By Karissa Rosenfield
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Mid-March brought the destruction of an important 1970s building that symbolized the experimental nature of industrialized housing that became popular after World War II as an effort to meet the economic demands of reconstruction. Known as the “experimental building of SIRH”, the eight-story abandoned structure was created by sixty prefabricated modules that served as a prototype for the SIRH Process – a construction process that experimented with the idea of prefabricating flexible standard living cells that could be easily assembled on site in a unlimited amount of configurations to provide for affordable individual or collective dwellings. This process was designed by French architect Claude Prouvé – son of the illustrious French architect, designer and metal worker Jean Prouvé, who is widely known for successfully and beautifully transferring manufacturing technology from industry to architecture.
The experimental building of SIRH, along with many other 1960s and 1970s structures, remains largely under-explored. Due to a spontaneous mobilization of architects, students and researchers in January 2012, the SIRH building has been documented and photographed in detail before it was demolished in March. Starting Thursday, June 7th, the Maison de l’architecture Lorraine will be hosting a fascinating exhibition that will display this documentation and explore the innovative process and prototypes of Claude Prouvé.
As the son of the famous self-taught architect Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), Claude Prouvé (1929-2012) was immersed in the culture of architecture at a very early age. He gained his first practical experience with construction when he helped his father build their family home in 1954. Following in his father’s footsteps, Claude Prouvé inherited a method of work that was based on experimentation and practice. This allowed him to acquire great experience as a manufacture.
In 1965, Claude Prouvé took on his father’s interest in the industrial production of housing and decided to devote his thesis subject to the topic in order to obtain his degree in architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Nancy. The official title of his degree was “etude théorique pour le développement d’un habitat industrialisé évolutif “, meaning the “theoretical study for the development of a scalable industrialized habitat.” It was then that Claude Prouvé began to design what is now known as the SIRH process.
During this time, an engineer by the name of Georges Quentin was working as a high-ranking office worker of the coalmine company Houillères du Bassin de Lorraine (HBL). He was asked by HBL to study the possibility of shifting the company’s focus to the industrialized housing industry. With the dwindling activity in Lorraine’s exploitation of coal led this company to explore this opportunity. Logically, Georges Quentin contacted Jean Prouvé who was a widely known specialist in industrialized architecture. However, Jean Prouvé was engaged in too many other projects at this time and decided to introduce his son Claude to Georges Quentin.
In 1969, Claude Prouvé and Georges Quentin, along with Jean Prouvé as the manufacture, established Société Industrielle de Recherche et de Réalisation de l’Habitat (SIRH) in an effort to further research Claude Prouvé’s thesis. The process he created provided a system that allowed for great flexibility in construction and design by fabricating a scalable standard living cell that could be quickly mass produced and easily combined with other cells to create an unlimited amount of housing configurations. Considering Claude Prouvé’s research was already very well thought-out, the company was able to promptly begin testing the design by constructing prototypes.
The standard module measured 3.8 meters (length) x 3.8 meters (width) x 2.5 meters (floor to ceiling height). The frame was made of stainless steel while the ceiling and the floor, which are the same component, were made of galvanized steel. Sheet aluminum covered the inside of the components and the frames steel structural poles were filled with polymeric foam. The facade panels where either solid or pierced with doors and windows that were framed with wood.
After SIRH successfully completed a few prototypes, including two experimental houses in Nancy, the company made ambitious plans to build hundreds of homes. In order to get subsides for research and development from the government, the SIRH was required to build a prototype building tested the large scale possibilities of the SIRH process for community housing. Upon completion, the company planned to use the prototype structure as the SIRH headquarters.
In 1973, construction began on the experimental building in Ludres, France. All parts of the eight storey, sixty unit structure were produced at the factory and assembled on site by a team of only three to four people. Each module was lifted up on site by crane, stacked and then bolted together. Poles provided additional support between modules and two concrete towers were constructed to house circulation and provided bracing for the entire building.
Shortly before the completion of the SIRH building in 1974, the company suddenly went bankrupt and all construction came to a halt. It has been speculated that the innovative nature of the SIRH process was seen as a threat to other companies and this may have lead to the company’s demise.
The building has remained abandoned ever since.
Public and institutional interest of the ideas behind the experimental process and building of SIRH has grown exponentially since the death of Claude Prouvé in January 2012 and the destruction of the SIRH building this past March. Thankfully, the industrial site owner who led the demolition surrendered to activists’ demands and kindly donated one of the building modules to the “Musée de l’Histoire du Fer”, which is run by the Communauté Urbaine du Grand Nancy.
Additionally, the Pompidou Centre in Paris retains drawings and two models of the project in its collections. Moreover, a doctoral thesis is being drafted by architect Jean-Jacques Clauss that focuses entirely on this subject.
To learn more, be sure to check out the exhibit “SIRH, Mémoire d’un prototype” that open’s tomorrow, June 7th, at the Maison de l’Architecture Lorraine in Nancy. It will conclude June 13th, 2012. Find more information here.
Also, it is a fantastic coincidence that the end of June will also bring the opening of the “PROUVE Year” in Nancy – a cultural program involving the main museums of the city with exhibitions about the different facets of Jean Prouvé. You can find more information about the Jean Prouvé exhibitions here.
Special thanks to Nicolas Waltefaugle, Nadège Bagard, Jean-Jacques Clauss, Caroline Bauer, Karine Thilleul and the Prouvé Family for providing information and images for this article.