A tough week for the profession, losing two great figures. You almost couldn’t get designers who were further apart in spirit than Frei Otto and Michael Graves, but both seemed to have in common that they were genuinely likable human beings, in addition to being so widely known. The news about both of them came via texts while leaving classes this week. Otto gets a role in an upcoming lecture on shell and membrane structures, natch; Graves, well…I’ll leave his work to another faculty member’s course, but I will say that I did a quick inventory in the kitchen last night as a modest tribute and I certainly own more Graves’ designs than I do Otto’s.
Anyway. Two other titans in yesterday’s class. Jean Prouvé and Buckminster Fuller don’t, on the surface, seem to have much in common, but it’s been a longstanding trope of mine to pair them up in lectures. They were almost exact contemporaries–Fuller was born in 1895, Prouvé in 1901, and they died within a few months of one another in 1983-84. Both experienced enormous wins and losses in business, both were obsessed with industrializing housing, and both looked obsessively to aircraft and ship design to critique architecture. The fact that one of them was from a wealthy New England family and the other the son of painters from northeastern France? Minor details.
What’s fascinating to me about the two of them considered together, though, is that they approached the same ideal–factory production of housing–from opposite directions. Prouvé grew into the idea from a start as a blacksmith–his early work was very much bespoke, art nouveau wrought-iron production. Fuller, on the other hand, ended up working with Beechcraft in Wichita as part of what he always saw as a strategy for redesigning not just the house, but human society. While Prouvé was making gorgeous, stylized doors in Nancy, Fuller was sketching out a global distribution scheme for the airship-deliverable, omni-inhabitable 4-D tower. If they’d run into each other in 1927, they would hardly have had a word to say to one another.
But WWII focused both of their careers; Fuller’s grandiose schemes came to focus on the idea of adapting the pace and achievement of wartime aluminum fabrication to the impending postwar housing surge, while Prouvé had gradually built his atelier up into a genuine industry. Fuller’s Wichita House was essentially an aircraft fuselage blown out to residential proportions, while Prouve’s Meudon Houses can be seen as taking his principles of furniture design to the scale of building. Both were successfully prototyped; both fizzled as the prospect of taking the ideas to market loomed. And both stand today as far more influential moments than they were at the time, or even for a generation afterwards.
Their careers after these houses went in opposite directions: Fuller re-invented himself as a guru of geodesics and, eventually, of world-gaming. Prouvé, after splitting with his corporate investors, enjoyed a second career as consulting engineer and designer, brainstorming some of the most brilliant curtain walls of the 1950s and 1960s but being frustrated by his alienation from the factory and workshop floors. Neither looked back at the idea of industrializing residential construction. One gets the sense that for Fuller the problem had become too small, and for Prouvé too large. Instead, both reflected on their experiences with occasionally caustic observations on the state of architecture and building in the 1970s. Fuller famously noted that he “urged boys [always boys, with Fuller…] graduating in architecture to go into the aircraft industry” instead of into building design (“The Comprehensive Man,” 1959). Prouvé, meanwhile, lamented that architects had become “distanced from technical considerations and even further from the actual execution of the work.” They were, sadly, now “attorneys” and “administrators” and only rarely “originators” (“The Organization of Building Construction,” 1964).
Nonetheless, they both stuck with the profession, as gadflies and consultants if nothing else. And both of them lived long enough to see their ideas and values–in particular the idea that good design can be teased from the rigors and patterns of scientific and industrial inquiry–form the foundation for a generation of designers. Norman Foster’s debt to Bucky has always been a large part of his office’s ethic and history. Fuller played a huge role in the office’s early direction, serving as a consultant and collaborator on several projects and–more importantly–being a constant presence in the firm’s discussions. Prouvé? That’s him with the glasses in the photo on the right, along with Oscar Niemeyer and Philip Johnson, judging entries to the 1971 competition for the Centre Georges Pompidou. Prouvé chaired the jury and championed the winning scheme by Piano and Rogers. Ultimately that building’s celebration of metal fabrication was as powerful a statement of Prouvé’s beliefs as anything his own atelier had produced.