The French Riviera is not a place generally known for its low-key style. Driving between Nice and Menton last October, I passed or was passed by Bentley convertibles, scarlet Ferraris, and outsized yachts. I rode by opulent estates secluded behind high walls and showy condominium towers looming above the beautiful landscape.
So I was somewhat surprised when I arrived at the town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin to visit a seaside retreat designed by Le Corbusier: the architect had drawn up a one-room bungalow for himself and his wife and encased the small structure in pine planks that give it the look of a log cabin. Its modesty belies the many grandiose schemes Le Corbusier created elsewhere, including the colossal Unité d'Habitation apartment block in Marseilles and a complex of government buildings in Chandigarh, capital of Punjab, in India.
It took me about an hour and a half to get there from Nice, taking the Grande Corniche with its winding turns that overlook the Mediterranean and the principality of Monaco. On an earlier trip to the Côte d'Azur, I had visited some of the area's art museums, like the Fondation Maeght in St.-Paul-de-Vence and the Musée Matisse and the Musée Marc Chagall in Nice. This time, I wanted to see the less-heralded sites that made the Riviera a focus of Modernist architectural experimentation. One of these, the Villa Noailles in Hyères, is newly restored and open to the public. Another—created by architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray—is due to be refurbished shortly and turned into a museum and study center, right next to Le Corbusier's already restored vacation home.
Gray and le Corbusier had a tortured relationship. She moved to the Riviera ﬁrst, in 1926, well before her tubular chrome tables, lacquered screens, and innovative chairs were collected for display in leading museums as classics of 20th-century furniture design. Gray scouted out a piece of seafront property to build on and found a rugged, stunning spot just below the railway tracks running along the Bay of Monaco.
She created a radical two-story villa, known by the cryptic name of E.1027, that I found standing forlornly beside the bay, where it was completed in 1929 by Gray and her then lover, the Romanian architect and editor Jean Badovici. Gray saw E.1027 as a research project for modern living and a prototype for building other houses in the same spirit. E.1027 has a nautical feel: Gray hung a life preserver from the main balcony, which has a balustrade lined by stretched canvas, as on the deck of a ship.
Shipwreck better describes what I saw. Rusting steel structural supports jut out from crumbling concrete beams, and large clumps of masonry fall to the ground with increasing frequency. Disagreement over funding, among other things, has delayed the start of the restoration project. In the summer of 2004, the villa's perilous state forced the town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin to discontinue public tours of the site. Work on the building, to be overseen by the French Ministry of Culture, is set to begin by early next year, with the villa reopening when work is completed, two years later. Le Corbusier's nearby bungalow remains accessible, and from there or the nearby public beach visitors can view E.1027 from the outside.
I was shown around by Renaud Barrès, an architect who was then working for the city of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, supervising the two properties. Barrès explained how Gray's innovative furniture designs were an integral part of the structure. There are still many built-in pieces, ingeniously crafted cabinets and closets, and even a specially designed place to stack vinyl records in an orderly fashion similar to a CD rack. Gray, who died in 1976, made a breakfast table for the house and covered it with cork to mute the sound of dishes and cutlery so that early risers would not wake other occupants. Tables and chairs that she created for E.1027 are coveted icons of modern design, still in production today.
Gray had read Le Corbusier's writings and was greatly inﬂuenced by them and by his architecture. He in turn admired E.1027. The two met through Badovici. By the late thirties, when Gray and Badovici had grown apart, Le Corbusier stayed at the house, writing afterward to Gray, "I would be delighted to relate how much those few days spent in your house have made me appreciate the rare spirit that dictates all of its organization, both inside and outside, and has given the modern furniture and equipment a form that is so digniﬁed, so charming, and full of wit."
Between 1937 and 1939, at Badovici's invitation, Le Corbusier painted seven vivid murals in various rooms of the house. Although she no longer lived there, having built another home several miles away near Menton, Gray was enraged, since she regarded the murals as violating the spirit of her design. The precise nature of Le Corbusier's relationship with Gray remains ambiguous,and it is uncertain whether he created the murals out of esteem or envy for her accomplishment.
Whatever happened, Le Corbusier fell in love with the place and built his own retreat a stone's throw away on a terrace just above E.1027, with an equally spectacular view of the Mediterranean and surrounded by the same bougainvillea, cypress, and palm trees. The architect, who was born in Switzerland as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret but called himself Le Corbusier, built the rustic cabanon (cottage) in 1952 and occupied it until his death 13 years later.
Le Corbusier used the bungalow three times a year—every summer, as well as at Easter and Christmas. He got the idea of building the tiny living quarters (less than 175 square feet in size) after traveling in a small cabin aboard an ocean liner. "A little cell on a human scale where all activity was provided for," was how he described it. "My cabin in Cap-Martin is even smaller than my luxury [ship] cabin," he once said. He noted that visitors were shocked at seeing the toilet right in the room, but added, "It is after all one of the most beautiful industrially manufactured objects."