Jean Prouve Essay, Research Paper
“I am only a man of my time who refuses to copy.” ( Jean Prouve) No other comment could summarize Jean Prouve so simply. He was in every sense ‘of the time’, if not ahead of it. Jean grew up surrounded by artists whose concern it was to make art accessible to all. This philosophy would become the framework for Jean evident in his projects and work ethics. Prouve mainly worked on practical and social projects such as public buildings, market halls, schools, mass housing and furniture. He was not interested in monumental architecture and private villas. Jean Prouve was certainly an important figure in the modern movement concerning himself with new materials, new techniques and preferring simplicity and efficiency over ornamentation and tradition. These priorities lead him to create Maison du Peuple, a landmark of modern architecture, which boasted the first contemporary curtain wall.
Jean Prouve was born on April 08, 1901 in Paris. The same year, his family moved to Nancy where his father, Victor Prouve and his godfather, Emile Galle, founded the “L’?cole de Nancy.”(School of Nancy). Jean’s father Victor was a painter, engraver and Emile was an Art Nouveau designer. At the time, “the industrial center of Nancy was the flourishing scene of a revival of craftsmanship in applied arts. This school came together with the intent to make art readily accessible, to forge a relationship between art and industry, and to articulate a link between art and social consciousness. The goal was to make beautiful objects widely available through mass production. “ A sound building must measure up to the location and the style, and the execution must be as simple and logical as possible (…), it must not be blocked by anything and it must be out in the open (…), but what is essential is the structure ( of a piece) of furniture, the architecture of (a) vase, and their precise location….” These words could certainly be attributed to Jean Prouve, “but they are actually the words of his godfather, Emile Galle, from an article he wrote in the year 1901, the year Jean was born.” Prouve grew up surrounded by the ideals and energy of the school as he later stated, “I was born at the Ecole de Nancy”. Jean and his siblings grew up in this environment of continuous exchange of ideas between artists, intellectuals, and manufacturers. Although Jean Prouv? did not attach himself to any particular aestheticc, the powerful influence of “L’?cole de Nancy” on his work is evident. He has said “I was raised in a world of artists and scholars, a world which nourished my mind. But I was a worker, so I had perfect knowledge of the work and the materials”
Coming from this background, Prouve naturally turned to a career in design. “He was fond of machinery-automobiles, aircraft and bridges-and observed that architecture was not benefitting from new technical improvements. He therefore resolved to fill a need which seemed generally neglected and planned to become an engineer.” However these plans were disrupted with the outbreak of World War 1. During this period, Prouve found work as an ironmonger. Prouv? was first apprenticed to a blacksmith, ?mile Robert, and then to the metal workshop of Szabo. His training with these ironworkers gave Prouve experience in the workshop, a place of artistic production and manufacturing. Here he acquired many skills and was exposed to organized labour based on the sharing of tasks and working class conditions. Prouve opened his own studio in Nancy, in 1923. The manufacturing spirit which drove modern art was already present in the early years of his work. Prouve manufactured wrought-iron objects such as lamps, chandeliers, hand rails and also furniture. Even then, he decided to distance himself from a decorative approach. In fact, he called himself a ‘wrought-iron worker’, and not a ‘wrought iron artist’. “At first the studio turned out such traditional metal items as interior and exterior grilles, staircases and elevator cabs. Gradually, however, Prouve, who by now was professor of ironmongery at Nancy’s Ecole Superieure, began to produce less conventional designs.”
In 1929, Jean was a founding member of the Union of Modern Artists. The manifesto read, “We like logic, balance and purity.” not unlike the principles expounded by Galle at the beginning of the century. As a result of this union, his practice of ironworks as an art was strengthened by a solid experience in manufacturing construction components, interior design objects and furnishings.
When Prouve started work, “industrialization had already begun to transform building methods: the new materials, steel, cast iron and aluminum had been invented, semi-finished products such as sections and sheet metal were already available”. This situation inspired Prouve to use the machines to work the new materials. Jean Prouve became the pioneer of the industrialization of building construction. The finished building elements that left his factory had only to be put into position. He was always ahead of others, coming up with advanced solutions simply by being up to date. Prouve also put great importance on executing an idea immediately. He emphasized this many times, “ I hate to draw things unless Im going to build them. In my factory, we would turn an idea into reality immediately, be it a house or furniture…It’s no use. Things have to me made.” Jean had a very practical practice. He was well-known for working very closely with the all the workmen, taking and considering their opinions and having good relationships with them. As Sulzer explains, “The J. Prouve workshops…were founded on team spirit and the participants’ sense of responsibility, created intelligently conceived products in short runs with the very best tools the age could provide, (and) were responsive to changing needs” Due to his rich background and experience Prouve was named many things including artist/craftsman and architect/engineer. Sir Norman Foster describes that it is, “very difficult to categorise him…technocrat/visionary, pioneer/teamworker, innovator/construcotor, all the titles are applicable, even though they are in contradiction with each other…Jean Prouve is…for me the inspiration that shows how art and technology can be reunified.”
