Jean Prouvé's 'Tropical Habitat for Cameroun' moves to Marseille

Steel frame building with wooden deck and sliding louvred doors
Jean Prouvé’s original 'Tropical Habitat for Cameroun' steel-frame prototype is now on show in the south of France, thanks to Paris-based antique collector Éric Touchaleaume
(Image credit: TBC)

Éric Touchaleaume is a Paris-based antique collector with a profound attachment to Marseille and to Jean Prouvé. In 2011, he bought la Friche l'Escalette, a disused lead mine in the National Parc des Calanques south of Marseille. This unique industrial heritage site was the perfect backdrop to Touchaleaume's project: to create a private cultural park to share his passion for contemporary sculpture and Jean Prouvé's lightweight architecture. The park opens this summer with its key exhibit, Prouvé's 1958 steel-frame prototype of the 'Tropical Habitat for Cameroun'; the first time it's ever been exhibited.

Touchaleaume discovered the prototype by pure chance. He was travelling through Cameroon in search of one of the architect's tropical school buildings, where he crisscrossed the country for two months, only to find most of the structures derelict or demolished. Despondent, he was driving through the Yaoundé suburbs to see the German missions when he chanced upon some school buildings with their aluminium roofs still intact. One was slightly taller than the rest.

'I instantly recognised Prouvé's famous prototype with eight wave panels instead of the usual seven of the standard models. After some intense negotiation with the village chiefs, I was told it was all or nothing,' he recalls. 'I then became the proud owner of five Prouvé houses including the original prototype.'

Some were dismantled to provide parts to reconstruct the prototype following the archival blueprint. Posts, girders and purlins are made in Prouvé’s signature technique of folded sheet steel. For economy, the metal frame was replaced by locally sourced okan, an insect-repellant African teak so dense it has to be cut with a metal chainsaw.

The overhang of the parasol roof ensured protection from harsh sun and monsoon rains, while the space between the roof and the dropped ceiling combined with the perforated 'airplane wing' wall vents provide amazingly effective natural air conditioning, with the inside temperature up to 18°C cooler than outside – equally appreciated in the Mediterranean's summer heat.

View to the ocean over La Friche de l'Escalette on Marseilles's Route des Goudes

The installation's location is an industrial heritage site, called La Friche de l’Escalette; a disused lead-extracting plant that operated from 1851 to 1926 on Marseille's Route des Goudes

(Image credit: TBC)

Steel framed building with wooden deck and walls and metal roof on a gravel plot

Touchaleaume discovered one of Prouvé’s original 'Tropical Habitat for Cameroun' houses during a trip to the African country

(Image credit: TBC)

Room with wooden floor, open door and louvred windows overlooking a stone wall and shrubbery

The architect's reconstructed prototype is now furnished with armchairs and a square table by Pierre Jeanneret, and a low table by Charlotte Perriand

(Image credit: TBC)

Interior of a steel frame building with wooden floors and walls and louvred windows

The furniture is drawn from Éric Touchaleaume's private collection

(Image credit: TBC)

Former crushing pip painted white with a wooden ladder rising from the bottom

Artist Marjolaine Dégremont’s Touching the Sky is an installation created for the 'Tropical Habitat' installation's inauguration. The piece is situated in what was once the industrial site's crushing pit

(Image credit: TBC)

Bronze sculpture on a concrete base on a hillside overlooking the sea

Dégremont also created the Cat's Eye sculpture in bronze, also on site

(Image credit: TBC)


Guided visits are available until 30 September, by reservation only. For more information, visit the Friche l’Escalette website

Photography: Michael DePasquale / Martina Maffini


La Friche l'Escalette 
Route des Goudes
Impasse de l'Escalette 
13008 Marseille