Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)
Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.
Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials…
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I recently spent ten days in France as a post-PhD treat. During that time I spotted a couple of reliefs/mosaics on school buildings – and several other interesting pieces of public art on French buildings such as churches and apartment blocks – as well as staying in Corbusier’s monumental and highly atmospheric Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, which could be seen as a giant, functioning artwork in its own right (complete with its own school)!
Unité aside, highlights included murals and mosaics by the poet, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau, including his murals for the wedding hall in Menton town hall and beautifully decorated churches in Fréjus, and Villefranche-Sur-Mer, which blurred human profiles and figures with animal life, and depicted aspects of everyday life such as traditional clothing, work and socialising.
In Menton, a beautiful, Italian-influenced fishing town, he adapted the traditional technique of creating mosaics from locally found stones.
I also spotted some huge bas relief concrete panels by the prolific French artist Denis Morog (the French version of William Mitchell!), using abstracted shapes and patterns reminiscent of the sun and of the movement of water, at the library in the centre of Lyon, and on an apartment block in Nice.
The first school piece I spotted, a mosaic depicting a map of the countries of Europe in a jigsaw puzzle-style, is in the Etats Unis area of Lyon, close to Tony Garnier’s early twentieth century planned housing settlement to improve living conditions in industrial Lyon.
At the Chagall museum itself, I realised I vastly preferred his paintings when translated into other media such as mosaics, stained glass and tapestry. There was an interesting exhibition on, though, about the work of prominent twentieth century artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse for churches, and the post-war desire to beautify the buildings that others wanted to bomb.