Code name: E-1027. This is the name of the seaside villa designed by Irish-born architect and decorator Eileen Gray in the 1920s. Its white silhouette dominates the Mediterranean in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in the Alpes-Maritimes. Accessible only by following the customs path, it was first designed for French-Romanian publisher Jean Badovici, head of an avant-garde architecture magazine, “L’architecture vivante” (“Living architecture”). An architect and art critic too, it was he who suggested that she build this house, something new for the designer. It was whilst the plans were being drawn up, before work began, that they became lovers. And Badovici’s project became their project, as evidenced by the odd code name: E for Eileen, 10, for the J in Jean (10th letter of the alphabet), 2 for the B in Badovici, 7 for the G in Gray.
VILLA E-1027, THE MANIFESTO OF A VISION
Perched on stilts, wide open to the sea, with light playing a central role through the large bay windows suggested for the front, and topped with a flat roof, it is typical of the modernist architecture of the 1930s. Together, Gray and Badovici wanted to make this building a kind of manifesto, a counter-argument to the overly cold interiors of the time, for example, which they judged as not conducive to modern life and its intimacy. The interior is minimalist, functional, and although the villa is modest in size, it is designed to be a place where everyone “should be able to remain free and independent”. Because Eileen Gray was deeply free, and independent. She was also ahead of her time.
Landing in Paris in 1900, she passed her driving license, embarked on multiple flings – both male and female – and travelled through Algeria in the footsteps of Gide and Oscar Wilde. Its lacquered furniture, typical of the Art Deco movement, its wall hangings and its lamps, are still very sought after today. She would go on to abandon this style that had won her recognition to reinvent herself in design and functional architecture, with furniture made from sleek, meticulously chosen fabrics. His influences were numerous (Africa, Japan and so on); his ever-freer designs attracted the attention of the De Stijl movement. Eileen Gray knew how to combine her sense of detail with the more global vision of a construction project. This is undoubtedly what led her to take an interest in architecture and to design the plans for several dwellings before embarking on the Villa E-1027 project.
Works ended in 1929, after three years of designing the plans for the project and the furnishings for the villa with Badovici. The couple separated three years later, but Badovici resided there until his death (1956). Le Corbusier was a close friend of Badovici. He would come to Cape Martin every year, with his wife. The two couples spent time together in a sometimes troubled relationship, where mutual admiration and a background of jealousy were intertwined. Le Corbusier coveted this concept house. He used it as inspiration for his own creations, to the point that many would wrongly credit him with authorship of the Villa E-1027. It has to be said that the architect did leave his mark on it.During the summer of 1938, Le Corbusier painted eight wall frescos, at the request of Jean Badovici, with whom he had already decorated the house in Vézelay (with Fernand Léger). Five of them remain today, despite damage suffered during the Second World War.
LE CORBUSIER’S CONTENTIOUS FRESCOES
These frescoes are at the heart of a heated dispute between Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray. Because she continued to visit the house, years after her separation from Badovici. She disliked the presence of nude figures in the paintings, a reminder of Le Corbusier’s penchant for naturism when he was in Cape Martin. In her words, they were a “violation” of her architectural meticulousness. Her complaints to Badovici, whom she asked to get rid of them, remained ignored. Ironically, it is these frescoes so hated by Eileen Gray that helped to save the building, which was listed as a Historic Monument in 2000 and is now owned by the Conservatoire National du Littoral (The French Coastal Protection Agency).
After six years of renovations, Villa E-1027 reopened its doors. Le Corbusier’s paintings, although still in existence, are now hidden behind panels. Like a thumbing of the nose at the two men’s somewhat intrusive idea, the Villa has thus regained the spirit of its early days. Thereby completely restoring the vision of this remarkable personality of the 1930s, a pioneer of modernism.