Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale is among the 20th century’s most celebrated houses. A gorgeous hut of green metal on a teak platform, it was created by the French designer in 1951 as prefab housing in Africa. The structure has a heat-deflecting double roof, air vents positioned for cooling, and blue glass for blocking ultraviolet light. Despite its thin metal construction, every detail is exquisitely refined. The Maison Tropicale has been hailed a masterpiece—and the ultimate design trophy.
Prouvé made three prototypes. One is at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, donated by Manhattan financier Robert Rubin, whose passion for architecture sent him back to school for a Ph.D. in architectural history. Another version, the largest, was bought for $5 million last summer at Christie’s by hotelier André Balazs and was recently installed in front of the Tate Modern in London.
The Balazs Maison Tropicale is perfect, pristine, and— according to Rubin—a sacrilege. Rubin had previously worked with Paris antiques dealer Eric Touchaleaume, funding his efforts to rescue the Maisons from the African jungle. But the two men parted ways in anger, financially and philosophically. Rubin believed the structures should be left in their existing state, complete with bullet holes from civil wars; Touchaleaume wanted to make them design objets that would attract the highest dollar at auction. Cue Balazs.
Regarding the restoration debate—a major issue in architectural preservation today—Balazs agrees that Touchaleaume may have gone too far. “He made it new again. I might not have done that,” says the hotelier, who spent this winter touring Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama in search of a suitable setting for the Maison. It will probably make a stopover this summer at the Raleigh hotel in Miami, although Balazs isn’t eager to unpack the seven shipping crates again. (“It took three weeks, with heavy cranes!”)
“Prouvé was so progressive,” says Balazs. “He paid early attention to making a minimal impact on the environment, or what we now call self-sustainability. The Maison is as singular a work of architectural art as can be and hopefully it will be an inspiration to others.”
In the seventies British artist Anthony McCall created a series of legendary works using film projectors to sculpt three-dimensional forms with light. But he took a long hiatus—to run his successful New York graphic design firm—before being “rediscovered,” thanks to the inclusion of his Line Describing a Cone in the Whitney Museum’s 2001 show “Into the Light.” The art world was floored, and in the past few years McCall has returned to making art, now using digital projectors and working on a more ambitious scale. Walking into one of his room-size installations is mesmerizing: the soft whir of the haze machine, the air filled with a fine mist, beams of light tracing complex lines and shapes. Sadly, a recent exhibition of McCall’s work went only to London and Rochechouart, France, but pieces can be seen in current shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art.