Unknown France

Villa Cavrois, a Modern Château

A hundred years old, Villa Cavrois – an enormous private mansion in the northern French town of Croix, near Roubaix – still shines as a beacon of modernity, originality, and refined charm. Designed as a “total work of art” by the French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, the house is a prime example of modernist architecture. After an eventful past, the villa has been fully renovated and is now open to the public.
The modernist architecture of Villa Cavrois is mirrored in the garden’s 236-foot-long reflecting pool. © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

In one of Croix’s more upscale neighborhoods, among neo-Norman houses and meticulously trimmed hedges, stands a nearly 200-foot-long building. It’s the sort of juxtaposition that can rouse even the most distracted passersby from their deepest daydreams; the sort of architecture that is at once familiar and unique; the sort of house you could see yourself living in.

Robert Mallet-Stevens was a talented, innovative, and versatile architect, deeply influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. By the 1930s he had already made a name for himself decorating movie sets for French filmmakers Jean Renoir and Marcel L’Herbier. Paul Cavrois, a textile magnate in Roubaix, then commissioned him to build a unique family home, giving the architect carte blanche. In just three years, Mallet-Stevens completed a “total work of art” forming a coherent whole, symmetric down to the last detail. He designed not only the grounds and the building itself, but also the building’s interior and furniture. His objective was to incorporate “air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort, and efficiency.”

In July 1932, textile baron Paul Cavrois celebrated two happy events: the wedding of his daughter Geneviève and the inauguration of his villa. © Marie-Christine Jouret
The swimming pool at the base of the south facade evokes a medieval castle’s moat. © Colombe Clier/ Centre des Monuments Nationaux
The parents’ bedroom, like the rest of the villa, was fully renovated. © Colombe Clier/Centre des Monuments Nationaux
Wall sconces in polished aluminum designed by Jacques le Chevallier and René Koechlin illuminate the entrance hall. © Colombe Clier/Centre des Monuments Nationaux

Esthetically the villa is resolutely modern – with straight lines like those of an ocean liner, cubes of reinforced concrete, large bay windows, and the surprising use of yellow brick – but its structure was designed to resemble an 18th-century French château. Two symmetric wings separate the parents’ apartments from those of the servants and children. A swimming pool runs along the base of the south facade like a moat, and the reception rooms look out onto a 236-foot-long reflecting pool with paths on either side, reminiscent of Le Nôtre’s gardens. The interior – which features an elevator, electric clocks, switches, sockets, and speakers built into the walls to listen to the radio – was so modern for its day, it feels as though it could be from another time. Industrial materials such as steel, glass, and metal were used alongside more noble materials such as Swedish green marble and mahogany.

During World War II, Villa Cavrois was requisitioned by the German army and used as military barracks. The Germans destroyed the reflecting pool, as it was too visible to British aviators. After the war, the property was returned to the Cavrois family, who lived there until the 1980s. It was then sold to a developer and slated for demolition. Though the house was ultimately spared, it fell into neglect and was looted and used as a squat for the next decade. In 2001, it was purchased by the French government for a token amount.

Thirteen years of renovations and 23 million euros later, the villa was finally restored to its original state. It opened to the public in 2015 and is now run by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, a government body responsible for preserving France’s national monuments – just like Villa Savoye, a country house in the Yvelines département with an uncannily similar history. Each year, this masterpiece of modernist architecture draws 100,000 visitors.


Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.