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Salvaging Prouve

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REVIEW:Jean Prouve et Paris At the Pavillon de l'Arsenal, 21 bvd Morland, Paris, until 31 August

This exhibition, which coincides with the centenary of Prouve's birth, is the closest thing to a full retrospective without actually declaring itself as such. The 'et Paris' part of the title seems less to do with a strict limiting of subject matter than with a symbolic casting-off of the stigma of provincialism that has accompanied his strong association with Lorraine.

Indeed, there is a general sense of recompense and reconciliation in the project's written justification - an acknowledgement that, despite Prouve's undoubted influence on subsequent generations of French designers and architects, the attitude toward his achievements at institutional level has often been less than reverential.

The venue itself - the Pavillon de l'Arsenal - acts as a means by which to place Prouve's work within the context of the wider heritage of metal framework construction in Paris. The exhibition's designer, Dominique Lyon, has used plexiglas for all the display surfaces, so as to maintain the openness and luminosity of the pavilion's upper level, and to present the exhibits close to the original structure.

The scale of this exhibition - and, indeed, the diversity of its changes of scale - has been made possible largely by the involvement of a number of collectors and dealers. Many of the object exhibits - of furniture and actual building fragments - have come from private galleries, particularly those of Philippe Jousse and Patrick Seguin.

Responding to the slump in the art market during the early 1990s, they identified a new market by proposing functional modern objects as art pieces and have subsequently become dedicated salvage merchants of decommissioned Prouve buildings and interiors. One corner of the exhibition shows a reconstruction of a Prouve-equipped student room. This was part of a consignment of the contents of 86 rooms bought from the Cite Universitaire d'Anthony in 1994.

The Anthony rooms had genuinely reached the end of their working life, but the activities of Jousse and Seguin also highlight a significant degree of inconsistency towards the legacy of Prouve until recent times.

Among representative artefacts from destroyed buildings are two panels of the first aluminium curtain wall, from the 'Fedebat' (French Building Federation headquarters), 1949-1997.

The largest reclaimed building fragment is the covered entrance from the Jean Prouve Studios in Le Mans. Beneath it are ranks of furniture designs, including a complete evolution of the 'standard chair'. The formal similarities between the awning and the furniture show how Prouve's work itself involved a constant transference between scales.

There is a considerable barrage of text, video and photographic material to absorb.

The show is arranged in a loop and chronologically, but Lyon's ambition was also to create an effect of collage through the space.

Whereas the juxtaposition of images and forms is often artfully controlled, the mix of multiple audio pieces in the open space is not, and it is difficult to engage with the exhibition's numerous films with any degree of intimacy. (A series of 1930s aluminium telephone kiosks would have made appropriate salvage items there. ) Salvage and archival material aside, the exhibition also provides a useful inventory of existing Prouve buildings in Paris. An obvious starting point for possible followon urban excursions would be the Meridienne of the Paris Observatory, a prime example of how Prouve's characteristic modular components could be applied to a completely atypical project.

But his legacy is also about more anonymous urban hardware, such as the platform shelters with built-in seating at Austerlitz station - so finely attuned and now weathered into their site that they have assumed the aspect of timeless Parisian forms, rather than late '50s additions.

Robin Wilson writes on architecture, art and landscape

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