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Spartan Alpine cabin conceals back-to-basics building tips

In 1938 architect and designer Charlotte Perriand designed a mountain shelter able to withstand the harsh elements of any mountaintop yet still light enough to be carried by hand. The “Refuge Tonneau” (“barrel shelter”), her piece of nomadic architecture designed with Pierre Jeanneret, consists of just 12 main prefabricated panels light enough to be manually transported.

Once on location, the panels lock together to resist wind, snow, and cold. The tiny barrel-shaped structure sleeps up to 10 people and while it was never constructed in Perriand’s lifetime it was just one of her many designs created for the masses.

In 1934, after 7 years working with Le Corbusier, Perriand began a five-year study of minimal shelters, like the prefab aluminum Bivouac refuge and the affordable, elegant prefab “House at the Water’s Edge”. Hoping to improve upon her easily-transportable, aluminum Bivouac shelter she found inspiration in the merry-go-round. Counting on the dodecagon shape’s ability to withstand strong centrifugal loads (and high winds), she made it the basis for her Refuge Tonneau.

All her tiny shelters were works of studied elimination. “Her mission was to eliminate anything unnecessary,” explains her daughter Pernette Perriand-Barsac, “but always to concentrate on the flow of light and air. Then you can live in the smallest of spaces.”

Sébastien Cherruet gave us a tour of Perriand’s minimal structures and apartment design at the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s exhibit he curated: “Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World”.

* Special thanks:

  • Gilbert Coquard, Centre d’Art de Flaine
  • Relocation photos: Dorian Degoutte
  • Additional video by Arthur Poisson & Dorian Degoutte
  • Relocation of refuge tonneau: Association ACTE & students of ESAAA option Design & Space, 2012 (Léo Huber, Elodie Michaud. Flore Traynard, Julie Brachet, Anaïde de Pachtère, Ghana Selten, Julie dos Santos, Chloé Carbet-Petit-Jean, Marion Genève)
  • 2nd relocation of refuge tonneau: Jardins Fabriques et le CAUE Haute-Savoie, 2015