Architecture

The Mystery of Eileen Gray’s Villa

This strange house on the Mediterranean coastline stands as a testament to the birth of modern architecture.
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Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s Villa E-1027, on the French Riviera between Monaco and Menton. © Drone de Regard

Perched on the rocks overlooking the cobalt-blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the most enigmatic villa on the French Riviera has a very odd name: E-1027. The term is more evocative of a Stanley Kubrick movie than an architectural gem. Yet behind this title, which uses a strange code to combine the initials of its two creators, Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici, the villa is both an exceptional work, a mystery, and the subject of a peculiar controversy against the backdrop of a battle of the sexes.

The real masterpiece is the natural beauty of this graceful, efficient construction, which is only accessible via the coastal footpath in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin between Monaco and Menton. Built in 1929 in a then-untouched expanse of garrigue heathland, the villa forms a parallelepiped shape resembling a cruise liner setting sail. The terraced gardens so typical of the Mediterranean region blend perfectly into the surrounding landscape, like a cascade of folding ribbons opened out onto the sea. Reminiscent of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis in Athens, its minimalism combines extreme sophistication and absolute simplicity. This elegance is freed from any references to styles of the past, a feat only made possible by two avant-gardists with neither taboos nor sponsors.

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The living room of Villa E-1027, with one of the Transat chairs designed by Eileen Gray (right). © Alan Irvine/Centre Pompidou/Bibliothèque Kandinsky
Eileen Gray photographed by Berenice Abbott, 1926. © 2019 Estate of Berenice Abbott

But was Eileen Gray the one who designed this concept? One thing is for sure: She is the one who decided on the shape. Born in Ireland in 1878 into a wealthy family of lawyers and artists, she moved to France after studying painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. After falling in love with Paris at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, she gave up painting to instead study lacquering and weaving. After starting a business as an interior designer, she made a name for herself through her lacquered objects, furniture, and rugs. When she met Romanian-born architect and art critic Jean Badovici, director of the avant-garde L’Architecture vivante magazine, neither of them had ever built anything. But Eileen Gray wanted a sunny house in Southern France, a region they both loved.

The Influence of the Chicago School

The Irish designer purchased a plot of land in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and the couple published a detailed description of their future home in L’Architecture vivante. The interior was to be crafted by Eileen Gray, but Jean Badovici appeared to be behind the structure, based on the five points of architecture defined by modernist theorist Le Corbusier. Inspired by the Chicago School, they designed a building on stilts, transforming the first floor into an open space with a roof terrace capable of welcoming a solarium, swimming pool, or garden. The load-bearing walls were removed and the building was instead supported by steel and concrete structures – Le Corbusier’s favorite materials. The facade was bare, without any form of decoration. The columns set toward the back of the building made the walls look like a delicate skin, and long, horizontal windows were inserted across much of the facade.

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Villa E-1027 with its whitewashed concrete walls and its rooftop terrace. © Manuel Bougot

After two years of work, the villa built with reinforced concrete and hollow bricks (with cinderblock filling) was completed in 1929. Eileen Gray refused any of the exotic garden features so popular at the time, and the green fruit trees on the dry-wall terraces contrast with the whitewashed facade. Paradoxically, the Irish woman only spent one year in her dream house decorated with her very own Transat armchairs inspired by sun loungers on transatlantic liners, rugs depicting sunsets over the sea, and a number of treasures including satellite mirrors with integrated lamps, a nickel-coated folding table, and foldable screens. She wanted the walls to be completely white, aside from one or two in bright colors. These blank canvases were later covered with multicolored paintings by Le Corbusier in the 1930s – an act that sparked a scandal.

Le Corbusier Marks His Territory

It would be inthinkable to deny the immense talent of the creator of the Cité Radieuse in Marseille and Notre-Dame du Haut Chapel in Burgundy. But his – unsolicited – paintings were hardly in keeping with the overall unity and harmony of the seaside home. And yet Le Corbusier was a friend of the couple. In the early 1950s, he fell in love with the charm of this Mediterranean setting. In a complete break from his megalomaniacal urban projects, he even designed an austere wooden shed to work in during the summer. The project was installed just above Villa E-1027, which was then solely inhabited by Jean Badovici, Eileen Gray having left to live in a new villa in Menton.

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Le Corbusier at work, covering the white walls of Eileen Gray’s villa with his colorful murals. © Fondation Le Corbusier/Artists Rights Society, NY
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A mural by Le Corbusier in the guestroom at Villa E-1027. © Manuel Bougot/Fondation Le Corbusier/ADAGP, Paris, 2017

While on vacation at the house, lent to him by Jean Badovici in the 1930s, the star architect covered the walls with immense paintings inspired by Picasso. “Seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of modernism, he asserted his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory,” wrote Rowan Moore in the Guardian in 2013. He also started telling people that he was the one who had designed the space. But was Le Corbusier the villa’s architect? The rumor endured until his death in 1965, and the two actual creators never came forward to deny it. Articles supporting Eileen Gray have however suggested that she did not appreciate the paintings, as they clashed with the villa’s understated aesthetic.

The years passed, and so did the villa’s owners. The furniture designed by Eileen Gray was divided up and sold at auction in 1992, and the abandoned building was damaged by squatters. Restoration works began in the 2000s, led by an organization partly financed by the Le Corbusier Foundation, which opposed any return to the site’s original aesthetic. The paintings by the modernist architect, whose principles had inspired the design, had to stay. Fortunately, time can often be kind, and the winds of modernity and beauty blowing through this masterpiece have soothed the scandal and bitterness. Villa E-1027 can now be visited along with the cabin and camping facilities created by Le Corbusier. But thanks to Eileen Gray, architecture has finally become an art form championed by women.


Article published in the October 2021 issue of
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