Jean was known to advise new architects to work in the factory. This came from his personal experience. It was his direct knowlegde of materials, and the machines used to work them that was the source of his success. After all, Prouve did not focus on making something only beautiful, but he strove to improve things. Jean Nouvel descibes Prouve very well, “He simply has the great ambition to confront the basic. He makes of simplicity, elementary, logic, honesty his values. It is rare to see such a striking case of ethics producing an aesthetic. An aesthetic result with no concession…Prouve acted as though aesthetics did not exist…His satisfaction came from having resolved a problem. Having resolved it constructively, economically, intellectually.” He realized this could only be possible by using new techniques and new materials. New construction methods allowed not only for the making of things more easily and efficiently but most importantly, for the object itself to be more efficient. This is why Jean concerned himself with being ‘of his time’; because it was the time of the modern movement. Modern architecture, the international style or functionalism as it may be called, made a conscious attempt to assimilate modern technology. Technical progress in the development of materials was evident in the construction of the Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton in London, 1851. In following years iron, steel, and glass determined the form of many buildings, but irrelevant ornament persisted. It was as late as 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was confronted with a public not ready to accept pure structure as beautiful. Indeed, Prouve belongs to this tradition of the avant-garde entrepreneurs, engineers and builders including: Telford, Paxton, Bogardis, Eiffel, Freussinet and Nervi. As he states, “For me, there is no architecture without structure.” A concern of the modern architects became the revealing of the structure and displaying its beauty. Another idea explored by the modern architects starting with Art Nouveau in Europe was the concept of rhythmic flow of interior space and the eliminating of rigid room divisions. “By 1920 the interrelation of building type with materials and function was widely accepted. The concept of buildings as volumes enclosed by massive materials had given way to a concentration on space supported or enclosed by light, thin materials. The idea of enclosure was de-emphasized, so that structural elements themselves came into focus.” There is no doubt the influence these concepts had on Jean Prouve. We can see them evident in one of his ground breaking early works, the Maison du Peuple at Clichy.
“Are our towns, our schools, our public buildings and our houses worthy of our mechanical and atomic age?”, Prouve questions. Of course he argues that they are. The Maison du Peuple at Clichy built in 1938/39 remains even today, an outstanding advanced technical achievement in the application of sheet steel. The building was made in collaboration with the architects Beaudoin, Lods and Bodiansky. The building could be described as a low rise, square pavilion with a glass facade on the first floor and a sheet metal facade on the upper floor. For this project, Prouve is credited with designing the first truly modern curtain wall. This term describes an external, non-supporting wall. The curtain wall is a product of modern architecture that Prouve can take credit for. Curtain walls, now in common use, are made up of standardized, factory-made modular elements and erected on the site. The wall’s only function is to separate the interior from the outside environment. In the structural sense of the term, the curtain wall allows for the use of pre-fabricated elements which, after installation, require no further traditional type of handling. The wall at Maison du Peuple is made entirely of sheet metal. Prouve’s “innovation took the form of corrugated metal sheets precisely bent into shape during the manufacture; this gained him a reputation for meticulous attention to detail.” The materials used in the building had significance not only technologically but also politically, “The Maison du Peuple…explored the notion of transparency as a sign of social emancipation, but in the language of steel girders, moving components and glass…Like Prouve’s slightly earlier Roland Garros Aero-Club at Buc, the Maison du Peuple worked with a direct aesthetic of bolts, joints, and connections. The ‘normative’ modern solution of the steel skeleton was inflected to convey the notion of an egalitarian instrument. Prouve’s buildings welded together the French structural Rationalist tradition with the populist factory of culture. It may be that ‘brutal’ expression of metallic fabrication was intended to express a ‘social realism’ of a kind. But the totality was nevertheless composed with a degree of formality that kept it within the bounds of institutional conventions. It was more radical in its content than in its form.” At this time, Prouve refused the steel tube technique which came out of the Bauhaus. He liked the forces being expressed through the structure of the bend iron and believed it offered a dynamism that could not be obtained with a tube. He derived his inspiration from sheet metal, “bent, pressed, compressed then welded”. Prouve’s construction forms display an economy of materials and means. His aesthetic is one of resistance. Therefore the lines of force, tension, and the point of equilibrium result in a dynamic aesthetic. But Prouve rejected the academic ‘aesthetic’ and instead developed a genuine