Even in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge, the Maison Tropicale looks aloof. Hovering above a cleared and graded strip in Long Island City, this compact machine for living wears the architectural equivalent of sunglasses, safari helmet, binoculars, and shorts. It is haughty and cute at the same time. The aluminum outpost, one of three prototypes sent to Congo and Niger in the early 1950s, was designed by Jean Prouvé as a prefabricated home for French imperial masters in the Congo. While the empire was already beginning to fade, there was still some impetus to conquer African territory and look suave doing it.

IMG_8612F-sm.jpgA NY Times article yesterday recounts how a French antiques dealer bought all three existing prototypes in 2000 and shipped them back to the homeland. The public preview in Long Island City, which extends through June 4, is meant to drum up a buzz for the house's impending sale at auction. Here is Christie's description of the house.

According to the Times: "Christie’s is compiling a short list of potential bidders with substantial properties in Mustique, Antigua, the Hamptons — name your playground — who might like a 59-foot-by-32-foot -by-16-foot-tall folly/ outdoor sculpture/ guesthouse/vintage metal toy to park on the lawn, with a designer label attached." The expected windfall: $4-$6 million, which may be used to finance the restoration of another of the prototypes for a traveling Prouvé museum.

The open house is a boon for the LIC arts scene as well as the auction house. Socrates Sculpture Park declined to host the pavilion on its own grounds, but helped promote the exhibition and referred Christie's to the waterfront development site of Silvercup Studios.

07_05_maisontropicale-int.jpgCool design features of Maison Tropicale include a matrix of porthole windows with blue solar filters, adjustable aluminum louvers to shield the house from direct sunlight, a horizontal heat chimney along the roof to stimulate natural air circulation, and pivoting porch light fixtures.

Praising Jean Prouvé in a 2004 New York Times article, Alastair Gordon wrote, "He was trained neither as an engineer nor as an architect. Rather, he was a builder-fabricator with a poetic understanding of humble materials like pressed tin, aluminum and plywood."

The house will be auctioned off on June 5.

Photographs by Gideon Fink Shapiro