On a balmy winter morning in 2008, I crossed the tracks at the railway station of Roquebrune-sur-mer on France’s Côte d’Azur, accompanied by the deputy to the mayor of Roquebrune, and the man responsible for the region’s cultural affairs. I’d battled for permission to view E. 1027 – the villa designed in the Twenties by Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray. She was my hero, I’d written about her for years. This, finally, was ‘the day’, and there I was with a bellyful of fluttering butterfliesPatricia O’Reilly.
The pathway across the top of the cliff running from Menton to Roquebrune leads to E. 1027, generally regarded by experts as one of the most iconic houses of the 20th century. We turned a corner that day and there it was, mostly hidden behind a shell of metal protection as it was in the process of undergoing a €800,000 refurbishment.
Gates opened and finally I was standing in the building site which had taken over what was once Eileen Gray’s terraced garden. E. 1027 is a squat building clinging to the cliff face, perched
on a narrow lip of sandstone and overlooking the Bay of Monaco. Around me, workmen were operating at speed, the metal ramp running along the outer side of the garden was working overtime, bringing materials to the site.
I breathed deeply, in an effort to capture the spirit of Gray, as I tripped over cables and clumps of concrete, trying to pinpoint the location of her solarium, her outside shower and her beloved secret garden. I found them, but not her, of course, although the ghostly remnants of the lemon trees, palms and eucalyptus she had so carefully chosen for soil and climate still remained in dusty evidence.
The architect for the project was Pierre-Antoine Gattier, the highest authority on historical monuments in France. Not having much French, I was at a disadvantage, but M. Gattier, who spoke some English, assured me that the work in hand incorporated best modern building practice. I saw that the outside plasterwork had all been renovated and the house was re-painted white.
Having given me the official spiel, M. Gattier turned his back on my questions about access for the public when the job is finished – I had heard rumours that it would only be opened to the public on one day of the year. As far as I know, four years on, it still has not been opened. E. 1027 is in the care of Conservatoire du Littoral, an organisation dedicated to the protection of valuable French resources. While the refurbishment work was trumpeted as remaining true to Gray’s original design, it is widely believed that the focus of the operation was really on protecting what are known as the Le Corbusier murals. Le Corbusier is regarded as one of the most important architects of the 20th century. In the late Twenties while he was a guest of Gray and her then lover Jean Badovici, he painted eight sexually explicit murals on the walls. Her outrage is well documented, although reputedly she was amused that during World War II the murals were used by German officers as target practice. When I was there, the murals had been taken down and were propped against a wall, enveloped in swathes of plastic protection.
The house packs lots of rooms: the main level consists of an open living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom; the lower level has a guest bedroom, maid’s quarters, and a WC; on the roof there’s a garden, with an outdoor kitchen, and an area for sunbathing.
Not surprisingly, compliments have flown about the L-shaped living area: the longer part of which faces the sea and incorporates the main bedroom. Eileen Gray combined inside and outside to create the impression of the promenade decks of an ocean liner. It works like a dream.
I stood there on that day looking through the vast sliding windows. The bedroom had its own sea terrace and the remains of built-in furniture were still in evidence. Eileen Gray would have sat up in bed here – a bed dressed with the very best of linens – propped by a bank of pillows, looking out at the ever-changing Mediterranean. She’d have been happy there, surrounded by her scattered notebooks and pencils, her ailing eyesight facilitated by the angle lights built into the headboard. A shiver ran up my spine as I imagined her there, sensed her stepping out on to the decking for her first cigarette and coffee of the day.
Eileen Gray died in Paris in 1976 – but in her beloved E. 1027, her pioneering spirit lingers still.
Patricia O’Reilly is the author of Time & Destiny, a fictionalised account of the life of Eileen Gray. Her next novel highlights the link between Gray and Bruce Chatwin