Progressive Prefabs of Jean Prouvé

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
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The pioneering designer’s metal homes set a model for future construction.

Jean Prouvé always said to never copy—to go ahead and do something different. According to his grandson and architect Serge Drouin, that’s why, after dropping out of school at the age of 14, the future French design icon apprenticed with a Parisian metalsmith, seeking to master one of the few materials unfamiliar to his father, who was an Art Nouveau painter and sculptor. It led to Prouvé's mastery of steel and aluminum, and eventually a string of prefab housing prototypes that were generations ahead of his contemporaries. Even today, according to Drouin, when engineers dismount Prouvé's buildings, they can’t always figure out the bracing and support system that he intuitively set up within the structures he created. 

F 8X8 BCC House (1942)

Prouvé's skill at constructing and adapting to different situations wasn't limited to metal. While collaborating with Pierre Jeanneret during WWII, he helped fashion this mostly wooden structure meant to ease housing shortages and provide shelter for refugees, all built around an axial portal frame.

As the designer developed his craft, and later his own business, Atelier Prouvé, he became adept at fabricating, fashioning, and bending steel at scale, eventually graduating from smaller scale structures such as elevator cabs and furniture into prefabricated housing, beginning with the BLPS model (Beaudouin, Lods, Prouvé, Forges de Strasbourg) in the late ‘30s, a futuristic steel vacation home for French works. His homes were uniquely positioned to help cope with the post-war housing shortage of the ‘40s. 

Metropole Aluminum House (1949)

The winner of a 1949 contest to create a portable classroom for French students, the gleaming metal structure might have resembled a sci-fi spacechip to '50s schoolchildren. Prouvé's meticulous metalsmithing is on display in this highly regarded example of portable prefab housing, crafted in his Nancy workshop and easily assembled with a few tools. He included a glassed-in garden and wooden accents to the interior walls to make the structure less imposing.

"To him, there’s no difference between the structure of a building and the structure of a table," says Drouin. "He had an absolutely intuitive sensation of metal. The shop was his office, his laboratory."

6X6 Demountable House (1944)

Prouvé created these temporary bungalows as postwar housing for Lorraine, France, via a commission from the Ministry of Reconstruction and Town Planning. To reinforce the ease with which these structures were assembled and dissassembled on site, one model was built and then taken apart every day during Art Basel Miami 2013.

Maison Tropicale (1950)

Probably Prouvé's most famous prefab structure—made so after hotelier Andrew Balazs reportedly paid nearly $5 million for a model a few years ago—this metal prototype was built to provide housing in France's African colonies. According to his grandson Serge Drouin, a special "box-in-box" construction technique created ventilation for the home as the metal facade warmed in order to provide comfortable living in the hot African climate.

Les Jours Meilleurs House (1956)

The "better days" house was inspired by the plight of a homeless woman and child, who passed away in the cold on a Paris street in 1954. After an appeal by the famous priest Abbé Pierre to solve the social housing crisis, Prouvé developed this 50-square-meter, low-budget prototype, which boasted a kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms.

Total Filling Station (1969)

Prouvé's attractive gas station, with its clear glass facade, demonstrates a key aspect of his work—the idea that furniture and architecture require the same thinking process. The joints of this polygonal structure recall something you may see in his furniture designs.