The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century
by Kawin Dhanakoses
Architecture, Construction and Industrialisation 2014
Supervisor: Remo Predreschi
Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture | University of Edinburgh | UK
Born in Nancy in 1901, Jean Prouvé was trained as an ironworker. His experience of handmaking metalwork had influenced his designs and thoughts. During his career, Prouvé involved in various fields including furniture design, industrial design, architectural design and structural design. After he had been pushed out of his own factory by investors, he then worked exclusively as a designer and as a teacher. His modernist design emphasized on new technologies and industrial processes which he believed to raise living standards for all. His unique working process and the great team spirit in his workshop had always been a key behind his success. This essay will explore through his important architectural projects, analyse the key ideas behind his works as well as highlight his influences on contemporary architecture of the 20th century.
The works of Jean Prouvé
- The Roland Garros Flying Club at Buc. 1935
Eugene Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, the architects, were commissioned to build this two-storey clubhouse at Buc. By that time Lods and Prouvé had already known each other and both of them were very interested in the industrailisation of building construction. So, they collaborated in designing and manufacturing this building given that they had a very short time to build and also their design had to demonstrate this building in a way of contemporary architecture.
All the construction structural parts, windows, claddings were made in Prouvés’ workshop and every parts from all the floor beams, the partitions and the ceilings were made of metal sheets of different thickness. The custom made of folded metal sheets for each component provides the integration of functions in one component such as, the posts where the inward space was deliberately designed to be a space for ducts for the passage of liquids or the ceiling support that acts as duct at the same time. Another remarkable thing to note about this building is that the building was built with a dry construction process as well as the toilet cubicles which are manufactured in the factory before installed on site. This off-site manufactured volumetric construction system was completely new at that time.
What can be seen and learnt from this project is that Prouvé designed and shaped all the components in totally new ways that were invented only for this building. He treated this whole building as an integrated system. He believed that the interface problems could be solved in the factory. Every components were made in a workshop where Prouvé had created a great teamwork and working atmosphere. From the draughtsmen to the folder of the sheet metal, from the welder to the assembler of a component, they all were passionately enthusiastic and have ideas in harmony. After the project was finished, the team analysed the project for the future improvements as Prouvé always did. Unfortunately, with no one ever know why, the building was later demolished by the army.
- The Maison du Peuple in Clichy. 1935-1939
The same team of Eugene Beaudouin, Marcel Lods and Jean Prouvé were again in collaboration of building “The Maison du Peuple” in Clichy. This building had to be highly adaptable in order to serve many different functions, including market on the ground floor, a multi-purpose auditorium on the first floor with the offices for trades-unions and the town-hall. As a result, several mechanisms were introduced into this building. First, the central part of the first floor was operable. It consisted of eight floor components which can be moved towards the stage and stored on it. The cinema, the promenades and the foyer bar could be separated by a sliding partition system that could be folded away behind the stage and finally, the sliding glazed roof, operated by an electric system which can be opened up completely.
Prouvé and the team took many ideas from the Roland Garros project. At first, the main structural frame was designed in folded metal sheet. The metal sheet had to be thick because of much larger span and more sophisticated construction than in Roland Garros. Unfortunately, there were difficulties, so, they changed their main structural design to be made of traditional hot rolled steel sections instead.
The glazed façade was 4.2 m. high supported by folded sheet mullions. Prouvé carefully designed the external metal sheet façade panel from the technical point of view. He considered the variations of temperature which could leads to the changes in size of the panel, water-tightness and the “bellied” design for the visual purpose which resulted in the successfully elimination of the oil-canning effect. Moreover, Prouvé also consider the ease of transportation and installation of the façade which each module was claimed to be easily installed by 2 men with a simple device.
This project was completed between 1938 and 1939. The German occupation during the war deteriorated the building, but there was no structural damage and no damage to the sheet metal. And again, Prouvé claimed that the key to success behind all these was the great team spirit in his workshop.
