Our Wednesday started very early…we had to be in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin at 10 AM for a special tour at Cap Moderne. Six months ago, we booked an architectural tour which includes visiting Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027 and Le Corbusier’s own seaside retreat. This sort of tour may not have a broad appeal, but for two architects, it was very special.
We arrived at the train station with very little time to spare. Unfortunately, we had a difficult time purchasing tickets…we couldn’t figure out if we were taking a regional or an SNCF train…and all of the ticket kiosks seemed to be for SNCF trains. We had to make the 9:00 train in order to arrive on time for our tour, and the clock was ticking away, so we were very stressed out. We got our tickets for the regional train to Menton, with not a minute to spare…but after getting on the train, we weren’t sure about where to sit. Our tickets clearly said 2nd Class and we weren’t sure if we got on a 1st Class car, or not. Unlike the stereotype of men not wanting to ask for help, I ask EVERYONE for help when we travel. I’m not shy. So I turned to ask the woman sitting beside me (who was dressed like she was going to work). She said to ignore the class notation…that you can sit wherever there is an empty seat.
Travel Tip: Unlike regional/commuter trains in the US, we have found that in Europe, a conductor does not always come through the train to check tickets. Many times, you have to validate your ticket before getting on…if you don’t and a conductor does check your ticket, you could get a heavy fine. This is also true of buses in Europe. Often, natives (non-tourists) will get on through the back doors and bypass the driver and the whole ticket procedure because they probably had a bus pass or some other type of ticket. But unless you have a similar type pass, it’s best to get on in the front. And if you aren’t sure of how things work…just ask someone!
Before sharing our visit to the Villa, let’s start with a little back story about Eileen Gray. She was born as Katherine Eileen Moray Smith in Ireland in 1878 to an aristocratic family. Her mother was a Baroness and her father was a painter, and it was he that encouraged Eileen’s artistic interests. When her parents separated, her mother changed their surname to Gray (her mother was the Baroness Gray). Eileen grew up dividing time between Ireland and London and her education in the arts was divided between private art schools in London and Paris.
After finishing school, in 1917, Ms. Gray was given the job to redesign the apartment of a Parisian milliner named Madame Mathieu Lévy, who was a successful boutique owner. Eileen designed rugs, lamps and almost all of the furniture, including the famous Bibendum chair. If the chair brings to mind something familiar, Ms. Gray named the chair after the Bibendum Man, or as we know him in America…the Michelin Man!
Let me remind you that we are in the early 1900’s…so the design of this leather and steel chair was well ahead of its time. Eileen Gray had started her career with a keen interest in the Art Deco style, and had studied Japanese lacquer work under a master for many years, but in the early 1920’s she began to create her own style. Her furniture designs mixed the elaborate Art Deco aesthetic with the clean lines and geometric reserve of the International Style. Her furniture was sleek, but comfortable and always considered functionality and usefulness to the user.
Despite her obvious talent, Eileen Gray was a woman… and she lived in a time when the art and design world was the territory of men. Unless a woman attached herself to a male mentor or partner, rarely would she achieve great success or recognition. There were exceptions, of course, but much of Ms. Gray’s work was overlooked…the icons of her field were Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. It wasn’t until Ms. Gray was in her twilight age residing in 1970’s Paris that her work was recognized and she licensed her furniture to be reproduced by an elite furniture manufacturer.
In 1921, Eileen Gray was living in Paris and at the age of 43, she began a romantic relationship with 28 year old Romanian architect and art/architecture critic Jean Badovici.
Badovici became the editor of a very influential architectural publication and through his work became friends with many of the stars of the modern movement. He also encouraged Eileen’s growing interest in architecture. A few years into their relationship, he suggested to her that they find a summer vacation home in the South of France, so Eileen set off to find the perfect location. Just down the road from Monaco she found a spot on a steep, craggy cliff near the train station in Roquebrune-Cap Martin. In the early 1920’s, the area was very sparsely populated and consisted of mostly citrus farms. It was rural and agrarian, dotted with banana palms, but the spectacular view of the Mediterranean seemed like the perfect location for the villa. Eileen herself chose the exact site for the house and prior to construction visited multiple times to study the sun, the relationship to the sea, and how the house should be positioned to benefit from the sea breezes and cross ventilation.
A Note of the Photographs: All of the exterior photos, both color and black and white are my pictures. All of the interior shots (which were not allowed) are from other sources.
