Prouvé Pioneers Architectural Prefabrication Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jean Prouvé initiated and refined the total prefabrication of homes and a variety of other structures in an effort to bring building into the industrial age.

Summary of Event

In 1937, near Buc, a French village too small to appear in atlases, construction was completed on the Roland Garros Aeroclub. Roland Garros Aeroclub Almost the entire building, including floors, walls, ramp, and roof—indeed, all the structure’s pressed-metal components—were prefabricated. Dismantled by the Germans a few years later during World War II, the Aeroclub nevertheless has subsequently been identified by architectural historians as one of the twentieth century’s most interesting and important buildings. Although the Aeroclub was less influential than Antonio Gaudí’s Casa Milá flats, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, or Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea, it was in many respects more innovative than any of these architectural milestones. So, too, was another structure built in 1938 in the Paris suburb of Clichy, the Maison du Peuple, Maison du Peuple a large market and auditorium with floors, walls, and a roof that moved electrically—all within an envelope of stressed-skin panels separated by coil springs. The Maison du Peuple was another novel building that was industrially designed and industrially produced. Moreover, although the designs of the Aeroclub and the Maison du Peuple engaged the talents of the same two notable architects, Eugène Elie Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, the buildings’ distinctive characters were as much the work of Jean Prouvé, a remarkable metal craftsman, engineer, and self-taught architect. [kw]Prouvé Pioneers Architectural Prefabrication (1937) [kw]Architectural Prefabrication, Prouvé Pioneers (1937) [kw]Prefabrication, Prouvé Pioneers Architectural (1937) Architecture;prefabrication Prefabricated buildings [g]France;1937: Prouvé Pioneers Architectural Prefabrication[09340] [c]Architecture;1937: Prouvé Pioneers Architectural Prefabrication[09340] Prouvé, Jean Gropius, Walter Le Corbusier Garnier, Tony Beaudouin, Eugène Elie Lods, Marcel

By 1946, barely a decade after erection of the Aeroclub, Prouvé was pioneering not only the total prefabrication of industrial and public buildings but—of equal importance from his perspective—the prefabrication of entire houses and housing units. Prouvé believed that neither architects nor builders had adequately availed themselves of industrial materials or techniques and had therefore failed to recognize the efficiencies and potential afforded by an industrial age. Prouvé’s convictions made him one of the leaders of the modern movement in building technology.

The son of Victor Prouvé, a painter prominent in the decorative arts that flourished in Nancy (France) around 1900, Jean was born in Paris in 1901. Nancy—the home to which the Prouvés soon returned—was a manufacturing center lying at the heart of an iron mining region with major ironware and steel industries. Consequently, after his preliminary education, the young Prouvé, under the aegis of master craftsmen in Paris, trained from 1916 to 1923 as a blacksmith and metalworker. Back in Nancy by 1924, he married and, as a qualified engineer, founded his own metal-fittings and furniture establishment. Like many of the century’s famed and formally educated architects, such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Prouvé came to an understanding of architecture early in his career through the design and manufacture of furnishings.

He rapidly became a master of modern building materials, and his designs and the works of his establishment were avidly sought by the greatest architects. In the early 1930’s, for example, Prouvé collaborated with Tony Garnier, producing operating theaters and sliding windows for a Lyon hospital and doors, partitions, and furniture for the Boulogne-Billancourt town hall. In the mid-1930’s, too, Prouvé began more than thirty years of intermittent collaboration with Le Corbusier. Prouvé entered this association modestly with the design of a portable toilet for the Paris World’s Fair. In the ensuing years, he provided such design and building components as the suspended ceilings for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation as well as the staircases, kitchens, and furnishings for the Cité Radieuse, both major projects of Le Corbusier in Marseille. Over the years, Prouvé did similar business with other notable French architects who had international repute, including Bernard Zehrfuss and Robert Mallet-Stevens. His work was also solicited by leading corporations, banks, hospitals, research institutions, schools, oil companies, hotels, subway systems, and cinema and television chains, as well as by the governments of France and many other European and African nations.

Prouvé’s industrialized design and production of prefabricated housing was the result of several factors. First, his own mastery of modern building technology and materials, in addition to his familiarity with the manufacture and installation of nearly every modern structural component, brilliantly equipped him to carry his work into the production of entire dwelling and structural units. Second, France’s preparations for and engagement in World War II created huge demands for swiftly constructed housing. Third, Prouvé, along with the great architects with whom he collaborated, believed that the industrialized production of housing more honestly reflected the efficiency, character, and potential of an industrial era than did traditional design.

Prouvé’s first experiment with full prefabrication was the creation of eight hundred units in Lorraine for the Ministry of Reconstruction and Town Planning, a project closely followed by the construction of a house in Vesoul; both projects took place in 1944, while Prouvé was still working with the French Resistance. Pressures for housing increased at war’s end, and his work began maturing with construction of Nancy’s Cité Universitaire student quarters. The following year, he produced the fully prefabricated Portico House for his own workshop as well as boarding facilities for the Apprenticeship Glassworks Center and a more modest private home in Carnac. In 1948, he continued his prefabrication for the ministry, producing demonstration houses in four French towns. In 1949, serving as architect himself, he prefabricated so-called Metropole and Coque housing, again for the ministry, in Meudon. These were successful ventures, and he repeated construction of the Metropole houses in both Oran and Algiers for local utility companies. Until 1976, Prouvé averaged one commission on fully prefabricated structures per year. Always disdainful of the conservatism of professional architects and builders (not to mention the general public), Prouvé had difficulties with industrialized housing. As a consequence, he continued earning much of his living by supplying others with his superb prefabricated components and furnishings, which always spoke by their excellence of the aesthetic and economic possibilities of industrialized building.

