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James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
26 May 2007

Jean Prouvé (1901-84) was one of the revered figures in mid-20th-century modernism. Le Corbusier referred to him as a constructeur, there being no precise term for his combination of activities in the fields of architecture and design. He ran his own factory workshop in France, from which, in the aftermath of the second world war, he produced three prototype prefabricated metal bungalows that were supposed to answer the building needs of the French colonies. One went to Niamey in Niger, the other two to Brazzaville in the Congo. The design was not immediately popular with the French officials who were supposed to live and work in them, so no more were made.

Meanwhile, the French colonial era was coming to an end, and the perceived need that the maisons tropicales were supposed to meet might well have been considered out of date. That need, as Prouvé saw it, was for mass-produced houses, like mass-produced cars, cheaply available for transportation by airplane to colonies where local materials and building skills were (supposedly) not available.

In recent years an obsessive fan of Prouvé's houses, Eric Touchaleaume, tracked down and bought up the three prototypes, one of which is currently on display in New York, by the Queensboro (or 59th Street) Bridge. It is due to be auctioned by Christie's on June 5, when it is expected to fetch between $4m and $6m.

A more exciting backdrop for a metal bungalow could hardly have been chosen. From the patch of waste ground in the shadow of the great bridge - one of those amazing super-lifesize structures that link Manhattan to the neighbouring boroughs - on newly constructed decking through which, impressively, the shoots of Japanese knotweed are already pushing their way, one can view the city skyscrapers from an optimum distance. Nothing would induce one to come to this spot without a clear sense of purpose (it is slap bang next to a notorious housing project) and a good idea of how one was going to get away afterwards.

The bungalow has been jacked up on metal stilts, not part of Prouvé's original design. Surrounded by a traditional veranda, but with metal railings and louvred metal shutters (where in most of the tropics one would find wood and various forms of matting or thatch), the house has a double skin, the outer layer designed to keep off the heat. The walls themselves are pierced with small portholes of blue glass, allowing a muted daylight within. There is an adjustable ventilation system, which is supposed to be mosquito-proof, using the space between the roof and the false ceiling.

It occurred to me, having lived in the tropics in more than one traditional version of such a house, that one would have to be alert to damage by rats, and to expect early colonisation by lizards. I very much doubt that the structure would have stayed mosquito-proof for long. But the adjustable ventilation system seems reasonably convincing. These houses, although designed in a spirit that consciously said "We can produce houses in the way we produce cars, changing models as the years go by", were nevertheless built to last, and last they did. Although the model in New York has been extensively restored (it was riddled with bullet holes), it has in essential respects lasted for 50 years. And that, in the tropics, is a long time. A comparable bungalow made with traditional materials would have to be continually renewed. (Of course, the traditional materials are renewable, so the system has its advantages.) Nothing in the tropics is very old.

If you were going to buy the prototype (its high price is supposed to reflect its iconic status as a piece of design), you might want to fit it out with Prouvé furniture, some examples of which Christie's are offering in the same sale. The look that you might seek to achieve would be that of the Air France buildings in the French colonies in the 50s, including Prouvé's aluminium and steel demountable dining table, or the smaller version with its Formica top. A set of four stacking chairs in steel and plywood (found in a Prouvé house in Niger) would be perfect at $40,000-$50,000.

The catalogue of the June 5 sale is extremely interesting, consisting mainly of works that the same obsessive dealer has extracted from Le Corbusier's model city of Chandigarh. The designers who are celebrated (apart from Le Corbusier and Prouvé) are Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. But it's hard to know whether to be impressed by the collection that is up for sale, or depressed that all this furniture has left the Chandigarh institutions for which it was made: the high court, the assembly, the Punjab university hostel for boys and girls, the college of architecture, the general hospital, and so on. (You can view the catalogue online at by putting in the sale number, 1928.)

What we are being told about in this catalogue is a vision and idealism in design that was put at the service of French imperialism on the one hand and post-imperial India on the other. In the context of the Air France commissions, it comes across as propagandistic for postwar France in a period of active, doomed colonialism. In the context of Chandigarh, many of its elements reappear. Now they are idealistic, speaking to independent India after the city of Lahore had been allocated to the newly established Pakistan and a new capital of Punjab had to be made, with new institutions and monuments, in vast expanses of concrete.

It's a total design, and you can (given the cash) buy anything from the manhole covers and light fittings to architectural models and designs, furniture and photographs by Suresh Sharma, dating from 1965, in which the huge spaces of Le Corbusier's vision are presented as no doubt they were meant to be seen. You have to know it already to know that it is India, for the rhetoric is international. In the context of the sale, it seems like something once imperiously given to India which is now, just as imperiously, being taken back.

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