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Hélène Vacher, Valérie Balthazard and Karine Thilleul (eds.), Des maisons métalliques pour l’Afrique. La maison tropicale de Jean Prouvé

Stephanie Van de Voorde
Référence(s) :

Hélène Vacher, Valérie Balthazard and Karine Thilleul (eds.), Des maisons métalliques pour l’Afrique. La maison tropicale de Jean Prouvé, special issue of Les Cahiers du LHAC, no. 3, 2017 (Contributions by Odile Lassère, Hélène Vacher, Karine Thilleul, Olivier Delarozière, Laurent Poupard, Bernard Toulier, Tristan Guilloux, Catherine Coley, Joseph Abram, Franz Graf, Christian Enjolras and Olivier Cinqualbre)

Texte intégral

  • 1 “4,96 millions de dollars pour une maison de Prouvé, chez Christie’s,” Le Monde, June 6, 2007.
  • 2 The references within the text refer to the essays that are part of the publication that is being (...)
  • 3 This inventory was initiated and supervised by Bernard Toulier, see Bernard Toulier, Brazzaville-l (...)
  • 4 Olivier Cinqualbre, Jean Prouvé : la maison tropicale = The tropical house, Paris: Éditions du Ce (...)
  • 5 Hélène Vacher and Caroline Bauer, “Jean Prouvé, de l’atelier à l’enseignement, transmission d’une (...)
  • 6 The musée de l’Histoire de fer also has a strong link with Prouvé: his son, Claude Prouvé, was inv (...)
  • 7 The exhibition also included the documentary by Manthia Diawara showing the “emptied” sites in Nia (...)

1On June 5, 2007, Jean Prouvé’s maison tropicale was sold at Christie’s in New York for 4.96 million US dollars.1 This staggering amount corresponds to Prouvé’s status and the exceptional character of this “designer object.” The collector who seeks to stand out can no longer settle for a piece of furniture or a door panel; only an iconic, unique object, with an exotic edge, will attract notice. The added value of the tropical house indeed lies in the “synergie méchanique de l’ensemble” (Graf, p. 1232): the genius of Prouvé is demonstrated in particular by the way the house performs as a whole and how everything fits together. The tropical house is a standardized, prefabricated metal house, designed for large-scale production in Prouvé’s Ateliers in Maxéville in 1949-1951. The house was innovative in terms of the materials used (mainly aluminum) and techniques that responded to the climatological context (in particular the use of brise-soleils and the ventilation concept). Only four houses were produced and built: one in Niamey, two in Brazzaville, and one in Douala (in fact, the last has never even been found). The two houses in Brazzaville were rediscovered during a heritage inventory by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication in 1996,3 after which they were bought and “repatriated” by the French gallery owner Éric Touchaleaume (Lassère, p. 7). One of them was sold at auction, while the other one was bought by Robert Rubin, a former Wall Street commodities trader who embarked upon a new career path as art connoisseur, collector, and curator in the 1990s. Rubin set out to enhance the tropical house’s didactic qualities by means of a traveling exhibition. He had the house restored, even remanufacturing the original production instruments to duplicate parts of the house that had been lost or too badly damaged (Graf, p. 123). He donated the house in 2005 to the Centre Pompidou, which had also received Prouvé’s archives from his family the year before. After being exhibited at two locations in Los Angeles in 2005, the house was exhibited in the Pompidou (or rather outside, on the Pompidou’s fifth-floor terrace, because that’s what such large objects require, to be museified) in Paris in 2007-2009. This exhibition was accompanied by a publication by Olivier Cinqualbre, (re)telling the history of the design and manufacture of the house and capitalizing on the archival material.4 In 2012 the house landed in Nancy, Prouvé’s home town. Throughout the year, which was renamed Année Jean Prouvé in Nancy, several exhibitions and events celebrated “le génie de ce créateur polymorphe” (Lossère, p. 5). One of the eye-catchers during the Prouvé year was the installation of the tropical house, or at least part of it, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. The laboratoire d’histoire de l’architecture contemporaine (lhac, part of the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Nancy) organized a series of lectures (published in the first issue of Les Cahiers du lhac in 2014).5 Further down the road in Nancy, in 2012 the musée de l’Histoire du fer bought a few Prouvé pieces and set up a permanent exhibition space and a “jardin des structures” dedicated to his work.6 In 2014, the lhac and the musée de l’Histoire de fer joined forces to organize an exhibition and colloquium on La maison tropicale. The house, this time in its entirety, returned to Nancy and was set up in the “jardin des structures” of the musée de l’Histoire de fer. The exhibition showed original drawings, photographs and models, and also dealt with the rediscovery of this heritage.7 During the colloquium, 11 academics, architects, engineers, heritage experts, and historians, a significant number of whom had also been closely involved with the research on and museification of the house over the past two decades, (re)positioned the house within a broader perspective. In the first part of the colloquium, some similar, but less well known experiments with disassemblable metal houses in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century were brought to the fore. Subsequently, participants in the colloquium addressed the tropical house itself and other African projects by Prouvé, discussing Prouvé’s technical and climatological insights, and the current status of the house, as well as other subjects, like his lack of business experience, for instance. The lectures were bundled in 2017 in the third issue of Les Cahiers du lhac, following the same twofold structure as the colloquium. The publication, appearing ten years after the remarkable auction, demonstrates that the prototype is not only highly valued among art and design collectors, but is also still a compelling subject for scientific research.

