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 this is odd 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 distintegrate until efforts to save it were apparently successful in 2000. It was mostly restored (see second photo above), then again fell into disrepair, and now seems to be going through a second restoration.
Gray’s inexplicable obscurity delayed the restoration project for far too long. Here is a description about its condition in the 90s:
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 a 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?
[Important update: there is new information about what has happened to this house at my post here and also in the comments below. Thank you. 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, 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 here. It’s known that Gray was infuriated by Corbusier’s alterations of the villa, especially the murals he painted on it while she was away and which she felt had vandalized it. She never returned to the house after that, and even in her nineties it was said she was still fuming about it. (The house’s recent disarray is obvious in the second mural photo. Again, full set of Flickr photos by Irish architect Daniel is here.)
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.
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.
Photo of restored house 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.