The House by the Sea
Published in The Gloss magazine, August 2007
On a warm summer’s morning in 1926, Irish designer Eileen Gray drove her MG up the narrow winding mountain roads from Menton to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and parked in the railway station. Reaching into the back of the car she took out a rolled towel containing swim suit and bathing cap. Having spent a fruitless past three weeks hunting for a suitable site on which to build the house of her dreams, she was taking time out for a swim. She crossed the narrow path and walked along the cliffs. After a few hundred yards she stopped and looked down the cliffs. To her left and half way down was a ledge: she had found the site on which she would build one of the most iconic houses of the twentieth century.
Some eighty years later when researching Time & Destiny, my novel of her life, I arrived into the same station by train from Nice. Crossing the tracks I climbed over a low stone wall and wandered along a narrow asphalted pathway, following in the footsteps of Eileen Gray, hoping to view that house.
Eileen Gray was born in Co. Wexford in 1878 to an Anglo-Irish family whose ancestry dated back to the 15th-century English peer Lord Gray. At the time of her location quest, thanks to her pioneering lacquerwork, furniture and interior design, she had been the toast of Paris for a decade and now she was about to break architectural ground. For the three weeks, without success, she had searched up and down the Côte d’Azur for a site on which to build a house to be designed by her, constructed to her specification and furnished with her pieces.
After a few minutes the path fizzled out. Intrigued by the natural beauty and isolation of the area, she clambered over crumbling walls, through the scattered Levant pines and brushes of wild rosemary and euphorbia before coming on a small natural terrace cut into the honey-coloured limestone rocks with the ever-changing turquoise of the Mediterranean below. The swim was forgotten. She had found the perfect site on which to build her perfect house.
Her design was tiered and carved out of the rock face; embracing the natural contours of the site, it used light and wind to best advantage. With walls of glass, the house looked out towards the sea. She called it the E.1027. E for Eileen. 10 for Jean. 2 for Badovici. 7 For Gray. She gifted it to Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect, ten years her junior with whom she was having an affair at the time.
During the three years of construction, Gray remained on or near the site. Dressed in a trouser suit, silk shirt and a jaunty bow tie, she buzzed up and down the treacherous mountain roads in her roadster checking on details, ensuring every aspect of her design was adhered to, refusing to compromise.
Seen from the sea, the finished villa, complete with masts, looked like a ship at anchor. Sailcloth membranes protected the terrace from the sun; life preservers hung from the balcony deck and reclining chairs suggested a cruise. On land the design was equally impressive. By using the same wooden floors, plain white walls, shutters and lights, the exterior terrace seamlessly converted to a second living room. The furniture was chrome, leather, wood, glass and cork.
She poured her very soul into this house, where she and Badovici spent many summers, frequently with house guests. One guest was modernistic architect Le Corbusier who, when Eileen was absent and with the encouragement of Badovici, painted a series of eight sexual murals on the walls. Calling it an ‘act of vandalism’, Gray insisted that Badovici write to Le Corbusier demanding the murals be removed ‘to re-establish the original spirit of the house by the sea’. Le Corbusier retaliated by publishing photographs, claiming his murals ‘burst out from dull, sad walls where nothing is happening…an immense transformation, a spiritual value introduced throughout.’
With the break-up of her relationship with Badovici, Eileen Gray left E.1027, never to return, though, reputedly, she was amused to learn that the German soldiers who occupied the place during World War II used the murals for target practice.
The dispute with Le Corbusier continued until Badovici’s death in 1956 after which Le Corbusier built an elevated 2-storey hostel over looking E.1027 – he had already built his famous Cabanon there in 1952 - and dedicated himself to the preservation of his murals. In 1960, E.1027 was bought by Madame Marie-Louise Schelbert of Zurich. Five years later, Le Corbusier’s body was found at the base of the cliffs. Against doctor’s orders he had gone swimming. He was 78 and it was assumed that he had suffered a heart attack. On her death, Madame Schelbert willed E.1027 to her doctor, Peter Kägi, who, in 1991, transported and sold Gray’s furniture in Switzerland for today’s equivalent of €390,000.
The house was vandalised by squatters in June 1998. Despite an international campaign spearheaded by Irish architect Patrick Mellet who urged the Irish government to acquire the house, it was bought by the Conservatoire du Littoral and declared a French national monument. Ironically, E.1027 owes its salvation to Le Corbusier’s murals. Without them, rumour has, it would have been left to rot. Plans for its restoration are being prepared under the direction of architect Renaud Barrès who despite repeated phone calls stalled on allowing me to view.
