Architect/Designer Jean Prouvé began to design portable and demountable barracks for the French army during the Second World War. After the war, the French government commissioned Prouvé to design inexpensive, effective housing for the newly homeless, prompting him to perfect his patented axial portal frame to build easily constructed demountable houses. Few of these groundbreaking structures were built, making them exceedingly rare today.
Jean Prouvé (8 April 1901 – 23 March 1984) was a French metal worker, self-taught architect and designer. He is also designated as “constructor”. His main achievement was transferring manufacturing technology from industry to architecture, without losing aesthetic qualities. His design skills were not limited to one discipline. During his career Jean Prouvé was involved in architectural design, industrial design, structural design and furniture design.Though lacking any formal education in architecture, he became one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, boldly experimenting with new building designs, materials and methods. “His postwar work has left its mark everywhere,” wrote Le Courbusier, “decisively.”
Working from the postulate that there was no structural difference between a piece of furniture and a building, Jean Prouvé developed a “constructional philosophy” whose artifice-free aesthetic of functionality and fabrication applied the same principles to furnishings and architecture. First produced in small series in the 1930s, his structures were assembled and integrated with the aid of shrewdly designed systems for modification, dismantling and moving of both furniture and buildings.
The genesis of these demountable houses came about in the early 1930s, when Jean Prouvé – up to that point an art-deco-trained metal worker who produced furniture – began to experiment with architectural structures. Entirely self-taught, to Prouvé there was “no difference between the structure of a building and the structure of a table,” as his grandson Serge Drouin explained to Dwell in 2014. By the end of the 1930s, Prouvé had refined his structural system and patented the “axial portal frame”, the two-legged structure that served as the main structural support in all of his subsequent demountable designs.
The Second World War – more specifically the end of the war and the accompanying need to quickly provide shelter to a shell-shocked French populace – provided an opportunity for Prouvé’s demountable houses to finally be put to use. According to the NGO Committee on Human Settlements, the French ministry for Reconstruction and Urban Development placed an order for 800 units, but only half of these were produced after the government soon switched to a strategy of permanent rebuilding rather than temporary housing. This sudden halt in production in France, combined with the French Government’s policies of “cultural exception” enacted after the war, left French Modernists (with the exception of Le Corbusier) “marginalized inside something of a cultural bubble” according to Claudia Barbieri, and Prouvé’s demountable designs languished in architectural obscurity for decades.