Perfectly preformed

Prefab structures, most often seen on building sites and caravan parks, have a long design history, but the best rarely make it into production, says Hugh Pearman

It is a lovely thing to see engineer Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale perched improbably outside London’s Tate Modern. This aluminium and steel house-on-stilts was a prototype for the French colonial service, was made in 1951, and was built in Brazzaville. It was special because it was light enough to be flown out to the Congo in flat-pack form on one of the small cargo freighters of the day. Visually, you have to think 1950s Citroën – not the elegant DS, but the workhorse Type H delivery van.

Unlike the Type H, however, which was hugely successful and stayed in production from 1947 to 1981, the Maison Tropicale remained a prototype. It never got to full-scale production. Why not, if it’s so damn good?

You might as well ask why Richard Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion prefab houses, or any number of designs by less illustrious names, were never quite factory-ready.

The answer is always the same. If you hand-build a car, it is very difficult and expensive. Mass-production suits cars.

However, houses are static objects which are relatively easy to build using pre-existing standard materials and techniques. Moreover, at least half the cost is not in the materials or labour, but the price of the land. When you buy a car, you do not have to buy the land to go with it, nor provide it with drains and foundations.

Looked at that way, the surprise is that anyone thinks a prefab house is a goer at all.

Oddly enough, though, it is. Prefab buildings are all around us. Sometimes they’re obvious – such as the ‘static caravans’ you see clustered around farms and seaside resorts. Or the townships of site huts you find stacked up next to big building projects. These are awesome places, some of them rising to six storeys high. There is a particularly good set of them to be found in Beijing, housing the many thousands of workers for the 2008 Olympics construction site. Another corker was at St Pancras, where the stack of huts was so big it had its own set of lifts inside.

Sometimes, they’re less obvious, like Travelodge hotels, which are made from timber room-sized prefab pods and then covered in brick and tile to disguise their origins. These places are off the design radar, because – unlike Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale and its ilk – they don’t look like anything much. They are just unexciting boxes, made to fit together in a certain way. Whereas Prouvé’s, with its perforated sliding walls of blue portholes, is so very obviously a work of high design that – for all its gorgeousness – it almost hurts to behold it. It is just too clever for its own good. If Citroën had designed a bread van like that, it would have remained a motor-show concept vehicle.

Architects love it to bits, of course. This is hi-tech porn, and it’s got adjustable aluminium sunshading louvres and tension-wire lamps to prove it. A clip-together house, one where you are not at the mercy of know-nothing clumsy builders – how could they not want to have its babies? Although oddly, this is not really architecture. It’s large-scale product design.

But I’m very glad it’s there, restored, now owned by one of those high-design American hoteliers. It’s a funny size, though. It reminds me of Lord Hervey’s famous put-down of Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House – ‘Too small to live in, too large to hang on a watch’. A commercial failure, but a design triumph – how often have you heard that story?

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