Colonial Congo's flatpack home on show in London

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Rescued from the steamy jungle and civil wars of the Republic of Congo, a pioneering 1950s flat-pack house now calls the chilly banks of London’s River Thames home.

An example of modernist architecture, the "La Maison Tropicale" is pictured outside the Tate Modern Gallery in London February 1, 2008. The structure, designed by Jean Prouve, was restored after its discovery in Brazzaville in the Congo. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

It was designed and manufactured by French designer Jean Prouve as the world’s first metal flat-pack home - think Ikea housing for 1950s Africa.

This icon of modernist architecture is now on display in London as part of the Design Museum’s exhibition of French architect and designer Jean Prouve’s designs.

Set in the cold January shadows of the Tate Modern and with St Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames as a backdrop, the “Maison Tropicale” is far away from its natural resting place in Congo’s capital Brazzaville, where it has stood rotting in the tropical heat for more than half a century.

Back in the late 1940s Prouve had a vision for affordable homes that could withstand the humidity of the jungle. But his design never proved economical and only three were ever erected, two in Brazzaville and one in Niger.

Antiques collector Frenchman Eric Touchaleaume has made it his life’s mission to find the houses and return them to their former glory.

When he finally tracked down the Brazzaville flat-pack building that’s now in London it was in a sorry state - dilapidated and bearing the scars of several wars.

“Full of whole bullets, scratched, corrosion,” he told Reuters during a tour of the house, “Handicapped but still alive and complete,” he said.

“Big emotion, great emotion,” he said describing the moment when he first saw the house he’d had his heart set on for 25 years.

Restoring the metal panels was a labor of love that took several years.

“We restored this house like a quality car, it’s like an Aston Martin of the 50s,” he said.

Set on concrete stilts the Brazzaville house is made from folded sheet steel and aluminum. Manufactured in France it was flown to Africa in attempt to ease the housing shortage in French colonies.

Prouve took an ecological approach to the design and the demands of the climate, with adjustable metal sunscreens and nautical port-hole style windows of blue glass to protect against UV rays.

Revered as a pioneer now, his design was not appreciated by French expats in Congo fifty years ago.

“It’s difficult to know why it wasn’t a huge success,” said Gemma Curtis, curator of the Prouve exhibition at the Design Museum.

“I think one things was perhaps that the aesthetic in the French colonies was not for something that really looks part boat, part aircraft, part space ship - it has a very modern aesthetic which perhaps might not have been attractive to the French middle class conservative bureaucrats,” Curtin said.

She also said that it proved too expensive to fly the metal panels to Africa rather than use cheaper but less durable local materials.

Despite its humble beginnings the Brazzaville jungle house was recently sold at auction for a massive $5.5 million to American hotelier and art collector Andre Balazs.

“I’ve always loved Jean Prouve as a designer and this is really an ultimate piece of sculpture of his,” he told Reuters.

He added that the house is an “Inspiration for future low-impact, environmental housing and the idea here was to use this an inspiration for a resort that minimizes its impact on the ... preferably... tropical setting that it will end up in.”

Balazs wants to convert the Brazzaville house into an eco-hotel to be set-up somewhere in central America -- though he won’t say where.

Maison Tropicale will stay on display outside the Tate until Spring, before going on show in Miami and after that beginning its new life as a hotel.

Editing by Paul Casciato