- The development of demountable houses
From his unique way of working, he gradually developed the prototype to become lighter, easier to transport. This project also shows intense collaboration between the architects and the entirely project was made in Prouvé’s workshop.In 1937, the team comprised of Eugene Beaudoin and Marcel Lods as architects, the Jean Prouvé Workshops and Forges de Strasbourgh designed the B.L.P.S. (Beaudouin, Lods, Prove, Strasbourgh) demountable house which was made of steel. This 3.3 x 3.3 m. box was designed with the aim to provide a comfortable holiday accommodation which comprises of 2 beds, dining table, cupboards, kitchen and a toilet. His concept was to make this accommodation to be quickly disassembled and re-erected anywhere within only few hours. This project was not only able to solve the problem of camping such as the reduction in size, its lightness and ease of transportation but this house also provide something more which is practically impossible in normal camping; a heated and well-lit room, kitchen for hot food and toilet with shower.
In 1939, the studies for weekend demountable houses were continued. It can be seen clearly that they used the B.L.P.S as their prototype. The floor plan and the elevations looked very similar but Prouvé designed it to be placed on piles with some façade variations which was made of pine-log cladding.
- The development of the external frame and central portal frame structure
The design of one of the Prouvé’s signature of the ‘A-shape’ central portal frame structure was first developed in the project for a demountable barrack unit for the Ministry of Aviation. In 1938, Prouvé participated in a competition for designing barracks to accommodate officers. It was a 40 x 8 m. metal framework with a ceiling height of 3.5 m. Prouvé proposed two different principles in structural design; the external structural frame and the central portal frame.
One of his successful examples of the external structural frame design was the demountable barrack units for the Engineers Corps. in 1939. Prouvé was asked to design combat units for twelve men that could be assembled in a few hours. He designed 3 different modules including 4 x 4 m., 4 x 6 m., and 4 x 12 m. with a system of 3 different typical modules of wooden panels, called type A to C, as their external wall panels. The prototype was made in eight days in his workshop. The assembling of the first unit took only 3 hours which led to an immediate order for 275 units to be delivered during the following month.
The works carried out for the Societe Centrale des Alliages Legers (S.C.A.L.) at Issoire showed the design of the central portal frame structure to support the wider span which later can be seen in many of his prefabricated house projects and also in many of his furniture designs.
- The Aluminium Pavilion 1952
Jean Prouvé was commissioned to design an exhibition building to celebrate the centenary of Aluminium. This elongated pavilion originally situated on the bank of the river Seine in Paris. After the exhibition, it was dismantled and re-assembled a few times and finally it was recovered for re-assembly in the Exhibition Park of Paris-Nord-Villepinte in 2000.
Prouvé’s design itself demonstrated a sophisticated uses of aluminium and showed fully integrated system in construction. Each component performed more than one function such as the U-shaped section of folded aluminium sheet into trusses which was the main structure also formed a gutter, or the columns which acted as a structure, gutter and the mullion for curtain wall at the same time. This fully integrated system minimized number of elements which led to less interface problem, reduction in material usage and assembly operations. As a result, there is no doubt that this project was one of Jean Prouvé’s masterpieces.
The key ideas behind his works
Since Prouvé had started working with Emile Robert as a blacksmith, he learned traditional metal working skills. Furthermore, he had always learned by accumulating techniques, studying materials and their treatment as well as seeking inspiration and trying to discover new options through the practice of new advanced techniques. This way of learning things had provided him a unique way of working and a strong belief in pragmatic approach in design. He believed that evolution can only result from practical experience, not sketches of utopian projects. This resulted in his unique working sequence; it begins with an idea followed by using technical sketches to discuss with the team, making prototype, and then testing, modifying and fine-tuning for improvements and finally, a plan is drawn.
