May 31, 2007

Jean Prouvé's Maison Tropicale in New York

In the last two weeks, there has been much hype accompanying the imminent New York auction of Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale. One of three prototypes developed by Prouvé around 1950 for the French colonial administration, the prefabricated aluminum bungalow has been recently restored and is currently sitting on a vacant lot in Long Island City, Queens, waiting for someone with a spare five or six million dollars to take it home. Prouvé was a designer dedicated to economy of materials and construction and the Maison certainly looks like a model of industrial efficiency. Elevated on steel stilts, the Maison’s main space is hidden between a louver system hanging from the extended eaves and a metallic balcony below. The sliding aluminum panels that make up the “walls” are punctuated with blue glass portholes, making it look like something from retro science fiction film, particularly from the interior which fills with blue light. The open interior space has a wooden slatted floor, broken only by thin metallic pillars, its decorative scheme a decidedly neutral cream and green. But it is the Maison’s story that is perhaps most appealing, at least to the press. The narrative has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster in the Indiana Jones mode: a forgotten masterpiece by an almost-forgotten modernist designer, rescued from the war-torn jungles of the Congo, then lovingly restored and triumphantly displayed by the East River with spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline.

Much of the media hype has been generated less by Prouvé’s design than by the phenomenal prices his furniture has commanded at auction in recent years. It seems that the “revival” of Prouvé has been driven almost entirely by the market. Not long after I read about dealers scouring French provincial schools in search of Prouvé “originals”, I noticed in the recent rehang of MoMA’s design collection a Prouvé school desk from 1937 (mass produced steel and oak and looking very rigid, institutional and uncomfortable), purchased by the museum in 2005. Certainly MoMA has fallen for the hype. And hype is the right word, for the Maison Tropicale is currently the centerpiece of a major auction of furniture by Prouvé, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret. This follows a “tour” of the Maison to key American institutions in the last few years, including UCLA and Yale (with accompanying lectures and seminars). Although I should reiterate here the fact that there are two Maisons from Brazzaville, and it is a little hard to work out if the touring Maison is the same as the New York one. But for the purposes of my argument here, it doesn’t matter.

While the multi-million dollar price tag attracts headlines, from a design perspective, critics have noted Prouvé’s efficient modernist design that complements his elegantly constructed furniture, his obsession with standardization and new industrial technologies. Indeed, a prefabricated, mass produced aluminum box such as the Maison Tropicale seems to embody Le Corbusier’s concept of the house as a “machine for living in”. Robert Rubin, former Wall Street trader, Prouvé collector, now Prouvé scholar, described the Maison thus in a recent article: “…the Tropical House of Brazzaville (1951), recently exported from the Congo and restored in France, has recovered its original identity as an industrial object.” (Robert Rubin, “Preserving and Presenting Prefab: Jean Prouvé’s Tropical House”, Future Anterior, Volume 2, Number 1, Summer 2005). The house’s identity has been recovered by Rubin and other critics – it is an industrial object. It is also, as newspaper critics have discussed (see links below), a design object, an architectural object and an extremely rare and valuable commodity. However, what interests me is how presenting and representing (in text and images) the Maison Tropicale as a modernist industrial object conceals its other, perhaps more important identity – as a colonial object, colonial both in the context of the French colonial project of the 1950s and also in the context of its contemporary “rescue” from the jungles of the Congo to the self-proclaimed capital of culture, New York. Furthermore, as emblematic of a particular tendency of European interwar modernism, does the Maison embody an intimate relationship between design modernism and colonialism?

From Prefab to Colonial Modernism

Born in Nancy, Prouvé was originally an ironworker who worked with Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens and other modernist architects in the early 1930s, before branching out into furniture design and production, and later into architecture. He belonged to the French modernist generation of the interwar years that believed they could create a new world using industrial materials and processes. With surfaces stripped of decoration, they aimed to mass-produce affordable designer objects, including houses. Prouvé believed that architecture needed to get “up-to-date” with other industries in its utilization of mass production and prefabrication techniques. His first prefabricated houses in the late 1930s were vacation homes made of steel that could be quickly erected or disassembled. During the Second World War, he produced prefabricated barracks and other structures for the French military and continued his work immediately after the war with prefabricated emergency shelters. In 1947, he was approached by the French colonial authorities to produce affordable mass produced housing for colonial officials in West Africa. This commission resulted in three prototypes, produced between 1949 and 1951 – one was shipped to Niamey (now in Niger) in 1949 and the other two to Brazzaville (now in the Republic of Congo). The Niamey one is currently being restored, one of the Brazzaville prototypes is now on permanent display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the other is waiting in Queens for a new home.

