for sale : maison tropicale

one of the 3 existing maisons tropicales by jean prouvé will soon be auctioned by chrisitie's. an article in the nytimes describes the house's trip from congo to paris to queens (where it has been installed for viewing at a vacant lot on vernon blvd in long island city). i wish i had the 4 to 6 estimated million dollars the house is supposed to go for. not only is the house 50s and tropical and pretty to look at at the same time, but it's actually a fascinating piece of history: an artefact of dead modernism, colonialism, utopianism, protoprefabrication, pop culture and politics.

prouvé designed the house as a nomadic structure:

"while his compatriot le corbusier sculpted forms inspirad by evocative mud-packed buildings that he discovered in saharan africa, prouvé was advocating nomadic architecture for African states, modular houses that could be shipped, erected, dismantled, and shipped again like so many tinker toys. prouvé manufactured the components of his furniture and houses from a detailed understanding of fit, connections, materials, and the conveyor belt."

the times describes it as "plug and play" architecture:

"it’s cash and carry. the structure is a kit of metal parts, like an ikea piece, but bigger...the maison is also plug-and-play: there was never any plumbing, and it is wired for electricity. it ships in six containers. christie’s is compiling a short list of potential bidders with substantial properties in mustique, antigua, the hamptons — name your playground — who might like a 59-foot-by-32-foot--by-16-foot-tall folly/outdoor sculpture/guesthouse/vintage metal toy to park on the lawn, with a designer label attached."

so the house has been rebuilt in l.a. and on the roof of the pompidou. so it's become fetish and frivolous. that's our fault. and it doesn't make it any less fascinating. this particular house was "rescued" from distress in brazzavile, the capital of the republic of congo (built to compete with its belgian counterpart, léopoldville/kinshasa across from the river, now capital of the democratic republic of congo, formerly zaire...see heart of darkness). the house has been wiped of blood and bullets (its former location has been stage for a series of gruesome civil conflict, guerrilla clashes and political rivalries), but despite the revamping and the glitz surrounding it, it is still a powerful and quiet testimony of failure (of the colonial project, of the modernist project, of the funcionalist utopian project, etc):

"what went wrong? well, it turned out that, despite its clever engineering, the house was not cheap to build. how efficiently did the brightly colored, well-insulated and ventilated metal box keep its inhabitants from baking? what does it sound like inside a metal hut when it rains? who finds multiple portholes a plus and not prisonlike? indeed, there is photographic evidence that the tenants cut rectangular windows into the panels... it is also worthwhile to place the house in a broader context: after gaining its independence in 1960, congo by 1963 became a marxist republic supported by the soviet union. with the collapse of the USSR, congo drifted into a democracy that was shattered in 1997 by civil war and the return of marxist leadership. at that time, several parties in france located prouve's battered and bullet-riddled building, bought it, and arranged for it to be dismantled, packed, and shipped back to france, a final, enfeebled symbol of the end of the colonial moment. there, it was substantially reconstructed and renovated so that today's version, now on world tour, is largely cleansed of its past. somewhat akin to the "current reissues" available at such stores as design within reach, this is vintage modernism presented in a new, replicant version, untarnished and sturdy, ready to support the fantasy of a better modern life."

too bad the sanitized house isn't understood as what it is: a sign of us fucking up again.

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