Charlotte Perriand and Her Mountain Shelters

In 1937, Charlotte Perriand began experimenting with the concept of “prefabricated mountain shelter” as housing for the enjoyment of free time, coinciding with her leave from the Atelier Rue de Sèvres. Previously, she had successfully participated in the Weekend House competitions organized by the magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui between 1934 and 1935. However, in the wake of the Paid Vacation Law (1936), and taking advantage of her freedom from the Corbuserian monastery, she began investigating movable architecture, which design began with the body.

The magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui published in 1938 the Bivouac Refuge (1937), designed by Charlotte Perriand in collaboration with the engineer André Tournon, together with an article entitled “Petite Maisons de Week-end”1. The spatial, technical, and material innovation of the Bivouac Refuge –which goal was to confer bodily pleasure on the individual–, together with its lightness and ease of movement, made it the first prototype of a new spatial paradigm. That refuge – halfway between house and furniture – evidenced the beginning of a subtle revolution led by Perriand, which experimental implications would reach the urban scale.

Petite is an architecture conceived as a chair is conceived—with the same attention to detail, material and technical precision, visual and physical continuity, and spatial ingenuity—which favors the comfort and freedom of the individual.2

Marta Rodriguez

Perriand and Tournon designed a tubular metal frame structure, a corrosion-resistant aluminum alloy developed by the aeronautical industry, with insulated facade panels finished in aluminum.3 The design in turn provided sufficient thermal insulation to be able to adapt to any type of climate.4

The Bivouac Refuge was shown at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition as an inexpensive and lightweight furniture architecture for the vacations of a family of six. A slight structure lifted it from the ground with delicacy and vigor. The elegance of the aluminum, as well as the voluptuous detail parallel to the access door, together with the image of Perriand promoting the project, evidenced the pleasant dimension of a shelter intended for leisure, that could be transported in the back of a vehicle.

Refugio Tonneau, Charlotte Perriand y Pierre Jean- neret, 1938.

Refugio Tonneau, Charlotte Perriand y Pierre Jeanneret, 1938.

While Gray’s prototypes fit the concept of “the smallest habitable cell,” Perriand’s experimental proposals were conceived to be inhabited by a group of people in a precise space, which ingenuity included their bodily enjoyment. In short, Perriand transformed the idea of shelter for necessity into a refuge destined for the delight of a group of people. Designed with meticulous selection and control –by its energetic, spatial, and material precision–, Petite Architecture was conceived for the comfort and freedom of the urban nomad.

In the same period, Perriand and Jeanneret designed three versions —intended for a different number of people— of an unbuilt shelter, the Refuge Tonneau, also known as Refuge Barrel (1938). Prefabricated aluminum elements were assembled in a short time to build a piece of lightweight “habitable furniture.” They studied thermal and ventilation conditions, wind resistance, and the durability of materials. In addition, they designed adaptable furniture that began with the human body and its comfort.

The Refuge Barrel was first and foremost a jewel that perched elegantly on the snow with the help of a slender structure. The spatial, material, and technical precision, as well as the inspiration of bodily character, evidenced its Petite condition. Perriand again used her own image in photomontages that showed her in ski clothes, embraced by the sensual cut of the shelter door.

Furniture and architecture were one and the same in those demountable prototypes conceived by Perriand. In other words, Perriand’s shelters were furniture that had increased in scale to make them habitable, i.e. Petite Architecture. In turn, its internal components were slid, folded, stacked, or juxtaposed: the tables were used as seats, and the backrests were turned and became beds. Everything was transformable as an essential condition of that movable architecture for a nomad type of life.


1 The demountable shelter was called Refuge Léger D’Altitude. The article mentioned Charlotte Perriand as the architect of the project and A. Tournon as an engineer. “Petites Maisons de Week-end”, in A. Hermant, “Habitations 1937”, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui 9 no. I (1938): 65.
2 Marta Rodríguez Fernández, “Petite Architecture: Charlotte Perriand and Kazuyo Sejima” (PechaKucha talk in the conference Feminism and Architecture: Women, Architecture, and Academia at Parsons School of Design, New York, April 3rd, 2015).
3 A special feature of the aluminum industry after its beginnings in the nineteenth century was that it quickly became an oligopoly, both in France and abroad. At the same time, the work of Aluminum Français and its subsidiary Studal is essential to understanding the conditions for the development of light prefabrication in France. It was in a way the testing ground for a possible alliance between architects and industrialists.
4 “Petites Maisons de Week-end”, in Hermant, “Habitations 1937”, 65.

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