The colonial relationship is ultimately one of power and domination, and it is important to consider the Maison in the light of this relationship. In two books written about Prouvé, I could find nothing about his attitude towards colonialism, nor any evidence that he ever visited France’s East African colonies (see: Sulzer, Peter, Jean Prouvé: Complete Works, Basel : Birkauser, 2000 ; and Huber, Benedikt, and Jean-Claude Steinegger, Jean Prouvé, Prefabrication: Structures and Elements, New York : Praeger, 1971). He was not known as a theorist, and his writings on design tend to focus on industrialization, new technologies and techniques. However, Prouvé and other French modernists of the interwar generation were part of that French generation that witnessed the 1931 French Colonial Exposition in Vincennes – a colonial fantasyland featuring a host of native architectures, all of which aimed to reinforce the French civilizing mission. France had high-tech machines and industrial production processes, while the colonies were clearly filled with primitive peoples living pre-industrial lives. Though the Surrealists didn’t fall for this vision and staged their own counter-imperial exhibition (in conjunction with the Communist Party), I’m not so sure about modernist designers and architects. It was a modernist truism, after all, that European modernism was universal and its design was appropriate for any situation, regardless of the local cultural or environmental context. Add to this the modernist belief in a rational and scientific approach to design that could be objective (Prouvé particularly was keen on this) and modernist design could be co-opted into the European colonial project with ease.

One of the keys to colonialism is maintaining difference through reinforcing the “alienness” of the ruling group. Indeed, as Edward Said argued in Orientalism, colonialism is a system of representation as well as a series of institutions (that might include a colonial bureaucracy, as well as military and commercial institutions). Which brings us back to Prouvé’s prefab aluminum house for colonial administrators in West Africa. What better way to demonstrate the superiority of French colonial power than a high-tech industrial machine for living in? What better way to reinforce the inferiority of the “other” than to contrast the high-tech colonial administrator’s machine with their “primitive” huts? Beyond a symbol of France’s industrial superiority, Prouvé’s production process for creating the prefabricated Maison parallels the systematized order of French colonial bureaucracy. Finally, in its attempted control of the environment, devices such as the louver system, the flexible sliding panels and circular “breathing” holes that aim to direct and regulate airflow, and even the insect screens, indicate that the Maison was conceived by Prouvé as an efficient machine for regulating the tropical environment (taken to be not only foreign but hostile). The fantasy of colonial mastery pervades the project. As both a modernist design object and a colonial object, the Maison stands at the logical endpoint of the Enlightenment narrative of progress – here is tangible proof of reason’s triumph over the primitive, the Maison’s rational engineering and industrial production processes could aid the French colonial mission to conquer the primitive heart of darkness in West Africa..

The Heart of Darkness

Well, that was the idea. The reality worked out somewhat differently. The French colonial authorities decided the Maison was too expensive and the colonial administrators in Africa didn’t like the modernist style so it never went into mass production, leaving only three prototypes for contemporary Prouvé collectors to salivate over. Interestingly, for all their industrial efficiency, Prouvé’s prefabricated mass produced houses proved more expensive than expected – presumably working with local materials and builders in the colonies was ultimately a lot cheaper. However, the chapter of the Maison’s story that seems particularly interesting – that is, between arriving in Brazzaville in 1951 and its “rescue” and restoration in recent years – is decidedly sketchy but worth dwelling on briefly.

