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Plastic house originatorgets a show at last . . .

letter from france

Winds of fashion whip harder in architecture than any comparable cultural discipline. For an architect like Ionel Schein (this is his first-ever exhibition), once famed as a pioneer, subsequent achievements of disseminators and derivationists obscure the original. 'Who-did-it-first' seems even more vulgar in the context of architecture than its fertile home of art history; any serious architect knows what they have done and should not care about ephemeral reputation. That is almost a definition of an architect, learning over decades to steel oneself against a level of neglect, scorn or disinterest that would destroy an equivalent artist. Not caring if you are forgotten is every architect's final skill.

Schein invented the 'plastic house' for a housing exhibition in 1956. That may now suggest kitsch, but the elegance of the building and its place in a micro-history of utopian design links him radially to a veritable spider's web of figures from Buckminster Fuller to Nigel Coates. Schein's maison plastique was as famous as the Maison de Verre, and a corridor leading to this new show has been wallpapered with press coverage, a fraction of the 6000 articles the exhibit attracted worldwide. The Daily Mail described it as 'a housewife's dream come true'; however, the article ends: 'A house of the future will be shown at the Ideal Home Exhibition. This imaginative glimpse into the future is an even more stimulating conception than this French house.' First tremor of a future trauma: this plastic house was signed Alison & Peter Smithson, and, though not intended for mass production like Schein's, it stole his legend.

Schein's design was a spiralling 'Vache Qui Rit' of slot-in segments, a new model of which has been created by a young practice aligned to Peter Cook, who contributes an essay to the forthcoming catalogue which acknowledges the origins of Plug-In City. Schein's belief in a democratic, flexible architecture 'for everyone', and a fascination with synthetic materials, predated not just Archigram but an entire Pop sensibility. Even Reyner Banham hailed him as the lost hero of the dream of mass-production. Schein's house was of 15 different plastics, coloured yellow, red or blue. They could be easily transported and assembled, and the built-in furniture sprayed clean with a hose. This may sound like an sf fantasy, but the idea of plastic dwellings exploded following Schein's proposition, with more than 70 prototypes produced until the oil crisis (and concrete lobby) put an end to production in 1974. Schein's house was sponsored by the French coal board and Elle, industry and fashion symbolically twinned.

Schein developed small hotel cabins which, studied by Kurokawa, became those capsule hotels synonymous with Tokyo. In 1957 Schein designed a mobile library, its models and sketches utterly charming. The frac Centre, based in Orleans, is owner of the Schein archive and unsung originator of this and many other exhibitions. Under the direction of Frederic Migayrou and Marie-Ange Brayer, this small organisation has embarked on an ambitious programme that every year seems more important. After deciding to collect architecture, the initial emphasis was on stars of a transatlantic bent, but the focus has shifted to a chain of European Modernists whose importance was overlooked, including Claude Parent, Emmerich and Andre Bloc. As the only interested parties, Migayrou and Brayer were either donated archives or bought key works for pennies. An overtly fetishistic archivist, frac displays vitrines of Schein's correspondence with famous architects, proto- Post-it notes covered in quotes, sketchbooks and rich ephemera.

Schein, born in Bucharest in 1927, is a voraciously curious intellectual, and the exhibition rightly casts him as writer, historian and theorist as much as engineer. However, even if the show is specifically called 'Autour de la maison en plastique', it seems somewhat curt considering the length of his career to concentrate on the building of a 29-year-old student. In fact, almost everything in this show was created before Schein was 30. Perhaps that explains its contagious optimism, and an idealism almost unimaginable today.

Ionel Schein, 'Autour de la maison en plastique,' Ecole superieure des beaux-arts de Tours, Jardin Francois 1er, BP 1152, tel: 33 2 47057288 Until 12 June, Mon-Fri 14.00-18.00, Sat 12.00-18.00. The first monograph on Schein will be published at the end of June by Editions hyx (tel: 33 2 38420326)

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