I made the journey anyway, hoping that with me on the spot he would relent. And at the very least I needed to see for myself the house that had consumed Eileen Gray in the same way as she had consumed me while I was researching and writing Time & Destiny. The pathway was dirty and dusty, littered with cigarette butts, empty cans, dog faeces and a smell of urine. A vandalised telephone box and padlocked gates marked the entrance to E.1027. The hostel and Cabanon showed signs of activity; Barrès was reputedly in residence but there was no relenting.
E.1027 is a sad shipwreck of a house with crumbling concrete, smashed windows and, saddest of all, shattered dreams. But the Mediterranean, barely visible through the tangled overgrowth and chicken wire fencing, is still turquoise, still dashing against the honey coloured limestone rocks.
It’s a balmy winter morning when again I cross those same railway tracks and walk the same path but today young men and women dressed in canary yellow t-shirts with the letters SISYPHE written in red are in the process of upgrading it. Escorted by M. Jean-Louis Dedieu, deputy to the major of Roquebrune i/c cultural affairs, I am on a mission to view Eileen Gray’s iconic 20th century house. Also in attendance are Judith Gantly, administrator Princess Grace Irish Library, Monaco where I had given a talk titled, ‘The Life and Times of Eileen Gray’ on the previous evening, and M. Jean-Rene Fonquerne of Monaco’s exclusive Lycee Albert.
Since my unsuccessful attempt to gain access, the house has acquired a shell of metal protection and cranes, pulleys and a high metal ramp running along its side to bring to site the raw materials required for refurbishment.
The architect i/c now is Pierre-Antoine Gattier, also architect in charge of historical monuments in France and author of several works on the subject. His restoration projects include the Cathedral and ramparts at Langres and the town hall at Châlons-en-Champagne.
Various padlocks are opened by M. Dedieu and we gain admittance to the site where hard-hatted workmen are busy. E.1027 is in the care of Conservatoire du Litteral, a French organization dedicated to the protection of valuable resources – in this case it is Le Corbusier’s murals more than Gray’s design. The completion date is June 2010.
While the estimated €850,000 refurbishment work remains true to the original design, it incorporates best modern building practice with evidence of new damp-coursing, cavity bricks, re-wiring and re-plumbing. The outside plasterwork has been renovated and re-painted white; damaged concrete repaired; and on completion of the project the solarium, outside shower and secret gardens will be re-instated.
Inside are new sliding windows (with the openers which Gray designed and patented).The tiled floors are original; particularly striking is grey-shaded ‘cube’ impressionist design, as are features such as washbasins and taps; claw-legged free-standing bath; circular mirror; black wall tiles – stenciled in bathroom is ‘Les Dents’; curved shelves and panels of electric sockets. Examples of the built-in furniture designed by Gray that has survived includes cupboards with paneled doors and basic ring openers; wardrobes.
But pride of architectural care goes to Le Corbusier’s eight murals, protected in frames of timber with clear plastic coverings. Arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century, he was reputedly obsessed by E-1027. When staying as a house guest, he painted a series of eight sexual murals on the walls. Gray called it an ‘act of vandalism’ and demanded they be removed. He retaliated by publishing photographs, claiming his murals ‘burst out from dull, sad walls where nothing is happening…an immense transformation, a spiritual value introduced throughout’.
With the break-up of her relationship with Badovici, Eileen Gray left E.1027, never to return. Though, reputedly, she was amused to learn that the German soldiers who occupied the place during World War II used the murals for target practice.
The dispute with Le Corbusier continued until Badovici’s death in 1956 after which he built an elevated 2-storey hostel over looking E.1027 – he had already built his famous Cabanon in 1952 - and dedicated himself to the preservation of his murals. When he died of a heart attack after his morning swim, the footpath serving the area was designated Promenade Le Corbusier as Gray’s reputation was yet to be resurrected.
Her determination lives on today. Two pities are first that the Irish government did not see fit to purchase the house; secondly that in their wisdom the French government have decided it will exist as a museum to be viewed by the public – reputedly through the windows from the outside at designated times during the year.
What would the woman who believed ‘a house should be a man’s shell, his extension, his growth, his spiritual glow’ have to say about a house that is only viewed from the outside?