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The work of Jean ProuvĂŠ and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Andrea Botti MSc Advanced Sustainable Design, year 2011/2012 Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture University of Edinburgh


1 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Introduction Jean Prouvé is considered one of the most innovative architectural and furniture designers of the 20th century. He has become a legendary figure since his death in 1984; many of his buildings are national monuments and his design creations eagerly sought by collectors. At once artist, designer, craftsman, architect and engineer, his life and work have been inspirational to contemporary architects. As French architect Joseph Belmont stated, ”he was one of the great pioneers of our time, the inventor of a new industrial architecture, a visionary little understood in France, but known everywhere abroad” (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1989). At odds to most Modernists, Prouvé did not leave behind iconic buildings or bold architectural manifestos; his exceptional contribution was rather his pioneering approach to industrialisation, and to the use of technology in architecture and design. As his contemporary Le Corbusier observed, “Jean Prouvé represents in a singularly eloquent manner, the type of the ‘constructor’ – a social grade – not yet accepted by law but actively wanted by the era in which we live. I mean by this that Jean Prouvé is, indissolubly, architect and engineer. Or rather, architect and constructor, for everything he touches and conceives immediately assumes an elegant plastic form while offering brilliant solutions with regard to strength and manufacture” (LeCorbusier, 1954). The aim of this paper is to identify the main rationale behind his work and how his ideas and remarkable achievements paved the way for the architects of the late 20th century. The essay is divided into four sections: the first introduces Prouvé’s figure, by examining his early influences and the development of his working approach. The second one considers the influence Prouvé had on the late 20th century architecture, specifically the High Tech style, by pointing at some of his most innovative and inspirational work. Finally the focus shifts to the theory and practice of Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano, whose link with Prouvé started with the milestone project of the Centre George Pompidou, and followed legacy of Prouvé’s rationale and approach to the profession of architecture.


2 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Jean Prouvé: poetics of technical “My early meetings with his work were full of surprises. I expected to find a technologist; in fact, I found a painter who was designing great aluminium panels by imagining the effects that light would create on the metal sheets. He was as much artist as engineer”. Belmont’s anecdote (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1989) eloquently describes Prouvé’s uniqueness. A restless creator, he was driven by a thirst for knowledge throughout his life and professional career. Growing up in Nancy, a well-known centre for crafts’ trade and steel industry, he practised as a blacksmith and developed early a progressive attitude and a fervent interest for exploring new industrial developments. A passion that remained “undying and self-revitalising ever since” as Prouvé himself admitted (Peters, 2006). After establishing his own workshop in 1924 he focused his attention on the developments of new materials and technologies and started experimenting with more challenging forms. A few years later he actively participated in the foundation of the Union des Artistes Modernes (U.A.M.), a group of prominent architects and designers who intended to connect the world of art with that of industry. While designing and manufacturing his first pieces of furniture and architectural components (for many of which he was registering patents), he was developing an approach that marked the success of his whole career. His technical knowledge came from continuous intentions and experimentations; he was discovering and testing available options for his design through practice. He drew inspiration from observing in a technical sense, in the strong belief that every idea was founded on technique (Vegesack et al., 2006). He opposed any form of utopian projects, which he considered ephemeral and sterile; on the contrary, he believed that “one should design merely what can be executed”, for “evolution can only result from practical experience” (ibid). Only a complete assimilation of scientific knowledge and the comprehension of craft, or techné would lead to an “honest” design, one that fully unveils the manufacturing process in every detail. The actual construction is in fact the “all-defining” element in Prouvé’s design; it is construction that determines, by necessity, his technical objects (Peters, 2006). He envisioned every project as a collective initiative, based on continuous dialogue and share of information between everyone involved. Under his charismatic leadership and manifold activity, his workshop was conceived as one single space where scientific knowledge, technical skills and creativity were shared by every member of his team. Every stage of production, from design to prototype up to the finished object, was meticulously coordinated and orchestrated by Prouvé. As a consequence he achieved savings in time, cost and manual labour; and more significantly, he managed to make the work of many individuals look like one (Peters, 2006). In his writings and during the famous lectures he held from 1957 to 1970 at the Paris CNAM (Con-


3 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century servatoire National des Arts et Métiers), he had the opportunity to express his critical stands towards the state of affairs in the construction industry and architectural design. The same principles of teamwork that were shaping his workshop, Prouvé insisted, had to be applied on a larger scale, within the domain of industrial production. He argued that the absence of truly collective work, the communication breakdown between manufacture and design and eventually the separation of the latter from the other disciplines were nothing but detrimental to architecture (Prouvé, 1971). Consistently with his progressive mind-set, he envisioned the built environment as a flexible, dynamic and responsive entity. His views on the right lifetime for buildings - 25 to 30 years, so as to leave space for following generations - contrasted with the quest for eternal and monumental that was an unfortunate architectural habitus of his contemporaries (ibid). Highly industrialized products - from aeroplane parts to building elements - he observed, were necessarily in a state of continuous development. This was the reason the construction industry was failing, as it was the only industry that could not keep up with technological progress (Levasseur, 1983).

