MIAMI BEACH — With prefabricated housing now essential in addressing housing shortages, emergency relief, and even architecture in Antarctica, the mid-20th century pop-up designs of the late Jean Prouvé are receiving renewed attention. A self-taught architect who was skilled in metalwork, he used the sturdy steel frames newly available for mass production to design mobile military housing in 1939. The only surviving example of this “4×4 Demountable Military Shelter” is on view with the Paris-based Galerie Patrick Seguin at Design Miami, which opened this Wednesday in Miami Beach.
Gallerist Patrick Seguin has nearly 20 of Prouvé’s buildings, which he started amassing long before the architect became a favored 20th-century name for collectors. Last year at Design Miami, Seguin exhibited Prouvé’s design for university housing, and in 2013 the gallery showcased the Maison Demountable, one of the earliest prefabricated homes. Earlier this year at Design Miami/Basel in Switzerland, Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners was invited by Seguin to adapt Prouvé’s 6×6 house from 1944, designed for those displaced in France by World War II, as a compact home for a contemporary audience. Rogers has recently been experimenting with prefabricated architecture like the Y:Cube flat pack house, aimed at being affordable housing for the homeless.
Like all of Prouvé’s work, from desk to doorknob, the 4×4 Demountable Military Shelter is utilitarian, but with a modernist appreciation for lines and material, with angled wood paneling filling in around the steel frame. The design followed those by architects like Albert Frey and A. Lawrence Kocher with their Aluminaire House in 1931, as the availability of industrial materials in the 1930s expanded the possibilities of temporary architecture. The military shelter was designed by Prouvé for two people to construct in three hours. Along with furniture and design objects by fellow 20th-century designers like Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Jean Royère, and Pierre Jeanneret, Galerie Patrick Seguin is also displaying models, archival materials, and photographs related to the shelter’s history.
During World War II, 300 of these shelters journeyed with the 5th Army. None of those examples are known to exist, but this small structure endured, the result of a failed attempt at mass production by the Ateliers Jean Prouvé. It was employed as a gatekeeper’s hut at the Ferembal plant in Nancy, which was demolished in the 1980s. Now for a brief time at Design Miami, visitors can step into the wood and steel space, and step back in time to a mid-century designer’s vision for the future of prefabricated architecture. The room inside isn’t large, but with its wide windows that cover half the walls, wood details, raised floor, and inviting doorway shaded by an adjustable awning, it’s a space designed to feel like a home, if only temporarily.
Design Miami continues at Meridian Avenue and 19th Street, across from the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beach, through Sunday, December 6.