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Travelling light

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review - Jean Prouvé - Complete Works, Volume 3: 1944-1954 By Peter Sulzer. Birkhauser, 2005. 384 pp. £72

Somewhat like Buckminster Fuller in the United States, and perhaps Walter Segal in England, Jean Prouvé was a maverick figure who, while he may never have become an architect himself, gave clear guidance to the profession and enjoyed great influence over it, much of it surviving to this day.

Born into a wealthy family in 1901 in Nancy, northern France, he was apprenticed to the artistic metal worker Emile Robert, a noted exponent of Art Nouveau. Through his father's political connections, he was soon given important interior and furniture design commissions, which in turn led to contact with the French architectural avant-garde of the 1920s. As a consequence, his interests widened and he became more concerned with structural matters.

By 1930, he had developed a light foldedmetal portal-frame system for housing, which led eventually to what are claimed to be the first true curtain-wall buildings in Europe - the clubhouse for a private airfield at Buc (1938), and the Maison du Peuple at Clichy (1937-39).

Perhaps more interesting are the drawings, patents and photographs of the dozens of prefabricated dwellings and sheds that made up Prouvé's Maxeville factory complex, built on the site of an old cement works on the banks of the River Meurthe.

This third of the promised four volumes of Prouvé's oeuvre complète covers 19441954 - a period overshadowed not only by the political and social disorder that accompanied the liberation of France from four years of German military occupation, but also by the tremendous efforts that were being made under the aegis of the Marshall Plan to house the millions of displaced people ranging across the whole continent.

Initially, both these factors worked in favour of Prouvé's development of light folded-metal housing systems, and led to a considerable expansion of his new Maxeville complex. There were projects for the housing of war victims, shown here for the first time.

There was a fruitful collaboration with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, and the successful use of a prefabricated system for the houses at Meudon (see picture). But somehow all this failed to produce any synergy and - in circumstances that are still unclear today - Prouvé ended up losing control of his factory altogether in 1953.

It was not until much later, when Prouvé became involved with larger projects again, such as the big portal-frame building for Electricité de France, and the housing with moveable room-partitions on the Côte d'Azur (which was a collaboration with Henri, his architect brother), that his sure touch returned. An account of this last phase of his life is awaiting publication in Sulzer's volume four (1955-84).

The first thing that strikes one about the present book is its size and weight - so heavy that both hands seem necessary to prevent it from falling apart when picking it up. But, of course, this fear of disintegration is misplaced, as is the impression of this book's massive length. For the volume is in English and French with a single run of images, the vast majority in monochrome; which is short-form for the world of Jean Prouvé, locked in his own period by its own technology - given life by Sulzer's heroic attempts to transcend its limitations.

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