Prouvé’s designs gradually became more sophisticated and complex through his mastery of engineering and of the tools and machines available to him. By applying his engineering design approach to every detail, Prouvé was a designer who took the construction of a chair as seriously as the building of a house. In every detail of Prouvé’s works considered for robustness and ease of manufacture which resulted in the aesthetic of pure use. Prouvé was also noted by Lord Foster that “He belonged to that rare breed who really had an eye and who remained very close to the making of things – the production process” (Heathcote, 2011). Moreover, it could be stated that, among modernist designers and architects, Prouvé’s designs were very unique (Wilk, 2008); both for furniture and architecture, and he did produced his own designs for over many decades.
Another key idea behind his works was the spirit and atmosphere in which the creative team works. He tried to introduce a system called ‘worker participation’ where he negotiated with workers their pay for executing a project before he quoted the cost estimation to the client. As a result, all workers were engaged in both design and production processes, as well as shared in the profits. Moreover, the way Prouvé worked as a team was supported by his thoughts about building architecture as a closed-system. He believed that there should be no distinction between engineer and architect. When any object needs to be made, there must be a ‘constructional concept’ where every technical specialists need to respect and work on the same direction to achieve the goal of the concept. He believed that buildings should be made by a single organization or industry however different parties could be involved but only within integrated industry.
His influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century
Jean Prouvé was described as an “architect-engineer”, “an artisan/engineer”, and as a “constructeur” by Le Corbusier (Wilk, 2008) in which the term ‘constructeur’ was meant that – Prouvé as a builder of things. Moreover, Le Corbusier also claimed that Prouvé’s design philosophy could be inherited from 19th century designer-engineers such as Joseph Paxton and Gustav Eiffel.
Jean Prouvé has always been an exemplar figure for Renzo Piano. He was claimed to be Piano’s model, master, and friend. Renzo Piano is both a humanist and a man of science. He was influenced by Prouvé’s thought that architecture is a matter of building, not drawing Utopian images. Prouvé’s mastery in handling the materials and techniques of construction had influenced Piano’s thought to suggest that we need to get back to the true understanding of craftsmanship, the craft of buildings in order to close the gap between heads and hands, or conceptual ideas and manual work in contemporary architecture.
The way Renzo Piano called his office ‘Building Workshop’ represents the way he works. He always pay close attention to details and he and his team even make many pieces themselves. Piano also claimed the idea of what he has learned from Prouvé that architects have to start working on details from the beginning, together with the project and architecture is about team-working, not the instinctive act of a creative artist.
- The Georges Pompidou Cultural Center 1971-1977
Despite all the controversies and comments from the critics, I agree with Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers who claimed that this is a gigantic piece of craftsmanship. Every elements in this building was handcrafted designed and it became a great prototype and a great model for new generation of architects to study.
- IBM travelling exhibition 1982-1984
This project reminds us of Prouvé’s Aluminium Pavillion in a more contemporary way. The whole structure which covers the exhibition composed of 34 arched units, each with 6 m. radius and made up of 12 transparent polycarbonate pyramids. Piano used 3 different materials for their 3 different functions; the transparent polycarbonate to allow natural daylight to get through, the bow-like laminated wood members to hold the polycarbonate units together, and the cast aluminium as joints between each units. The structure is easily disassembled and transported to different venues for the exhibition and it takes only 3 weeks to be reassembled by 15 people. This project represents the design process of making prototypes as well as the idea of prefabrication, industrialisation, and standardisation of handcrafted joints and components which has similarity to Prouvé’s works in the past.
In conclusion, besides his working process and harmonious teamwork that had always been supporting behind all of his success, his character also shows the ideal integration of every role in a construction industry, the ‘all-in-one man’. As an ‘engineer-architect-constructor’, he shows the perfect combination of visionary idea, lean thinking process towards industrialisation and the handcrafted way of working with newest technology. This had produced a number of original and priceless designs of Prouvé which have certainly become valuable prototypes for architects to study in the future. Above of all, although he was claimed to be a ‘bad business man’ but there is no doubt to admire Jean Prouvé as ‘one of the greatest French designers of the 20th century’ (Wilk, 2008).
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