Behind the Facades

Behind the Facades

The C.N.I.T, Centre Nationale des Industries et des Techniques, La DDdense Puteaux (1955-1959)
Courtesy Birkhhuser

Jean Prouvé: Œuvre complète/Complete Works, Volume 4: 1954–1984
Peter Sulzer
Birkhäuser, $149.85

The recent publication of the fourth and final volume of Peter Sulzer’s catalogue raisonné of the work of Jean Prouvé (1901–84) concludes a quarter-century effort to bring order to the remarkable output of a man who, though neither architect nor engineer, is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in modern architecture. Jean Prouvé: Œuvre complète/Complete Works, Volume 4: 1954–1984 covers the period of Prouvé’s life from his departing the factory he founded at Maxéville, near Nancy, France, to his death at age 83.

Panel Curtain wall. Orleans-la-Source (1965-1968)
Exhibition hall for la société Saint-Gobain-Pont-á-Mousson at the World Fair, Brussels (1958)


Tour Nobel, la Défense, Paris (1964-1966)
Top: Erika Sulzer-Kleinmeier; Center & Bottom: Courtesy Birkhäuser

Prouvé began his career after World War I as an architectural metalworker. He made building elements like lighting fixtures, elevator cages, operating rooms, and sanitorium furnishings. His first complete building in folded sheetmetal, a bus station for Citroën, was completed in 1933. For the rest of his career, he was preoccupied by industrial building systems. After World War II, his Maxéville factory produced both the furniture so sought after by collectors today and the iconic Tropical Houses (1950–1951). In 1953, Prouvé lost control of his factory to his major shareholder, a French aluminum monopoly.

Sulzer’s portrait of the final decades of Prouvé’s life is more nuanced than the various non-academic biographies published to date. These tend to assume that Prouvé in some sense “died” the day he lost his factory, and with it the ability to make architecture using his own means of production and a closed system of Prouvé-designed elements. It is true that some of the massive housing projects to which Prouvé contributed his curtain wall know-how as a consultant were of questionable social merit. But Prouvé readily admitted that he took this work when he had to—often to create jobs for friends and associates—and regretted it.

When he could, he focused on projects like the House for Better Days (1956), a prototype for low-cost housing for the homeless erected on the banks of the Seine by the Abbé Pierre, a cleric and activist. A famously modest man, Prouvé embraced the collective aspects of building, often carrying water for architects by default. His modesty and good will toward architecture was not always reciprocated by practitioners who, in the words of Reyner Banham, were content to “leave the facades to Prouvé.”

Among the highlights of Volume 4 is Prouvé’s own house at Nancy, built of elements scavenged from his factory in the days leading up to his ouster. Pieced together on a steeply pitched plot of land deemed unbuildable by the Nancy bourgeoisie, it is a masterful recycling operation, demonstrating Prouvé’s ability to work with an economy of materials and means. It is not a prototype; rather, it signals the end of an era.

Prouvé’s uncertain position in the industry reflected a growing bureaucratization of architecture and engineering as professions during his lifetime. There was simply no comfortable place in the system for an artisan-entrepreneur. Still, the projects that Sulzer catalogs comprise an essential reference work for an impressive and quietly influential footprint that stretches over three decades.