Fig.01_ Jean Prouvé on a construction site (Briest et al., 2011)


4 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Industry in architecture: the work of Prouvé and the High-Tech The importance of Jean Prouvé is testified by the influence he exercised on the architecture of the late 20th century. He has been universally acknowledged for his milestone achievement of transferring manufacturing technology from industry to architecture, shaping a new architectural language. He is remembered as a key figure in establishing the foundations of the Early High-Tech style. Many famous High-Tech architects have credited Prouvé for his ground breaking work and his innovative force, both being inspirational for their early career. Richard Rogers recognised Prouvé’s tremendous influence on his work and credited him for being “a pioneer in linking the process of construction to the language of modern architecture” (Merlin, 2007). Sir Norman Foster acknowledged that it would be impossible to categorise a man of such manifold skills: “… technocrat / visionary … pioneer/teamworker … innovator/constructor … all the titles are applicable”. Foster manifested particular interest in the relationship between “his creative process, what I perceive as the quest for quality … and the resulting potential for a new aesthetic of the age. Perhaps the ingredient of ‘loving care’ is the true bond with the past” (Levasseur, 1983). It seems relevant for the scope of this paper to present a very short extract of his work, with regards to its most innovative aspects. As a matter of fact, a comprehensive coverage of Prouvé’s work would need a much more extensive treatise, and this paper does not have any such pretension. The series of pre-fabricated buildings Prouvé designed, together with Pierre Jeanneret, between 1939 and 1940 for the S.G.A.L., at Issoire (Fig04) deserve some attention. Here it make its first appearance the central structural spine with an internal cross frame, a structural form that would become one of the main entries in Prouvé’s structural vocabulary. As it has been observed by Foster (2011), after shaping each new structural form, Prouvé played with scale. Central spine and V-shaped cross-frame were then recalled down the scale with Table Compas (Fig03), and up again with the Social Security Building in Le Mans. Similarly, the desks’ undercarriage designed in 1945 for the in workshop in Nancy (Fig04), is matched, at a larger scale, by the tapered portal frame

Fig.02_ Works for S.G.A.L. (Sulzer 2002)

structure of the demountable Meudon Houses (Fig05). Particularly notable is also his design for the demountable houses for refugees in 1944/1945, where the key criteria of quick transportation and simple handling shaped the design, resulting in light-weight components perfectly sized to fit into trucks. These buildings were part of the incredible amount of work and investigation on pre-fabricated houses

Fig.03_ Table Compas, (Sulzer 2002)


5 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century

Fig.04_ Standard Desk, 1942/1943 (Sulzer 2002)

Fig.05_ Portal frame structure (Pedreschi, 2008)

that culminated with the design of the Maison Tropicale, in The Republic of Congo (Fig06). UV-resistant porthole windows, movable sun screens, verandas to optimise shading and natural ventilation in the tropical climate were part of a building that was designed to be both environmentally responsive and easily shipped and assembled (Sulzer, 2002). Finally, it is worth mentioning Prouvé’s most famous

Fig.06_ Maison Tropicale (Pedreschi, 2008)

work, the “Maison du Peuple” in Clichy (Fig07). Designed in 1935 to host multiple functions - a market, union offices, a conference room and a theatre – the building had an open plan and it employed movable partitions to offer large flexibility of use. It was the first building in France to have pre-fabricated curtain walls and it introduced some of the functional and aesthetic features that became a central part of the High-Tech language (ibid).

