Archive Fever: Eileen Gray's E1027

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday August 31, 2016

For the last official week of summer, DART looks at the extraordinary Modernist villa, E 1027, perched on a rocky promontory in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, near Saint-Tropez, France. Built in 1929 by the now-legendary designer/architect Eileen Gray as a love nest for herself and the Romanian architect and critic Jean Badovici, the house has become something of an icon for Modernist design and preservation; in design schools today, it has also become an emblem of  the sexual politics that embroiled modern architecture.

The villa is considered by experts to be Gray’s point-by-point demonstration of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture [info], to the extent that the master became incensed by its perfection. For one thing it was designed by a woman; secondly, she had previously been his protégé, as a furniture designer. The story of the house and its inhabitants runs from the racy [for a period hosting the ménage a trois of Gray, Badovici and Corbu] to the revolting [being left to crumble as it housed vagrants and vermin following the murder of its last inhabitant, in the 1960s. After her breakup with Badovici in 1932, she never returned.

But these photographs, made under Gray’s direction soon after the villa was completed, show the grace and quality of the small vacation house. It was situated to capture breeze and sunshine throughout the days, and was furnished with seminal pieces by Gray, including the Bibendum chair, the E 1027 adjustable table, and a carpet with a marine design theme. Within the main living room of this villa, the wall contains a nautical map. Its title, "L'Invitation au Voyage," references a poem by Charles Baudelairefrom his collection Les Fleurs du Mal, which contains the lines "Think of the rapture/Of living together there!/Of loving at will/Of loving till death."

From Friends of E 2017:[The villa] was built on an isolated stretch of the French Riviera, on the western side of Cap Martin overlooking the Bay of Monaco. [Gray] 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. [more]

While living there in 1939 at the invitation of Badovici, Corbu painted six murals with expressly sexual content throughout the villa as his stated means of vandalizing the place. In the photo, left, he is shown painting nude, with a massive scar on his leg from a horriffic swimming accident the previous summer. [more]  Rowan Moore, in The Guardian wrote, "Seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of modernism, he asserted his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory. Gray saw his painting as a violation, and was furious. He, however, didn't stop there: he acquired land nearby and built his own retreat..." a wooden cabin  from which he would obsessively watch the villa. In a bizarre twist of fate, the famed architect drowned in the sea below the villa in 1965 as a result of a heart attack. [more]

Ironically, the house was purchased in 2000 by the French government to preserve as a monument historique,  primarily due to the murals by the most highly esteemed Modernist architect, Le Corbusier. By then the place was a shambles, with damages so severe that some areas could not be returned to their original condition. But a Franco-American alliance was formed to raise money for the restoration, which was completed in 2014. Because of the restrictions on change by the governmental agencies, the murals also had to be kept and restored.

From the mid-1930s on, Eileen Gray lived a quiet life in Paris, where she died at age 98 in 1976.

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