The French pulled out of the Congo in 1960, leaving it to become the independent Republic of Congo, and the new government aligned itself with the Soviet Union. Like many former African colonies, the Congo struggled both economically and politically in the following decades. What happened to the Maison for the next forty years is unknown at this point. In the early 1990s the country descended into a cycle of civil wars and it seems to have been decidedly unstable since then. Beyond the phenomenon price tag, here another interesting angle for the press emerged – the story of the Maison’s involvement in Congo’s civil war(s?) – and the all-important proof in the form of a bullet hole that remains on the staircase railing (see photo below). I caught the end of the press conference given by Mr Touchaleaume in which he pointed out the bullet hole for the photographers. A press photographer who declined to take a picture of the bullet holes murmured to me, “I come from Brooklyn, ain’t no one interested in the bulletholes out there though.”

In the late 1990s, the Maison’s story resumes – the designer industrial object was “resuced” from this unseemly situation by French antiques dealer Eric Touchaleaume and Robert Rubin, former Wall Street trader/Prouvé collector/Prouvé scholar. It was rediscovered by them, apparently occupied by squatters and overgrown by tropical forests. On the rescue itself, the various newspaper reports I have found skim over the details. Amila Gentleman in The Guardian of August 31, 2004, reported that “there were problems at the border: local authorities refused to let it pass through Customs, arguing that it should remain in Africa”. William Hamilton in the New York Times of May 16, 2007, wrote: “the Maison, occupied by squatters, was sold twice to Mr Touchaleaume, he said, by two parties who each claimed ownership. Mr Touchaleaume added that he also paid the government, with raised patrimonial claims…” Which raises an interesting question – after fifty years in the Congo, who is the Maison’s true pater?

Some time in the late 1990s, the French dealer and New York investor rescued the "orphaned" (Mr Rubin’s term) design icon out of deepest darkest Africa in a kind of boys own adventure story (there’s clearly a Hollywood film in this). But is this rescuing of the orphaned design object any different from the contemporary “rescuing” of other valuable commodities from poor African nations (specifically oil in the case of 21st century Congo, also currently being saved by French and American rescuers). In 21st century New York and Paris, both oil and designer houses are valuable commodities that the “natives” clearly can’t use or don’t value. However, the difficulties Mr Touchaleaume had getting the Maison out of the Congo suggest otherwise – presumably five or six million dollars could potentially go a long way in helping tackle Congolese poverty, childhood malnutrition, access to safe drinking water, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDs, etc. The inequalities of the 1950s colonial relationship are replicated in the 21st century rescue, restoration and triumphant display of the Maison in the self-proclaimed contemporary cultural center, New York.

Ultimately then, the contemporary reproductions of the Maison in text and images reinforce Theodor Adorno’s idea of a “culture industry” dedicated to the self-preservation of the center, producing and reproducing cultural products that represent, in this case, colonial domination as both universal and natural. In its contemporary New York context, the Maison Tropicale, a modernist “gem”, is represented either as an industrial object or exemplar of prefab architecture, a designer object by an almost forgotten genius of French modernism. By focusing on technology, industrial processes, designer price tags and even the accompanying adventure story, the specifics of colonial relationships of power and domination, both in the 1950s and in the 21st century, are naturalized and normalized.

Post Script (June 6): The Maison sold yesterday for $4,968,000.

All photos by D.J. Huppatz

Further links:

Robert Rubin, “Preserving and Presenting Prefab: Jean Prouvé’s Tropical House”, Future Anterior, Volume 2, Number 1, Summer 2005.

Amila Gentleman, "Bullet Holes Extra: A Classic of Modern Design Has Been Saved from Squatters, Snipers and the Congolese Jungle", The Guardian, August 31, 2004.

William L. Hamilton,”From Africa to Queens Waterfront, A Modernist Gem for Sale to the Highest Bidder”, New York Times, May 16, 2007.

Christies Prouvé page.

For more on modernist architecture in Africa, see the ArchiAfrika Conference Proceedings: “Modern Architecture in East Africa around Independence” (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, July 27-29, 2005). This conference included a fascinating article on German modernist architect Ernst May’s urban and architectural projects in East Africa in the 1930s and 40s, including an image of a prefabricated house he designed for Africans (ie. not European colonizers) in Kampala, Uganda. Just don’t tell your hedge fund manager.

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