Fig.07_ Maison du Peuple, Nancy (Sulzer 2002)


6 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris The Centre Pompidou has been broadly accepted as certainly one of the most incisive projects to bring out the High-Tech style to the larger public. Jean Prouvé was honoured to be selected to chair the jury of an international architectural competition launched in 1970, to select a project for a live centre of information, entertainment and culture on the Plateau Beaubourg, right in the middle of historic Paris. Chosen from more than 600 entries, the project was awarded to architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, assisted by Peter Rice of Arup & Partners. They proposed a dynamic machine, highly serviced and made of prefabricated and carefully crafted pieces, serving as a flexible container to overcome the traditional separation of individual departments (Piano, 1989). The high technology content of the project – achieved through a sapient use of the most advanced construction techniques – was awarded by the jury for aiming not merely to create a signature style, but rather to a positive celebration of progress and a break with the past. As Prouvé commented a few years later: “the idea behind it was to give a boost to architectural creativity in these backwardlooking times…to get architects to react violently” (Vernes, 1983). The project contained strong elements of provocation. Its deliberate emphasis on both the functional and formal aspects of technology was the result of Piano and Rogers’s overt intention to break free from the traditionally rigid frame of museums and the intimidating myth of culture, so typical of Paris at the time. As noted by the jury who awarded the 2007 Pritzker Prize to Mr Rogers, the Pompidou “revolutionized museums, transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city” (Pogrebin, 2007). Fig.08_ Centre Georges Pompidou. ©Photos Philippe Migeat, Georges Méguerditchian


7 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Renzo Piano Renzo Piano historically occupies a singular position as both an inheritor of craft tradition in architecture and a precursor of what has been referred to as ‘soft’ or ‘humanised’ High-Tech. As critic Goldberger observed (1989), his projects are marked by a characteristic “light, tensile quality and an obvious love of technology. But where the expression of technology at Beaubourg was broad and more than a little satirical, in the buildings since Beaubourg, it has been straighter, quieter, and vastly more inventive”. Piano always referred to Prouvé as an exemplary figure, a master and his constant point of reference. Growing up in a family of builders, he inherited a passion for construction and a practical culture of doing, typical of craftsmen. Just like his French master, Piano learned through practice “the fundamental truth that one must not separate the head and the hand, the idea and the means of realising it, that architecture is a matter of building, not drawing, and that it must be a deep understanding of materials that gives rise to its forms” (Piano, n.d.). Piano echoes Prouvé in criticising what he considers a pernicious trend of modern and contemporary architects: their progressive detachment and sense of superiority towards other disciplines in the domain of construction. The multi-disciplinary approach that presumes a deep knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of building materials and construction techniques is apparently lost, leaving space for self-isolation confused with a ‘pure’ form of creativity Fig.09_ RPBW_Bamboo node protoype

(Meade & Piano, 1983). Piano never intended to develop a style that merely resulted in a design formula, a formal code to be distinguished from other architects. Echoing his professional forefather, he perceives that such an intention would halt exploration, and put an end to the creative research. The true element of recognition, if there has to be one, should rather be the architect’s personal method of

Fig.10_ Casting of Gerberette (Nakamura, 1989)

exploration (Nakamura, 1989).

The decision to name his practice “Renzo Piano Building Workshop” (RPBW) clearly reveals Prouvé’s influence on his working approach: architecture is a patient play, the result of teamwork rather than an impulsive act of solitary creativity. The workshop is the place where each project is carried out at the general level and in the details, concurrently and from the very early stages. Workshops deliver work methods, rather than styles (ibid).

Fig.11_ Steel node protoype (Nakamura, 1989)


8 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century A perfect prototype: the IBM travelling pavilion Conceived for an IBM travelling exhibition of computer technology around Europe between 1982 and 1986, the pavilion had to be easily disassembled, transported into a different city and quickly set up again. The pavilion was designed as a transparent vaulted structure, 48m, 12m wide and 6m high at the apex, made of polycarbonate moulded pyramids. Functioning both as the glazing system and part of the structural web, the pyramids were fixed togethFig.12_ IBM pavilion (Lisnovsky, 2007)

er to form 34 arched bays.

The elements the pavilion is composed of intentionally celebrate the newest technologies not only technically but aesthetically: the high-performing polycarbonate, for instance, was chosen for its excellent transparency characteristics, essentials for transmitting the feeling of contact with nature. Plywood, chosen for the raised floor, is a high accuracy component that lends itself to “the patient play of craft”, serving almost perfectly Piano’s intentions (Piano, 1989).

Fig.13_ IBM pavilion (Lisnovsky, 2007)

The pavilion represented a remarkable example in prototype craftsmanship. It marked, in the words of its own author, a defining moment in his research of a form of self-expression: an elegant and calm balance of high-tech details and natural techniques or, as it has been often defined, a “soft machine” (Nakamura, 1989). While being one of Piano’s earliest projects, it is no surprise that the IBM pavilion still receives high admirations. The quality of its detailing reveals and celebrates the passion in the design of individual components, a main theme in Piano’s work. Individual elements are here carefully designed and shaped. The complexity of functions and connections of the light-weight, transportable structure achieves a rich architectural composition itself, throwback to the earliest and probably one of the most famous buildings of the Modern Movement: John Paxton’s Crystal Palace (ibid).

