Architect Ivan Harbour on Bringing Jean Prouvé’s Prefab Homes into the Present
Adaptations are precarious by nature. A careful equilibrium between ingenuity and acknowledgment must be struck in order for one to be successful. However, it isn’t until one is tasked with the duty of reimagining a canonical work—say for instance, one of Jean Prouvé’s iconic modular homes—that one feels the full effect of the inherent comparison. For Design Miami/ Basel, Galerie Patrick Seguin teamed up with Richard Rogers and his London-based architecture firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), to develop a new 6m x 6m Demountable House, a contemporary reinterpretation of the late designer’s 6X6 Demountable House (1944). The side-by-side is surprisingly favorable.
When Seguin approached the RSHP, his vision was to transform Prouvé’s deployable dwelling into a holiday home that his collectors could install anywhere from the Swiss Alps to the South of France. Initially created to rehouse World War II victims, Prouvé’s square structure provided a challenging case study for the firm—especially given the protective nostalgia surrounding the late architect. Rising to the occasion, the RSHP team surpassed the specifications of Seguin’s assignment by designing an adaptive prototype that has the potential to be mass-produced and applied to other historical models. Outfitted with an electrical system powered by solar panels and a recycled grey water system, the new structure is self-sustaining and luxuriously restrained in a way that doesn’t takeaway from the poetic engineering of the original. It a masterful balancing act that feels perfectly aligned with Prouvé’s legacy as a pioneer and a humanist. Before the fair, we chatted with architect Ivan Harbour, one of the partners at RSHP, who gave us insight into the relevancy of Prouvé and the precautions they took in protecting his spirit.
Artsy: What about Prouvé makes his work relevant today?
Ivan Harbour: As architects, we are of the belief that good design can deliver great places. Of course, good design isn’t about spending money, but judging things well and responding to physical needs, the most basic of which is putting a roof over our head. Post-war, Prouvé was trying to solve a real problem. What he did was quite extraordinary—he was a brilliant engineer. In a way, it’s a shame that it didn’t take off. It could’ve been more spectacular. I think we are continuing in that tradition by thinking about these homes not just as conceptual spaces, but prototypes that could become mass-produced solutions for disasters.
Artsy: What was your guiding philosophy when tackling this project?
IH: The 6x6 house is a very modest building. To the uninformed eye, it looks like a shed. The beauty is in the engineering and concept. When Patrick Seguin asked us if we could adapt it, our approach was to leave the simplicity of the house as it was. Rather than working within the box, we worked outside the box by placing the components you need for modern day living on the periphery of the building. The one thing we insisted on was that the home be autonomous. We wanted to create something within the spirit of Prouvé where you could bring the pieces anywhere and erect a structure that could genuinely be operated completely independent of any network—a home that recycled its own water and generated its own energy. The idea was that the finished prototype could be installed almost anywhere in the world. By placing all the components for electric and water under the home on trolleys we were able to achieve a lightweight solution that didn’t disrupt the preexisting framework.
Artsy: What precautions did you take in preserving the existing aesthetic?
IH: In regards to materials, we followed Prouvé’s palette. The 6x6 house has an aluminum roof, timber walls, and a steel structure. Those materials are repeated through the kitchen and bathroom we added. There’s a certain resonance between those elements. They give the shed a sense of importance. By adding on to the existing structure instead of trying to chop up his space, we elevated the box without disrupting those harmonies.
Visit Galerie Patrick Seguin at Design Miami/ Basel 2015, Galleries, Booth G19, June 16–21.