Why Small Houses
(Still) Matter

While it may not be true anymore, architecture’s modern movement could once be plotted almost entirely in a sequence of houses. Every architect of any fame, and of a certain generation, has been identified with and sometimes defined by at least one house: Le Corbusier; Villa Savoye, Frank Lloyd Wright; Fallingwater, Mies Van Der Rohe; the Farnsworth House, Philip Johnson; the Glass House, Frank Gehry; his Santa Monica house, Eames, Hoffman, Neutra, Schindler, Loos, etc., etc., etc.. The house is a convenient size and a malleable enough program to express a theoretical set of ideals, and in nearly all cases these are houses of some considerable size and/or luxury.

When architects built for others (captains of industry, wealthy patrons, rich parents) the houses tended to be on the luxe side for obvious reasons. But when they built for themselves the opposite was sometimes true. Albert Frey in Palm Springs built a perfect little house of steel and glass, the one with a large boulder intruding theatrically. Le Corbusier had his ‘Petit Maison a Weekend’, with the emphasis on the ‘petit’. And then there is Le Cabanon of just 144 square feet. This may win the petit contest, but it was for just one person and was, conveniently, grafted onto a restaurant/bar making it more a hotel room than a house. Plus, he was trying to prove a point.

But there are houses and then there is ‘housing’.
And there is 'housing' and there is 'social housing'.

When architects turn to housing the results can be even smaller, and sometimes more perfect. The Dymaxion house, like it or not, was Buckminster Fuller’s extraordinary effort at mass housing. Weighing in at just 3 tons, about the same as a Chevy Suburban, every one of the 3,000 components weighed so little that one person could theoretically assemble its roughly 1,000 sf alone.

That is a very American, frontier-worthy idea, but the French had quite another approach when Jean Prouvé designed his even smaller (600 sf) and much more conventional House for Better Days (Maison des Jours Meilleurs) after a bruising winter in which women and children were among those frozen to death. Prouvé included a ‘package bathroom’ just as Bucky had, but his cylinder was virtually the support for the entire house. And while his house was more recognizable as a ‘house’ (Fuller’s was inspired by grain silos) it was about half the Dymaxion’s size and could be assembled (with a crane) in about 7 hours once the foundation was set.

And it is simply beautiful, in a way that the pure function and obsessive futurism of the Fuller house could never match. Fuller made us think the future would amaze and confound us, while Prouvé simply went about making function amazingly beautiful.

There were just five of the Maison des Jours Meilleurs produced with a demonstration prototype assembled on the Quai Alexander III for all to see. Corbu himself said

"Jean Prouvé, on the Quai Alexander III has constructed the most beautiful house I know: the most perfect way of living, the most brilliant thing built. And all this is true, built, made, entered into a life of research. And it was the Abbe Pierre who has commissioned him!" [Really, who talks like this anymore?]

Prouvé had been working on, and built, ideas like this for a while when Father Pierre enlisted him to do what the government would not; solve the homeless problem with quickly constructed small scale homes, each about the size of an apartment. Persil, the detergent company, donated 10 Francs for each coupon returned from a purchase of soap powder helping to fund the effort. Authorities would not continue the program because, in part, they could not approve a bathroom without external windows, and an open kitchen at the center of a French home!

Imagine a US authority disapproving of social housing because it was not good enough!

Patrick Sequin, the resurrector of Prouvé (and Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret) has found what might be the only existing example of the Maison, used on the Prouvé estate as a cabin. He restored and erected the Maison des Jours Meilleurs in his gallery (and it fits by only a few inches) along with a beautiful exhibition of other Prouvé efforts at prefabricated housing, the documents of the Maison and a lovely collage film of the original Quai Alexander III fabrication.

It is remarkable to see, and a reminder of just how big something really small can be.

In Nancy, France, there is a months long celebration of Prouvé including his own home, exhibits at every museum and a tour of all the local projects he built.