Significance

By the early twentieth century, prefabrication was an old idea and a frequently utilized construction technique. Many examples existed before Prouvé’s work began. The prefabrication of Venetian galleys for Venice’s great commercial fleet functioned effectively throughout the fifteenth century. Similarly, on the American and Canadian frontiers during the late nineteenth century, whole towns of individual homes and shops were preassembled, transported westward, and assembled again. More notably, London’s spectacular Crystal Palace of 1850—one of the century’s architectural landmarks—was premanufactured and, amazingly, assembled within a few days. Quite commonly by the 1880’s, whole building facades of premanufactured cast iron distinguished businesses on the Main Streets of American cities.

Until the twentieth century, however, prefabrication generally was definable as the manufacture and assembly of varied building components, not as the design and manufacture of industrialized structures that represented complete industrial products in themselves. For influential schools of architecture such as Germany’s Bauhaus Bauhaus as well as for precedent-breaking architects—Gaudí, Garnier, or Le Corbusier, for example—the very objective of designs was to bring building, and lifestyles, into the machine age. These innovators sought to explore and experiment with the qualities (and economies) of modern construction materials such as concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, and plastics and envisioned the “machining” of all sorts of structures. Gropius, for years the leader of the Bauhaus, was profoundly interested in this form of prefabrication; in the early 1930’s, before Prouvé’s industrialized structures had appeared, Gropius had contracted with the Hirsch Copper Company, a German firm, to manufacture scores of company houses. A few years later, he effected an identical arrangement with another German firm, although in each instance the materials to be employed were largely traditional ones such as wood. Undertakings like these united Gropius, Garnier, and Le Corbusier, among others, in mutual influences and collaborative enterprises.

In the United States, R. Buckminster Fuller Fuller, R. Buckminster had begun experiments with manufactured housing and other buildings in an attempt to provide light, sturdy structures that were easy to erect and that used not only modern materials such as steel, prestressed concrete, and aluminum but also paperboard, plywood, and bamboo. It was not until 1946, however, that Fuller succeeded in completing his famed Dymaxion House and geodesic domes. These and similar twentieth century experiments, although undeniably impressive, were nevertheless architectural “sports” developed beyond the pale of architecture’s everyday business of building design and construction.

The steady impetus toward industrialized building came not only from the aesthetics and creative curiosities of a handful of architects but was also stimulated by the immense backlog of housing created by two world wars. In France and the rest of Europe, incentive stemmed more urgently from the requirements of national reconstruction and from the increasing intervention of governments in all areas of national life. Each of these circumstances directly informed Prouvé’s expectations and experiments.

Prouvé’s work and its analogues had profound consequences in the second half of the twentieth century. The testimonials to his influence stand as familiar parts of urbanized landscapes around the developed world. For industrialized building as a type of architecture, Prouvé set singular and exemplary standards. His sensitivity to the capacities and possibilities of materials and machines opened architects’ eyes to new structural vistas for individual homes, housing complexes, towns, offices, and schools.

Nevertheless, it is more common to witness the drab, monotonous expanses of wartime prefabrications, of construction camps, and trailer towns, than it is—as Prouvé complained before his death—to know the whereabouts of factories that produce houses much as other types of factories mass-produce automobiles. Acknowledging by the 1980’s that both the principles and practice of what he meant by “prefabrication” had taken root, Prouvé was still aware of the shortfall of his expectations. Architects, he advised, needed to be intimate parts of manufacturing, which as yet they were not. Too much industrialized building, he argued, unnecessarily continued employing new materials in traditional ways—a fault of both architects and builders. Having designed and manufactured his own products as if nothing had ever been built before, he deplored adaptations of buildings to existing machine processes, many of which he disdained. In the twenty-first century, the general approbation for his industrialized pressed-metal structures—including his exhibition village, at Michel-sur-Orge, his Pierrelatte workshop for France’s atomic energy workers, and his Fontainebleau holiday resort for Air France, all built in the 1960’s—continues to goad architects and builders to escape confinement in the thinking of the past. Architecture;prefabrication Prefabricated buildings

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arieff, Allison, and Bryan Burkhart. Prefab. New York: Gibbs Smith, 2002. Examination of innovative prefabricated structures includes a chapter devoted to the history of prefabricated housing. Features photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavedan, Pierre. French Architecture. London: Scolar Press, 1971. Readable, scholarly survey places Prouvé in a national setting and clarifies the innovativeness of his work and that of other modernists. Very informative. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newton, Nigel. “Prouvé: Modern Movement Pioneer.” Building Design 30 (March, 1984): 175-178. Essentially a tribute to Prouvé published shortly after his death. Gives Prouvé his due and touches on his amazingly brilliant collaborations. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prouvé, Jean. Jean Prouvé: Prefabrication, Structures, and Elements. Translated by Alexander Lieven, edited by Benedikt Huber and Jean-Claude Steinegger. New York: Praeger, 1971. One of the few discussions available on the prefabrication of buildings and of Prouvé’s role in the field. Deals with Prouvé’s work in context. Includes plates, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rowlands, Penelope. Jean Prouvé: Compact Design Portfolio. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002. Focuses on Prouvé’s furniture designs, but includes an introductory essay on his life and work in general. Features many illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sulzer, Peter. Jean Prouvé Highlights 1917-1944. Translated by Gerald B. Binding. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 2002. Discusses Prouvé’s architectural work during the period covered and his importance to the history of twentieth century design. Includes many illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Work of Jean Prouvé.” Architectural Design 33 (1963): 511-525. Solidly professional and laudatory examination of Prouvé’s contributions to architecture. Published while Prouvé was at the top of his form and attracting international attention and honors. Includes photographs.

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