2Organizing a colloquium on one of the most iconic, widely studied, and extensively published homes of the twentieth century, which has traveled halfway around the world, is not an easy task. Creating a broader framework around and beyond the particular project addresses this difficulty, while still making it possible to improve the state-of-the-art. On the other hand, such an approach does not fit well the uninitiated reader. Adding a short essay, presenting some basic facts and relevant iconographic material, would have increased the stand-alone value of the publication, and might also have avoided the repetition of certain details in various essays, while some crucial elements are now missing throughout.

3In the first part of the publication, which focuses on some of Prouvé’s predecessors and contemporaries, the (direct) link with the tropical house is not always clear. Yet this does not impair the sometimes refreshing additions to the state-of-the-art of research on metal housing for the tropics. Olivier Delarozière writes on a model of a “maison démontable en fer pour colonies” (Delarozière, p. 21), scale 1/10, which has been part of the collection of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (cnam) since 1890. It leads to a fascinating history of the construction company Moreau Frères, which acquired a strong reputation in metal construction after 1850, both in France and abroad. Employing several hundred people in its heyday, the company has now almost completely disappeared into the folds of historiography. Although belonging to different centuries, Moreau and Prouvé acted according to similar principles and objectives: for instance in terms of materials, the preference for a speedy assembly process, and raised roofs providing ventilation. In hindsight, it is striking that the story of this house intended for the colonies takes shape mainly from unilateral “French” sources. The search yields valuable material from a construction-history point of view, but on-site research into the remaining dwellings and archival material would do more justice to the colonial context. Hélène Vacher’s contribution deals with some of the building systems that made their appearance in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, in particular the Danish system Døcker (based on compressed cardboard) and the French system Espitallier (which made the transition from cardboard to metal). The background of this story is mainly military and medical: the nineteenth-century conquests required immediate and healthy housing and hospitals for the army, without any need to assimilate with or fit within the local context. This contribution also recalls the importance of competitions and exhibits at World’s Fairs for this specific, but particularly vibrant and volatile, segment of the construction industry. Reaching the interwar period of the twentieth century, the next two essays are complementary to each other. Laurent Poupard retraces the evolution and development (in terms of use of materials, structural system, clients and field of application) of the five different types of metal dwellings developed and industrialized from the 1920s to the 1960s by Ferdinand Fillod, a constructor-inventor at heart. In the end, Fillod did no better than Prouvé in achieving the goal of producing a cheap metal dwelling on a large scale, either in France or abroad. The traces of Fillod’s productions abroad, in particular those on the African continent, are discussed by Karine Thilleul. In the absence of a company archive, she relies mainly on journal articles and exhibition reviews. This direct competitor of Prouvé may not have enjoyed the same recognition within architectural circles. But his publicity convinced the press, and he was supported by the metal federation. Prouvé was familiar with the work of Fillod: a photograph of a Fillod hangar taken by Prouvé in 1959 in Algeria, and which served as illustration material for his lectures at the cnam, was found in Prouvé’s archives. In the final essay of the first part, Bernard Toulier fully explores the African context: he describes how La Maison Métallique Grames, a producer of metal joinery, tried to expand and consolidate its market share in Africa in the mid-twentieth century. Grames developed an “African strategy” in which prospection, site visits, and connections with local officials, architects, and engineers were key. In addition, to bridge the gap between production in the French factory and the construction on site, Grames erected local agencies, warehouses and assembly workshops in the colonies. The strategy was aligned to the 10-year colonial development program and was likewise revised when this program came to an early end: prices were adjusted and new types were developed, in order to be competitive with wooden joinery. Grames also successfully exported this strategy to the Belgian Congo from 1953 onwards, where the economic boom was a few years behind Brazzaville. Through the contact with other networks, competitors, systems, and a different building culture, Grames made metal joinery become “un vecteur de transfert technique et culturel en milieu colonial” (Toulier, p. 77).

