Jean Prouvé's Stylish House for the Homeless Finds a Home in a Paris Gallery

Jean Prouvé's Stylish House for the Homeless Finds a Home in a Paris Gallery
The "House of Better Days" on view in Paris in 1956
(© Centre Pompidou-Mnam-Bibliothèque Kandinsky-Fonds Jean Prouvé )

PARIS — Last week an unusual installation took shape in Paris's Galerie Patrick Seguin: architect Jean Prouvé's innovative Maison des Jours Meilleurs ("House of Better Days") was put together inside the gallery. The process, which took three days, was streamed live on the gallery's Web site, and the exhibition opens Friday, continuing through September 29.

The story behind this iconic house begins in January 1954. France was in the midst of a housing crisis, and people were dying of cold in the streets. After the night of January 3, when an elderly woman and a child died from the freezing temperatures, the government rejected activist priest Abbé Pierre's call for a billion francs (about $200 million) to be spent to build emergency housing. Undeterred, Abbé Pierre founded the non-profit organization Companions of Emmaus at the end of January and asked Prouvé to design a prototype for a 540-square-foot house with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. A few weeks later, Prouvé completed the design for his House of Better Days.

The House was based on a design concept that Prouvé had already created in his factory in Maxéville, just outside Nancy in eastern France, with the architect Maurice Silvy. A central prefabricated steel block for the kitchen and bathroom was placed on top of a concrete base. The walls were made of panels of thermally-molded wood, and the aluminum roof was extended on one side to create shade over the picture window. 

To fund the construction of these houses, Abbé Pierre made a plea over the radio, and the detergent company Persil responded by launching a campaign to donate 10 francs to the homeless each time a customer returned a special coupon on the detergent box. Meanwhile, a model of Prouvé's house was shown on the Quai Alexandre III along the Seine, where Le Corbusier saw it in 1956 and declared, "On the Quai Alexandre III, Jean Prouvé has set up the most beautiful house that I know of, the most perfect type of residence, the most sparkling constructed object," according to a statement by the gallery.

Despite the best efforts of Abbé Pierre and Jean Prouvé, the House of Better Days did not become the solution to homelessness that they had hoped for. French authorities rejected the design because the kitchen and bathroom were located in the center of the livable space without exterior access, and only five of the houses were ever built.

Prouvé, who died in 1984, seems to be having a moment. Later this year, he will be celebrated in Nancy with four temporary exhibitions and two new permanent exhibition spaces — the Jean Prouvé Room at the Fine Arts Museum and the Jean Prouvé Space at the Iron History Museum in nearby Jarville-la-Malgrange. Also, the Savannah College of Art and Design will show a selection of Prouvé works at its Lacoste campus in Provence through mid-June, including the standard chair, the aluminum dining table, the swing jib lamp, and other canonical designs.

Watch a video outlining the design of Jean Prouvé's Demountable House (1944):

A version of this article appears on ARTINFO France.