Meeting with Catherine Prouvé. In a special place: the house her father built for his family in Nancy, France, a masterpiece of prefabricated architecture

"Excuse me? Excuse me! I want to go to my room!" She smiles in amusement, this dynamic lady with her visage, moving as if she were (still) at home. Catherine Prouvé is the youngest daughter of the man whom Le Corbusier called 'the archetypal builder', curator of her father's archive and my exceptional guide (a rare privilege) in the house where she lived as a teenager. And which, as a 14-year-old, he helped to build in the summer of 1954.

Only at weekends

"For me it was a normal thing. On Mondays, at school, my classmates would tell me about the classic family weekend activities; when they asked me what I had done, I quietly replied: we built the house! We only worked on it at the weekend, because during the week Dad, who was hardly famous at the time, worked in Paris, but the construction didn't last long. The funny thing is that my parents moved the position of the building, which was initially supposed to be at street level, higher and higher up the slope (with consequent ingenious technical solutions, ed) to be more immersed in the greenery and not see the neighbours. The hill was very steep, so we used to carry all the panels to the top in Mum's jeep, in those days there was no ladder. My job on the construction site was to put the small parts in order, screws, bolts... precision work!".

An iconic house

After only a few weeks, the house is completed: a light and flexible structure in which all the constructive intelligence, technical finesse and experience of Jean Prouvé is concentrated. "My house," he said, "is built with recycled elements," mainly the façade components that masterfully integrate lighting, ventilation and insulation. The building is an assemblage of standardised elements, articulated in plan according to purely functional considerations. The simple floor plan, developed on a one-metre long module (the size of the prefabricated panels), declines into three areas: private, public and service.

The house on the hill

A corridor connects the three zones along the windowless north wall, which incorporates the continuous cupboards and a large bookcase; the south façade, on the other hand, is open and communicating, a symphony of industrial panels of a heterogeneous nature: of wood with windows and sliding shutters, of aluminium perforated by portholes, full-height glazing. This house on the hill does not illustrate abstract, utopian modernist ideas. It expresses a specific approach to building - according to the four pillars of Prouvé's design ethic: economy, comfort, functionality and resistance - rather than an aesthetic manifesto. It celebrates the importance of manual labour, of the intelligent assembly of industrial elements, of creative solutions to practical needs.

Light living

Catherine Prouvé opens the aluminium entrance door pierced by portholes, a detail that has rightfully entered the history of architecture. She enters the living room and begins to reminisce. "My father used to say that the main room of a house is like the square in a village: that's where you meet, discuss, get together... and when you want to be quiet, you go to your five-square-metre room. And mine was the smallest! There were five of us living here. I envied my sister Simone who, being a weaver, had the right to the biggest room so she could set up the loom; my brother's room was beyond the kitchen. My parents slept - yes, that is the very bed in which my father died - in the room at the beginning of the corridor. It looks like that of a ship, doesn't it?". Very true, I agree, looking at the wooden panels and doors (whose handles resemble the leg of the Standard chair) with rounded corners 'only because it was easier for the machines to cut curves rather than right angles'. In one corner of the large room a lush palm tree emerges directly from the floor: 'How it has grown! We had thrown down some seeds almost as a joke...'.

Bach at full volume

To the side, a strange metal structure. "That is a loudspeaker, obviously built by my father, who loved music, after all his mother was a pianist. In this house he always played Bach at full volume. The fireplace is also his work. He made it, amidst much laughter, four-handedly with a friend of his, while the tiles were decorated by a neighbour. He even went so far as to make the baking tins for his favourite cake, the apple cake, saying that if the oven is square, there's no point in the tins being round, plus the cakes turn out bigger!'.


The anecdotes are endless: 'This was the first modern, contemporary house my family lived in. Indeed not. For two months we had a holiday home in Britain. After the war, my father said 'I have a refugee house left in the factory: we put it up, spend two months there on holiday and then find a way to sell it'. We transported it a bit by train and a bit on a company truck, my mother found the terrain on which to assemble it by exploring the area on a bicycle (obviously designed by Jean Prouvé ed.). There was no water or electricity, but we were happy. Today this would be unthinkable, for us at the time, I repeat, it was normal".

Social commitment

She still laughs, Catherine Prouvé, thinking of her schoolmates who were convinced that her father built huts for work. It was those emergency housing projects for refugees and the homeless that were industrially built by the Ateliers Jean Prouvé, a symbol of an activity permeated by a strong sense of social commitment.

The Jean Prouvé Archive

In the Prouvé House in Nancy, the family led a rather secluded life: "Given the impervious location, it was difficult for guests to arrive who had previously frequented the flat in the centre such as Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, sometimes Charlotte Perriand, Fernand Léger, even Josephine Baker". Many years later, Renzo Piano would come there, commissioned by the municipality of Nancy, once it had acquired the house (open to visits by appointment only), to study its public accessibility project, but nothing came of it. This was no coincidence, since Jean Prouvé is an absolute reference for Renzo Piano as well as the one who declared him the winner, with Rogers, of the competition for the Pompidou Centre. The Jean Prouvé archive is housed there today: "There is a bond with that place, and I knew how much my father cared about preserving his archive, which is why I left my job to take care of it, and it took me a good 14 years before I found the right place for it".

In the opening photo, portrait of Catherine Prouvé in front of the Jean Prouvé House in Nancy. © Vitra, photo Dejan Jovanovic.