  • 8 Tristan Guilloux has written elsewhere on the Maison tropicale, see Tristan Guilloux, “The Maison (...)

4Tristan Guilloux opens the second part of the publication with an essay on the characteristics of the modern colonial dwelling. The climate, in particular the wind and the sun, is central to the debate.8 Wind and sun determine the architectural orientation, but also the general layout and design. The veranda, for example, was omnipresent until 1930 but gradually lost its “panacea” power. The choice of metal versus concrete is also dealt with, as are the (indigenous) way of life and the urban landscape of the ville blanche - ville noire. From this point of view, it is hardly surprising that the ambition of the tropical house was never fulfilled. The prototype did not match the 1950s notion of modernity in Brazzaville, either in terms of materials or in terms of how the architecture aligned with the specific context. Catherine Coley describes in her contribution how not only the architectural characteristics, but also Prouvé’s business insights (or rather the lack thereof) and misplaced trust in his partners, led to “un désastre” (Coley, p. 97). Coley returns to the summer of 1949, when Prouvé received a delegation from the Ministry of Reconstruction and the French aluminum federation l’Aluminium français in his Ateliers in Maxéville. Although the visit was not organized in relation to the tropical house, it turned out to be a key moment in its development, since the house was standing in the center of the workshop, monopolizing the visitors’ attention. Ordered by the Nigerian government a scant three months earlier, it was now completed and about to be sent off to Niamey. Barely 10 days later, Prouvé signed a contract with the company Studal, which is part of l’Aluminium français. The contract offered Prouvé the necessary financial, logistical, and commercial support for his African adventure. However, Prouvé’s commercial agent was (rightfully) worried about two clauses in the contract, which stipulated that Studal held the right to let other companies produce the elements developed by Prouvé. When these other companies explored the colonial export market, with parts designed by Prouvé and with the support of Studal, Prouvé’s tropical house was de facto eliminated from the market. However, the total disillusionment with which Prouvé buried the tropical house in 1952 did not prevent him from embarking on a new project in 1958 for a light metal dwelling designed for extreme climatic conditions, in particular the Sahara house. Joseph Abram retraces how Prouvé stepped into this new adventure together with the Atelier lwd (architects Lagneau, Weill and Dimitrijevic) and Charlotte Perriand. As with the tropical house, Prouvé did not compromise on the pragmatics of the production process or the climatic conditions. This time this approach resulted in a kind of large parasol and small, climatized closed cells beneath it. Yet this house, as well, failed to get past the stage of a prototype. Franz Graf elaborates on the design philosophy that characterizes Prouvé’s oeuvre, in particular the tropical house and the Sahara house, but also the prefabricated school buildings for Cameroon. Departing from the (modern) materials and machines at his disposal, Prouvé achieved an “instrumental architecture” that reconciled functional and comfort requirements (including thermal and acoustic insulation, impermeability, ventilation, condensation, thermal expansion, etc.) with a minimum of technical means. Graf also questions whether the technology or approach behind the tropical house is obsolete today: from a prospective instead of a purely historical perspective, the use of natural ventilation, simple mechanical systems and mostly recyclable materials can be associated with the current demands for durable and sustainable building. Christian Enjolras -the architect in charge of the restoration of the tropical house- also invites us to stray from the merchandising and post-modernization of Prouvé’s oeuvre. The technical field of research for the tropical house, in particular the predominant postulate for light materials (which in retrospect was particularly suitable for the humid climate in Brazzaville, as opposed to the dry climate in Niamey), can be particularly instructive in the search for a contemporary version of a naturally ventilated dwelling in a humid, tropical climate.

