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French Riviera's Architectural Movement

Benoît Peverelli The Villa Noailles in Hy&ecute;res, on the Cô d'Azur.

Photo: Benoît Peverelli

The architect put his mark on the simple space by painting the floor a bright yellow, with rectangular panels of white, red, and green on the ceiling. He painted colorful murals on the plywood walls, and, perhaps inspired by what Gray had done at E.1027, designed built-in furniture, including a butcher-block table of walnut, storage compartments, and a bed. Mirrors span the inside of the folding shutters to bring in light from outside and reflect the spectacular Mediterranean vistas. Le Corbusier's bungalow stands almost as a rebuke to the glittering new construction that nowadays lines much of the adjacent coast. "It sends the message that when you build on a magnificent site you need only a little cabin, not a grand dwelling with air-conditioning," Barrès told me.

I saw very much the opposite in nearby Cap-Ferrat: the exterior of a more contemporary beacon of Modernism, the newly built seaside retreat of British architect Norman Foster. In presenting his design to local landmark authorities for construction approval about five years ago, Foster said it was inspired by Gray's villa. I could see that both houses share nautical motifs. But the scale and form of his towering multilevel plate-glass façade is far more imposing. The architect of megaprojects like the new Reichstag dome in Berlin and the Swiss Re office tower in London opted for nothing like Le Corbusier's bungalow

Passing through Nice, I drove west for some three hours, until I reached the town of Hyères, where the Viscount and Viscountess de Noailles, celebrated patrons of modern art, built what started out as a small house but soon grew into a 42-room avant-garde château. The place rapidly became an important meeting place where gala balls were held for Surrealists and others. The Villa Noailles has been undergoing extensive renovations over the past decade, and its garden and much of its interior are now accessible to visitors.

The de Noailles were a trendsetting aristocratic couple of grand lineage—the viscountess was descended from the Marquis de Sade. Marcel Proust partly based his character the Duchess of Guermantes in Remembrance of Things Past on her grandmother. Salvador Dalí, Balthus, Man Ray, and Cecil Beaton all made portraits of her.

The couple's villa in Hyères, some 50 miles east of Marseilles, served as their winter refuge in the years before the Riviera became a popular summertime destination. The 15 bedrooms in the rambling house—each with its own private bath—saw scores of illustrious guests, including Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Igor Stravinsky, Alberto Giacometti, and Francis Poulenc.

The de Noailles had originally asked Le Corbusier to design the house, but he proved to be too difficult to work with, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe declined to take the job. "I will go to this house to have the sun," Charles de Noailles wrote in 1923 to the French Modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, who ultimately won the commission with a design underscoring de Noailles's wish for a villa that would be "interesting to inhabit." Until then, Mallet-Stevens had worked primarily on film sets, and the completed villa became the setting for Man Ray's 1929 Surrealist film Les Mystères du Château du Dé.

The crisp, boxy contours of the villa's concrete façade are now being repainted their original battleship gray. Nothing could contrast more severely with the quaint ocher tile–roofed houses of Hyères's nearby Old Town. Built on a steeply inclined hill atop the ruins of a medieval abbey, the villa resembles a beached ocean liner with its prow-like triangular terraced garden. This landscape was described as a Cubist composition by its creator, Gabriel Guevrekian, and is laid out like a multi­level chessboard.

Although the couple separated after World War II, Marie-Laure de Noailles continued to inhabit the house. After her death, in 1970, the structure was occupied by squatters until it was bought by the city of Hyères and declared a French national monument. The refurbished villa now has a busy schedule of art and design exhibitions, and is a key stop on the international fashion circuit, during the annual spring Festival International des Arts de la Mode, which draws designers like John Galliano, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Helmut Lang, and Viktor & Rolf. The link between the villa and the fashion world accords with the viscountess's own interests: a style icon during her lifetime, she was a client of Elsa Schiaparelli and befriended other couturiers, among them Coco Chanel and Christian Dior.

After visiting these three great Modernist houses, I drove to Marseilles to spend the night in another acclaimed architectural landmark, Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation apartment block, which has a budget hotel on its third and fourth floors. The overnight accommodations, planned by Le Corbusier as part of his nine-story "vertical village," are certainly adequate, but have the feel of a dreary college dorm or a pre-1989 Slovak hostelry.

As I left the next day, I realized that the innovative housing project was completed the same year that Le Corbusier built his bungalow—1952. Starting my journey at that unassuming hideaway and ending it at his mammoth apartment complex, I had traveled not only the length of the Côte d'Azur, but also a good way along the spectrum of 20th-century architectural achievement.

MICHAEL Z. WISE is a T+L contributing editor.


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