It's got everything: “Design, construction, love, betrayal, and eventually murder. Just a typical architectural project.”
When introducing Eileen Gray’s E.1027 house to a Docomomo US tour, architectural historian and professor Tim Benton described it as involving “design, construction, love, betrayal, and eventually murder. Just a typical architectural project.”
I have been wondering how to write about it for TreeHugger, but Patrick Sisson of Curbed solved this for me with his recent article, A House is a machine for memory: Restoring Eileen Gray’s E.1027, focusing on women in design. Sisson writes:
From 1926-29 Gray designed the house as a vacation getaway for her then-lover, Romanian architect and critic Jean Badovici (the letters and numbers in the name are code for their names). Their relationship did not end well, and after they broke up in 1932, Gray moved out. Badovici, for his part, remained friends with mutual acquaintance Le Corbusier, who not only staked territory right next door for his own Petit Cabanon, but who would later deface her creation with his own artwork.
In fact, according to Benton, Gray never even met Le Corbusier, even though the house seems to be designed according to his principles. Sisson explains the convoluted relationship between Corbusier and this house:
Obsessed with the design of the house, Le Corbusier was supposedly jealous that Gray could create such a masterful work of art, according to many scholars. His murals incensed Gray, who felt it spoiled her building. Despite the twists and turns that befell the home over the next few decades—Nazi soldiers shot at it for target practice, Le Corbusier briefly lived there (and eventually drowned in front of it while swimming in the ocean), a former owner was murdered on the property— it was ultimately Le Corbusier's murals that spurred the French government into buying the property in 2000.
There is no road to the house; you walk along a path from the train station. It is on a rare parcel of land with access directly to the Mediterranean, which is where most of the windows face.
The wall by the entrance has the first mural by Le Corbusier, which is left exposed. The kitchen is to the left with its own entrance; the staff and the occupants don’t mix.
Everything is maintained and restored, even the water filters made by Louis Pasteur.
I particularly liked how the knob-and-tube wiring is being restored. They evidently scrounge markets for old light switches. The exposed wiring is almost decorative as it runs around the living room walls, a high-tech touch.
Then there is the living area with the map of the Caribbean on the wall. The white wall behind the couch covers a mural; the feeling among the people restoring the house was that it was just too much, it dominated the space, and that it was better to show the Eileen Gray version of the space.
I particularly liked this table that she designed; evidently Gray was very sensitive to noise, hence the thick cork top that soaks it up.
Control of the sun is critical in this climate; Gray designed canvas awnings to keep the heat out. The brown boxes on the right are very clever sliding shutters, deep enough that air can circulate behind them while the shutters are closed. The entire house is full of clever details.
It’s sad that she didn’t get to enjoy it, leaving the house to the creepy boyfriend. Sisson quotes Jennifer Goff:
Gray invested so much of herself into that house and project. Not only did Badovici not appreciate her, he didn't really appreciate what she created for him. She knows a sense of disappointment from a lover totally letting her down. By the time she left to work on her next home, Tempe à Pailla, Badovici already had another girlfriend who had moved in.
Eileen Gray wrote in 1929:
One must build for the human being, that he might rediscover in the architectural construction the joys of self-fulfillment in a whole that extends and completes him. Even the furnishings should lose their individuality by blending in with the architectural ensemble.
The house is important for many reasons. It is modest; it is so carefully designed to control sunlight and maximize air circulation; it is a modern classic. But it is also a complete package, designed by a pioneering woman architect down to the smallest detail. It’s also a lesson in why we should take care of things; it is hard to imagine that it was almost lost.
Read Patrick Sisson’s oral history on Curbed, it’s also remarkable.