Jean Prouvé (8 April 1901 – 23 March 1984) was a French metal worker, self-taught architect, and designer. Le Corbusier designated Prouvé a constructeur, blending architecture and engineering. Prouvé’s 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. (Jean Prouvé – Wikipedia, 2015)
Prouve was known all over the world, not just in France. His ideas and accomplishments tell us much about the rocky relationship between architecture and technology at the heart of the Modern Movement. Some say he was the father of “high tech,” greatly influencing Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Rogers, Piano, and others. Prouvé is also a link to the world of the arts and crafts movement in the 1800s. His whole life can be seen as an attempt to bring the principles of high-quality manufacturing to the world of building, which was doomed to fail in the end. (The French Father of High Tech, 1991)
He had been taught to value well-made things since he was young. Victor Prouvé’s artist father was born in Nancy and moved to Paris in 1902. In 1902, he moved back to Nancy and took over for Emile Gallé as president of the Ecole de Nancy, which was set up to promote the decorative arts. Jean learned to work with metal and opened his own shop in Nancy in 1924. His early work showed how art nouveau was giving way to art deco. Prouvé made the fancy gates to the Nancy pavilion at the 1925 Paris exhibition.
But by the late 1920s, he worked with avant-garde designers like Mallet-Stevens and Chareau. He was himself becoming a designer, experimenting with metal furniture and cladding for buildings.
In 1933, he designed his first building, a garage for Citroën conceived on the lines of a contemporary car. The client rejected this radical scheme, but Prouvé was able to complete several other buildings, the most notable of which was the 1937 Maison du Peuple in the Paris suburb of Clichy, which combined a retail market, assembly hall, and offices in a highly flexible, metal-clad envelope that has often been seen as the forerunner of the Pompidou Centre.
In 1929, he helped start the UAM (Union des Artistes Modernes) and was shown at its exhibitions afterwards.
His workshop produced furniture for Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Charlotte Perriand. In 1930, he developed the ‘murrideau’ (curtain wall) replaceable, moveable wall system, the first of its kind; it was based on light metal stanchions. He used it in the 1938 Club House on the Buc airfield and later in the 1958 Lycée at Bagnols-sur-Ceze. In 1932, he designed furniture for the Université de Nancy. All his furniture, except for the reproductions from the 1980s, was sold exclusively by Steph Simon in Paris.
In the 19th century, prefabrication became more common, and the Nissen hut, which was invented in 1916, was probably the first whole building to be made in large numbers. But Prouvé believed that a portable holiday house could be sold commercially. Within a year or two, however, his factory concentrated on manufacturing army barracks. It shifted to building houses for those who had lost their homes due to the war after 1945 (when Prouvé became Mayor of Nancy).
His system for building small metal houses on piles was used to build the airports for Beaudoin and Lods in Buc and the Maison du Peuple in Clichy. He also built prefabricated houses in Meudon-Bellevue in 1949, a temporary school in Villejuif in 1953, an apartment building in Paris in 1953 with Lionel Mirabaud, units with prefabricated concrete cores for Abbée Pierre in 1956, a spa building in Evian in 1957 with Maurice Novarina, and a school in Bagnols-sur-Ceze in 1958 with Daniel Badani and Marcel Roux-Dorlut. 1959 houses in Meudon-Bellevue, 1958 ‘Sahara-type prefabricated houses, 1963 and 1967–69 Free University (with Candilis, Josic, and Woods, and Manfred Schiedhelm) in Berlin-Dahlem, 1967 Congress Hall in Grenoble, 1967 Office Tower (with Jean de Mailly and Jacques Depussé) at La Défense, Paris, and 1968 Total service stations (Byars, 1994)
But hopes for a mass market for factory-built houses proved illusory. In 1956, Prouvé ownership of his own company lost financial control, and the new owners fired him.
The last 30 years of his life saw Jean Prouvé involved in building projects throughout France, yet at one point to a degree from the control of the design process.
But in the 1950s and 1960s, he couldn’t stop developing new ideas. For example, he worked on developing a logical design system for gas stations. Buildings for extreme climates, whether polar or tropical, were another concern.
The buildings that showed Prouvé’s influence the most after the war were the ones that look most like high-tech buildings now. The Palais de la Foire in Lille (1953), the school at Villejuif (1957), the 1967 Palais des Expositions in Grenoble, and the various house projects prefigure Rogers’s Lloyd’s building, Nouvel’s Arab Institute in Paris, and Foster’s Stansted.
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL
Jean Prouvé – Wikipedia. (2015, April 11). Jean Prouvé – Wikipedia. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Prouv%C3%A9
The French Father of High Tech. (1991, January 16). Newspapers.com. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.newspapers.com/image/751447172/?terms=%22Jean%20Prouve%22&match=1