular inclusion in cultural production, and the equal provision of material goods for society.
As a teenager in the late 1910s he apprenticed in a foundry, where he came to understand that - when combined - mass production, the economies of scale and bureaucratic power of state governance offered the best means to raise the standard of living for the masses.
As a self-taught architect, his work bore signs of contemporary Modernism (he completed projects with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand) while being notably more sensitive to materiality and technical concerns. He consulted for Corbusier, who was one of his first and best clients (Corbusier even briefly abandoned his Modulor in favour of Prouvé’s structural grid during the Second World War), although it is doubtful if Corbusier truly understood Prouvé’s systems approach. Certainly he had difficulty defining Prouvé’s praxis, saying somewhat confusedly, ‘Jean embodies in a singularly harmonious way the architect and engineer. Or rather, architect and constructor, for everything he sets his hand to immediately takes on elegant plastic form, offering brilliant solutions with regard to strength and manufacture.’
Understanding a system relies on an ability to cycle one’s focus between many different components at the same time. It also rolls together physical elements of differing scales and function (from decorative window shutters to structural frames) with non-physical considerations (the method of assembly or transportation). Prouvé’s first patent for a prefabricated building in 1939 was the result of a competition held by the French Air Ministry. What made his design remarkable was that although the architectural product was a simple demountable barracks, the scale of design was a strategy for advanced warfare. His insistence on light mobility rather than permanent defence presciently highlighted the importance of speed, rather than force, in modern combat (logic later seen in the Nazi’s Blitzkrieg).
Prouvé’s architecture is never built as much as deployed, always retaining the option of removal or reuse.
And while Corbusier’s attempt at a unified design aesthetic was a statement about the universality of Modernism, the fact that Prouvé’s chairs are made exactly the same way as his architecture is instead a more pragmatic concern with systemic scale. He famously said, ‘there is no difference between a piece of furniture and a house’. His demountable homes are not machines for living in, but machines for executing housing, themselves components of a much larger machinism: systems of industry, conflict, velocity and territory. With this mentality, each component is nested within another like Russian dolls, such that any distinction between chair and house is meaningless (just as it would be meaningless to talk about a distinction between house and infrastructure). For all his fame, Prouvé’s role as the father of High-Tech architecture remains unfairly underappreciated - if for nothing else, then at least because it was him who convinced the Centre Pompidou competition jury to award Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers.
The box set groups together the first five in an anticipated series of 12 stand-alone books on Prouvé by Galerie Patrick Seguin, and as a result there is a degree of repetition between them (the same biography and Corbusier quote in each, as well as some repeated drawings). However, this does not detract from the books, which are an excellent resource on Prouvé - they feature lots of original material, including painstakingly reproduced brochures, sketches and official documents, in addition to modern CAD drawings and photographs. Each book centres on one ‘system’, from the early 6x6 and 8x8 maison demontable intended to rehouse the postwar homeless population, through to later corporate and institutional prefabs.
The first two houses began production in 1944 and followed directly from Prouvé’s prewar patents. Their predominantly wooden construction responded to metal shortages at the time, which forced extreme economy. Their style was a strange mix: quaint shutters and rustic doors concealing a modern axial frame. Although the entire domestic scale was based on the largest bit of metal Prouvé could get into his studio’s press, there was little technical revolution required in its production. Depending on their context and scale, they accordingly adopted the uncomfortable appearance of shabby chalets or glorified barns, summerhouses or grim school camps.
The most beautiful of the projects is perhaps the Maison Ferembal, commissioned in 1948 by an industrialist who had fought in the Resistance with Prouvé. Intended
as an office, Prouvé’s typical systems logic produced not one building but a housing prototype adaptable to other programmes. It showed a greater care to interior furnishings, and was both less austere, while also avoiding the kitsch or ‘homely’. The Ferembal also marks a sudden change in the sophistication of construction - clunky fixtures were replaced by mechanised shutters and counterbalanced window panes. The number of components doubled from 14 to 29, while plan arrangements multiplied enormously. At the same time, the house was more dependent on infrastructure (running water, electricity, sewerage). While retaining mobility and speed of assembly, it was decidedly less hasty - with fewer trinkets and more machined parts, simpler and more elegant, altogether less houselike and featuring slick brise-soleil and sweeping windows.
The Ferembal anticipates in many ways Prouvé’s Maison Métropole and Maison Tropicale (both 1949), which will be included in forthcoming titles from Patrick Seguin. Prouvé’s vision is remarkable, and this box set is a fitting tribute to his skill and importance in the canon of 20th-century architecture.
Jean Prouvé Architecture (five-volume boxed set)
Author: Catherine Coley,Galerie Patrick Seguin
Publisher: Edition Galerie Patrick Seguin