The Paradoxical Popularity of Jean Prouvé's Demountable Houses

The Paradoxical Popularity of Jean Prouvé's Demountable Houses

In this video, one of Jean Prouvé's famous 1944 demountable houses - in this case a 6-meter by 6-meter variation - is rapidly constructed on a beach, showing off the design's ruthlessly efficient structural system and sequence of construction. The video is one of a series in recent years, almost always published in a time-lapse format, that show off how quickly this early example of mass-produced, temporary social housing could be put together.

The video, as with others before it, is an interesting look at such an early example of small-scale modular buildings - but with the advances made in material and manufacturing technology in the 70 years since its design, the building is hardly a revelation in how to create buildings quickly and cheaply. So what's behind all this interest in the Prouvé demountable house?

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.

Interior of the demountable house adapted by RSH+P in 2015. Image Courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

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.

Fast-forward to the 2010s, and Prouvé's demountable houses are seeing a sudden increase in attention. Where has this new-found interest come from?

A demountable house installed by Bally at Design Shanghai 2015. Image Courtesy of Forward

The short answer to that question is "Galerie Patrick Seguin." Founded in 1989 to promote 20th century French design, and has made something of a mission of collecting as many examples as possible of the four-hundred-or-so completed demountable houses. In an article for Modern Magazine, Claudia Barbieri explains how Patrick Seguin helped to turn this largely forgotten example of postwar necessity into an icon of mid-century design.

"Seguin’s insight was that the narrative could be reversed," comments Barbieri. "He sells Prouvé’s elegantly uncluttered structures to wealthy collectors as installation art." It is these sales, and the wealthy collectors whose attention is required for them, that are the source for much of the coverage of the Demountable Houses in recent years: the videos above were produced by the international auction house Phillips, in preparation for the sale of houses from the Galerie Patrick Seguin's collection, while another time-lapse example came from furniture brand Bally, who installed a demountable house at Design Shanghai and later at Art Basel Miami to act as a kind of showroom for their luxury products.

A demountable house installed by Bally at Design Shanghai 2015. Image Courtesy of Forward

But like so much of modernist design, the value of Jean Prouvé's work - at least for architects - lies not so much in the rusted steel and weathered wood of the original structures, but in the ideas that underpin the design. There's a reason, after all, that Prouvé chose to patent the axial portal frame rather than simply relying on copyright to protect his intellectual property.

In the 21st century, at a time when architects are becoming increasingly interested in addressing issues of mass housing on a number of fronts, the demountable house shows its age. It offers nowhere near the material or economic efficiencies of a design such as IKEA's refugee housing, and by now the idea of even temporary state-sponsored social housing that included neither electricity, nor plumbing, nor insulation would be unthinkable. That's not to say there isn't value in Prouvé's design, but without adaptations it remains nothing more than a historical architectural curiosity.

There has already been one attempt to modernize the design of the demountable house, to their credit also commissioned by the Galerie Patrick Seguin. Last year, they invited Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to update the design, and the firm added bathroom and kitchen modules to the exterior which provided off-grid power and water. This design, however, was envisioned as a one-off, short term vacation retreat - still a far cry from the mass-produced, socially-focused intent of the original.

Design of the demountable house adapted by RSH+P in 2015. Image Courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

If the demountable house is to be a topic of architectural conversation again, isn't it high time we reconstructed its ideals along with its ageing original structures?

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Cite: Rory Stott. "The Paradoxical Popularity of Jean Prouvé's Demountable Houses" 23 Feb 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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