Fig.14_ IBM pavilion_ details (Lisnovsky, 2007)

Fig.15_ IBM pavilion_cross section (Lisnovsky, 2007)


9 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century Conclusions As illustrated in this paper, Prouvé principles and works had a remarkable influence on the architecture of the late 20th century, pioneering the industrialisation of building construction. However, it is only recently that architectural critics and the wider public have recognised and appreciated the prominence of his role within the past-century history of architecture. Prouvé has been omitted from history of modern architecture for a long time, presumably because of the complexity and diversity of his work (Peters, 2006). His vision of the built environment as a dynamic and responsive entity and his enlightened view of the profession of architecture are of staggering actuality and receive high consideration from critics. By the same token he demonstrated remarkable foresight in his criticism of the construction industry for its backwardness, addressing some endemic problems that still face the industry today. His pragmatic and unpretentious approach, other than being profoundly inspirational, was capable of blowing away the detrimental dichotomy between architecture and engineering. “Architect? Engineer? Why raise the question, why debate it? The important thing is to build…It immediately makes one realise that the architect has to be an engineer otherwise there is no defendable idea” (Prouvé, 1971).

Fig.16_ Brise Soleil Air France (Briest et al., 2011)

Fig.17_ Fauteuil « Grand Repos » (Briest et al., 2011)


10 The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century References Briest, F., Poulain, H. & Tajan, F., 2011. Structure Nomade. Jean Prouvé. Available at: http://www. artcurial.com/pdf/2011/2022.pdf [Accessed December 20, 2011]. Foster, N., 2011. Foster on Prouvé. Blueprint, (309). Goldberger, P., 1989. Introduction. In Renzo Piano and building workshop: buildings and projects, 1971-1989. New York: Rizzoli International Publications. LeCorbusier, 1954. The modulor: a harmonious measure to the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and mechanics 1st ed., Basel; Boston; Berlin: Birkhäuser. Levasseur, J.-P., 1983. Jean Prouvé, cours du C.N.A.M., 1961-1962, Paris: Institut français d’architecture, I.F.A. Lisnovsky, P.P.A.M., 2007. arquitectura + historia: Delicias: Renzo Piano y el Pabellón Itinerante IBM 1982-1986. arquitectura + historia. Available at: http://arquitecturamashistoria.blogspot. com/2007/11/delicias-renzo-piano-y-el-pabelln.html [Accessed December 20, 2011]. Meade, M. & Piano, R., 1983. Piano Speaks. AR Architectural Review, (August 1983), pp.30-31. Merlin, T., 2007. The many lives of Richard Rogers. Building, (45). Available at: http://m.building. co.uk/comment/the-many-lives-of-richard-rogers/3099458.article [Accessed December 20, 2011]. Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1989. Jean Prouvé: Meubles 1924-53, Bordeaux. Nakamura, T. ed., 1989. Renzo Piano: building workshop, 1964-1988, Tokio: A+U. Pedreschi, R., 2008. The Innovative Lightweight Buildings and Systems of Jean Prouvé. Available at: http://www.epaq.eu/db/docs/081023_07_Pedreschi.pdf [Accessed December 12, 2012]. Peters, N., 2006. Jean Prouvé, 1901-1984 : the dynamics of creation, Köln ;;Los Angeles: Taschen. Piano, R., Paper written for the Association of the Friends of Jean Prouvé. Piano, R., 1989. Renzo Piano and building workshop: buildings and projects, 1971-1989, New York: Rizzoli International Publications. Pogrebin, R., 2007. Top Prize for Rogers, Iconoclastic Architect. The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/arts/design/29prit.html [Accessed December 16, 2011]. Prouvé, J., 1971. Jean Prouvé: Une architecture par l’industrie. Architektur aus der Fabrik. Industrial architecture, Zurich: Éditions d’architecture Artemis. Sulzer, P., 2002. Jean Prouvé Highlights 1917-1944, Birkhäuser GmbH. Vegesack, A. von, d’ Ayot, C.D. & Museum, V.D., 2006. Jean Prouvé: the poetics of the technical object, Vitra Design Museum. Vernes, M., 1983. Jean Prouve: architect-mechanic. AR Architectural Review, (1037), pp.39-42.


The work of Jean Prouvé and its influence on contemporary architecture of the late 20th century