  • 9 Johan Lagae, « Discipline autonome ou pratique instrumentale ? L’architecture d’après-guerre en Af (...)

5In the book’s final contribution, Olivier Cinqualbre recalls the journey the house has made since the beginning of the twenty-first century and Rubin’s intentions to turn the house into a travelling exhibition. Rubin wrote about this himself in the chapter on the “Preservation, Presentation and Reception” of the house in Cinqualbre’s 2009 book. The traveling aspect was considered to be essential to fully exploiting the house as an educational tool, but it turned out to be detrimental to its conservation: although deliberately designed as a lightweight Meccano package to be sent halfway across the world and erected in very difficult circumstances, the house suffers from the frequent disassembly. Fortunately, the disassembly has already been filmed several times and can be viewed online. Just as Vacher and Thilleul write in the introduction, Cinqualbre concludes by stating that the 2012 exhibition and colloquium have yielded new insights on the house, yet still leave paths for future research unexplored. In this respect, one example is the stopover the house made in Brussels in 2018-2019 at the Kanal arts center. The accompanying exhibition, commissioned by the civa (Centre International pour la Ville et l’Architecture), offered a critical reflection on an aspect which is only marginally addressed in this issue of Les Cahiers du lhac, except by Toulier and Guilloux (who were, not coincidentally, involved with the 1996 heritage inventory in Brazzaville). The Brussels exhibition showed how the architectural layout and urban planning of numerous housing schemes from that period in the Belgian Congo perpetuated the racial segregation between Europeans and Africans, much as the tropical house did. Johan Lagae, curator of the Brussels exhibition, previously expressed critical reservations about a one-sided discourse in the historiography of African architecture, including the presentation and discussion of Prouvé’s tropical house by Cinqualbre and Rubin.9 Indeed, the tension between the European design and the African context and the notion of cultural heritage are fundamental to the tropical house, back then but certainly also today. Telling in this respect is that during the restoration of the tropical house all the marks and traces left by its former inhabitants were deliberately removed, restoring the house to its “original” state. Perhaps the time has come to let the traveling exhibition halt at the place from which the tropical house was “saved” and to address the African elephant in the room.

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Notes

1 “4,96 millions de dollars pour une maison de Prouvé, chez Christie’s,” Le Monde, June 6, 2007.

2 The references within the text refer to the essays that are part of the publication that is being reviewed.

3 This inventory was initiated and supervised by Bernard Toulier, see Bernard Toulier, Brazzaville-la-Verte. Congo, Nantes: Association pour le développement de l’Inventaire general, 1996 (Images du patrimoine, 62), p. 36.

4 Olivier Cinqualbre, Jean Prouvé : la maison tropicale = The tropical house, Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2009.

5 Hélène Vacher and Caroline Bauer, “Jean Prouvé, de l’atelier à l’enseignement, transmission d’une culture technique,” Les Cahiers du LHAC, no. 1, 2014. The lhac developed extensive expertise in Prouvé’s work, partly from a direct link with the oeuvre: when it was founded in 1970, the Nancy School of Architecture moved into a building designed by Jean Prouvé and Michel Folliasson.

6 The musée de l’Histoire de fer also has a strong link with Prouvé: his son, Claude Prouvé, was involved as a consulting engineer in the architectural design of the museum; three exhibitions on Prouvé’s work took place over the years; and in 2012, a permanent exhibition space, including a “jardin des structures,” was set up.

7 The exhibition also included the documentary by Manthia Diawara showing the “emptied” sites in Niamey and Brazzaville. (Lassère, p. 7)

8 Tristan Guilloux has written elsewhere on the Maison tropicale, see Tristan Guilloux, “The Maison ‘Tropique’: A Modernist Icon or the Ultimate Colonial Bungalow?” Fabrications, vol. 18, no. 2, 2008, p. 6-25.

9 Johan Lagae, « Discipline autonome ou pratique instrumentale ? L’architecture d’après-guerre en Afrique », Perspective, no. 1, 2001, p. 580-586. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/perspective/1057. Accessed 27 July 2020.

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Référence électronique

Stephanie Van de Voorde, « Hélène Vacher, Valérie Balthazard and Karine Thilleul (eds.), Des maisons métalliques pour l’Afrique. La maison tropicale de Jean Prouvé »ABE Journal [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2020, consulté le 17 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/7973 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.7973

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Stephanie Van de Voorde

Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium

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