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A visit to Jean Prouvé's Maison Tropicale

It is testament to the genius of Jean Prouvé that his Maison Tropicale, whilst being sensitively designed for the climes of the Congo, looks equally at home in the winter sunshine of London. Its unabashed stance on the grounds of Tate Modern is vaguely reminiscent of a Japanese pergola.

The radiant heaters currently rigged up in the space don’t quite produce enough warmth to fully appreciate the flexible sliding openings, and the watery low sun does not quite warrant the blue-tinted UV glass; but the portholes do give an interesting view of the Thames, as if through swimming goggles or those coloured sunglasses popular in the ‘90s.

Designed between 1949 and 1951 as a prototype housing solution for the French Colonies in Africa, three of the flat-pack steel and aluminium units were shipped to the continent and remained there, until their rediscovery in 2000. Two, of which this example was one, were located in Brazzaville and rescued by all-things-Prouvé bounty hunter Eric Touchaleaume. He personally accompanied his precious find back to France, where the dents and bullet holes of half a century were lovingly straightened and erased. Everything, from the legs on which it stands upwards, is original, and neither time nor human action have managed to disintegrate the beautiful detailing, such as the bare bulb light fittings on the veranda and the just general feeling of ‘a good fit’.

This, the larger of the two Brazzaville Maisons Tropicales, was subsequently bought by hotelier André Balazs for $5 million (£2.5 million) and has been loaned to the UK to coincide with the Design Museum’s current exhibition of Prouvé’s oeuvre. Balazs intends to use his purchase as a model for future luxury accommodation projects – more ‘in the spirit of’ than ‘in the image of’ – although the metal construction feels surprisingly luxurious – less sardine can, more classic convertible car.

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