In the late 1920s, the modernist designer and architect Eileen Gray designed and built a landmark piece of modernist architecture in the form of a seaside house. The Irish-born Gray is best known for her furniture design (her Bibendum chair is visible in the third photo above), but it is odd that she is only known as a furniture designer considering her architectural contributions.
On a hill overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, Gray’s E-1027 house was built to share with her lover, critic Jean Badovici. The name of the house sounds impersonal, but it is in fact a numeric code for their joint initials; that interesting story is here. Also see a story about the building of the house by Patricia O’Reilly, who has also written a novel based on Gray’s life (and who has kindly commented below). The house has steadily fallen into disrepair, and in the 1990s the house’s furniture, also designed by Gray, was sold off by its owner to fund house repairs. But the house continued to disintegrate until efforts to save it were apparently successful in 2000. It was mostly restored (see second photo above), then again fell into disrepair, and by 2008 was going through a second restoration.
As of May 2015, the house has been restored and is opening to the public. For information visit the relaunched website of the Friends of e1027.
Gray’s inexplicable obscurity delayed the restoration project for far too long. Here is a description about its condition in the 1990s:
What’s… remarkable is that E1027 is still a deteriorating ruin. When I lived in Monaco in 1995-7, I tried once to find it, but no locals could figure out what I was talking about. The most comprehensive images I’ve seen, though, are on flickr, a photoset made by Daniel, an Irish architect, who hopped the fence in 1997 when the house was a squat [the last owner had been murdered a couple of months prior.] I can’t find any images of Gray’s last house, Lou Perou, which was done near St Tropez, either. And I can’t find any word on the status of her own house, Tempe à Pailla, which was inland, up the mountains from Roquebrune & Menton in the village of Castellar. How is it that no modernist pilgrims have tracked and documented this stuff?
[You can read about the state of e1027 in 2008-9 in this post and also in the comments below. You may also want to listen to a “By Design” 2011 radio segment on the house on Australian Broadcasting Corp – audio is here at 15:18]
The photo above shows Corbusier, his wife, and Jean Badovici as photographed by Gray. When you start researching the house, you begin to suspect that Corbusier had something to do with Gray’s obscurity, and in fact many believe this. (See the link above for a summary of an interesting paper by Beatriz Colomina). It’s hard to determine what role Corbusier played in this, but it’s clear that he was extremely fascinated by E-1027.
Le Corbusier, arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century, was obsessed and haunted by E-1027, the seaside villa Eileen Gray built at Roquebrune Cap Martin in 1929. Over the decades, he sought to possess her “maison en bord de mer” in a multitude of ways. It may have been the last thing he saw before dying of a heart attack while swimming off the rocks beneath E-1027 in 1965. After he died, the footpath serving the area was designated Promenade Le Corbusier. In time, as Gray’s reputation faded, some would even credit him with the design of her villa.
More at Irish Architecture and The Charnel House. It’s known that Gray was infuriated by Corbusier’s alterations of the villa, especially the murals he painted on it (after she broke with Badovici and moved out of the house) and which she felt had vandalized it. She never returned to the house after that, and even in her nineties it was said that she was still fuming about it. (The house’s state of disarray in the early 2000s is obvious in the second mural photo. Again, full set of Flickr photos by Irish architect Daniel is here.) Alastair Gordon tells the story in more detail in his 2013 Wall Street Journal article.
Gray disagreed strongly with Corbusier’s idea of a house as a machine, arguing for a more organic conception of a functional living space. To this end she built her house taking into consideration the angle of the sun and the wind and the elements of the site, so that in every season the house fit into its environment but also, and more importantly, provided maximum pleasure for its inhabitants.
It seems unlikely that the house’s obscurity, given its contributions to architectural history, are unrelated to the fact that the architect was a woman. Thoughts welcome.
In 2008 the house was listed by Building Design as one of the world’s most romantic buildings, whatever that means. This house ought to be listed in an entirely less silly (and ghettoized feminine) category, one that doesn’t further deprive this house of the status it deserves. Perhaps I would not be so annoyed by this categorization if the house were also highlighted in other less ghettoized categories, but it tends not to be.
Photo of early restoration, 2nd from top, is from flickr.
For more information about the house and a group working to save it, click below. Monograph on Gray’s work available from Amazon: Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work.
Friends of E.1027 – text from 2008:
Friends of E.1027 is an organization devoted to raising funds for the restoration and preservation of E.1027, the modernist villa designed and built by Eileen Gray in association with Jean Badovici on the Mediterranean coast of France at Roquebrune-Cap Martin.
E.1027 was built by Gray between 1926 and 1929 as a summer vacation residence for Badovici. The name of the house was a code for their intertwined initials: E for Eileen, 10 for J, the10th letter of the alphabet, and, following this logic, 2 for B, and 7 for G. Though the house was in one sense a collaborative effort, in reality Gray was entirely responsible for its design and for overseeing its construction. Badovici mainly assisted in technical matters when needed. Gray built the house on an isolated stretch of the French Riviera, on the western side of Cap Martin overlooking the Bay of Monaco. She chose this sight for the beauty of its view and built the house directly into the terrain. Wishing to build a house that interacted with the natural elements surrounding it, she carefully studied the wind and the angles of the sun at different times of the day and year and in this way was able to build a structure with a constant, evolving relationship with the sun, the wind, and the sea. Gray designed the house so that inside and outside flowed together. Not only does every room give out onto a balcony, but the shutters, screens, and windows are all movable, allowing the inhabitant to harmoniously engage with the sea and the hills surrounding the villa. The house was designed as a “maison minimum” – simple and efficient, with areas of built-in furniture and no wasted space. The main level of the house consists of a large open living room, a study/bedroom, a kitchen, and a bath. The lower level consists of a large covered sitting area, a guest bedroom, maid’s quarters, and a WC. On the roof she built a garden which included an outdoor kitchen connected to the interior kitchen, and a small area for sunbathing. While E.1027 was a modern movement house and employed many of the key tenets of the movement’s chief architect, Le Corbusier, Gray took issue with Le Corbusier who famously felt that “the house is a machine to live in.” Rather, she described the house as a living organism, an extension of the human experience, stating that “it is not a matter of simply constructing beautiful ensembles of lines, but above all, dwellings for people.” “Formulas are nothing,” she insisted, “Life is everything.” Gray created a villa with an open and flexible design which allowed the user to experience the space of living as an organic whole comprising the self, the house, and the outside environment. At the same time her designs allowed the user to maintain a feeling of intimacy and privacy, both of which she herself valued enormously. With E.1027 Gray made a singular and fundamental contribution towards modern architecture.