industrial aesthetic. This aesthetic concerning the materials, forces and dynamism can be seen in the example of the facade at the Maison du Peuple. The springs used for stressing the metal sheets play a very important part in the final visual effect achieved since they equalize the surface plane and tend to impart a double convex shape to them.” Although Prouve had this commitment to creating form “both from the system of fabrication and from the expression of the means of support placed him in a structural-Rationalist lineage running bac k to Viollet-le-Duc, there was also an artisan side to his work which made him a part-heir of Art Nouveau.” Prouve was dedicated to the ideal of transforming technology into socially serviceable mechanisms evident in his work at Clichy. He was interested in humanizing technology and his idea of structure was based on a natural conception of limbs, knuckles, sinews, joints and connections. At a time when the best modern architects such as Mies van der Rohe used semi-finished products (pressed steel, flat sheeting…) In their architecture, Jean worked these materials himself and therefore was able to economize on metal and create plastic forms of a kind then unknown to architecture. He was able to do this not only because he had a good understanding of the materials but also because he was like most engineers and industrialists who were not afraid of new forms. Although Prouve used finished products, they had already undergone much refinement and designing by him. “At a time when Le Corbusier’s dense, sculptural buildings in reinforced concrete were dominating one side of French architecture, Prouve reopened an alternative route of almost luxuriant metallic carpentry. The effect of this lingered on, manifesting itself in the steel and glass architecture of the 1980s in France”
The building was a ‘Community House’ which provided multi-purpose space. It is known as a market-hall but could also allow for a cinema and/or lecture room. The reason why the space could allow for so many different purposes is because of its genius design. Many parts of the structural system could be moved to allow for different interior uses. Even the roof was variable. Prouve created an open plan in this building which had been initiated by Wright in the U.S. and the exponents of Art Nouveau in Europe. They introduced the concept of rhythmic flow of interior space, eliminating rigid room divisions. “By 1920 the interrelation of building type with materials and function was widely accepted. The concept of buildings as volumes enclosed by massive materials had given way to a concentration on space supported or enclosed by light, thin materials. The idea of enclosure was de-emphasized, so that structural elements themselves came into focus.” Gropius and Le Corbusier were among the modern architects that promoted the open plan. Prouve went even further to lighten all the materials used in the structure and allow for thin, light partitions. Although this was a hard concept to introduce in Europe and North America, open interiors with very light building materials and moveable partitions was an ancient tradition in China, possibly the source of inspiration. “Moveable partitions secured by springs were produced as early as 1930.” However, this was probably the first patent taken out on this, now common, technique.
It is no doubt that Prouve influenced the great modern architects very much. He is known as a pioneer in French lightweight ferro vitreous construction. He is also very well known for his contributions to the art and technology of prefabricated metal construction. Prouv? pioneered new structural techniques that would permit the efficient and inexpensive construction of buildings with prefabricated components while retaining architectural quality and individuality. From this one project alone, we know that he had a profound affect on building technology by introducing the curtain wall. When Frank Llyod Wright visited the Maison du Peuple soon after it was finished “he named Jean Prouv? as the inventor and initiator of the curtain wall.” Le Corbusier admired Prouve very much for he saw him as the architect/engineer which he believed would be the leader and savior of future architecture, as indeed they were. Le Corbusier described him as “indissolubly an architect and an engineer, since everything he touches and designs immediately takes on an elegant beautiful form while he finds brilliant solutions to resistance and manufacturing.” Renzo Piano describes the lesson of Prouve, “the fundamental truth that one must not separate the head and the hand, the idea and the means of realizing it, that architecture is a matter of building, not drawing, and that it must be a deep understanding of materials that gives rise to its forms…” Prouve faced a fight and questioned the traditional modes of construction and the conventional materials. His aim was to achieve the highest degree of economy in materials and means to meet the needs of the largest possible number of people. He explored furniture design and such significant projects of the era as mass-housing. Prouve considered himself of the times but in reality he was too advanced for his time. He actually developed a hybrid; using the most advanced technologies with a craftsman way of designing. For this reason, Jean Prouve remains a significant representative and initiator of modern architecture in the 20th century. A man of action more than of rhetoric, throughout his life he applied his own solution, “be a man of the times and uncompromising”
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