Not only did she design the villa and its furniture, she actually helped build the place! With the help of some local laborers she hauled building materials to the challenging site and completed the villa in 1929 at the age of 51.
Ms. Gray named the villa based on hers and Jean Badovici’s names: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (J is the tenth letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. It is very clear that Eileen Gray designed all of the custom furniture and built-in pieces, but it is difficult to know exactly how much Badovici contributed to the design of the house. It is assumed that he persuaded her to follow the “rules” of the international style design…but Eileen disagreed with Le Corbusiers famous statement that houses are machines for living in, she said “[A House} is the shell of man—his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.” Regardless, what they created was a very modern villa that suited the needs of the couple to a tee.
We were not allowed to take photographs of the interior (some of these images I found on the web), but one of the most fascinating aspects of the villa’s design was how Gray considered every detail. Every available square inch was used for storage, and Ms. Gray designed elegant storage units for her summer clothes as well as for their guest’s clothing. In the guest bath downstairs, she designed a magnifying mirror for shaving.
The Villa was positioned on the site to take advantage of breezes and sunlight. Ms. Gray studied the local architecture, and incorporated details such as the louvered shutters into her design. The louvers could be opened or closed to control sunlight and ventilation…but she improved the local tradition by creating a clever sliding track system so the shutters could be stacked and allow the windows to be totally open and uncovered.
In many ways, the Eileen Gray designed the villa to resemble a ship. There are decks and the house’s long and linear form even reads as a ship. In a tongue and cheek move, Ms. Gray placed a life preserver on a terrace railing.
Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s love nest that was E-1027 was not to endure for very long. By 1932 Eileen was working on another villa for herself not far away in Menton. While they remained in contact for years, they were no longer a couple. Despite using her money to buy the land and fund the construction of E-1027 (foreigners couldn’t own land in France–so it had to be put in Badovici’s name), Badovici took over as occupant and continued to use it as a summer house. Through his work as editor of the architecture publication in Paris, he became very friendly with Le Corbusier, who was a frequent guest at the villa. It was on a visit to the villa in 1937 that Le Corbusier painted the first mural on the walls of E-1027 with Jean Badovici’s blessing and encouragement.
Although not her house anymore (technically speaking), when Eileen Gray got word of the murals, she was livid. In a series of letters back and forth to Le Corbusier, she described how he had violated the walls…the original design intention was for the walls to be pure and white…their simplicity was part of the beauty of the design, and Corbusier’s murals were nothing more than graffiti (he had said that the walls needed to be “dirtied up”). She threatened to come and paint over the murals, but that never happened. In fact, throughout the years, Corbusier would touch up his murals and even added additional ones throughout the house. Many historians have characterized Corbusier painting the murals as nothing more than a dog marking his territory. It’s surmised that Corbusier was jealous of what Eileen had created with E-1027. After all, she was not a trained, and was the first woman to design and build a truly modernist residence that was as important and stunning as anything he could have designed. He was actually very fond of the place and even tried to buy it after Badovici passed away in the 1950’s.
The next part of our 3 hour tour took us to Le Corbusier’s seaside retreat. Since he was never able to purchase E-1027, he did the next best thing…he purchased land literally right beside the villa and just up the cliff a bit. He met Thomas Rebutato in the 1950’s who had a restaurant adjacent to E-1027. He designed a series of five camping units, all in a row on the cliff side, which he convinced Rebutato would earn him some extra money.
The cottages were designed to be very simplistic with the bare necessities that a visitor would need. A place to sit, to sleep, to bathe, and with windows positioned for views and cross ventilation and the entire layout based on Corbusier’s Modulor sysytem…how the human form relates to architectural spaces. When inside the cottage, it seemed perfectly comfortable, despite being no bigger than a room on a cruise ship…and with a spectacular view of the sea.
Corbusier then convinced Rebutato to let him build his own retreat right beside the restaurant. So Corbusier designed a tiny, but very efficient, 12′-0″ x 12’0″ wood structure based on his Modulor system. He truly loved his Cabanon, as it was called, as he finally had his own place by the sea. There was sufficient space for he and his wife (I believe the tour guide said he preferred to sleep on the floor–or more likely his poor wife just said “you are sleeping on the floor!”. They did everything but cook in the Cabanon….they took all of their meals next door at L’Etoile de Mer (Mr. Rebutato’s restaurant).
Not long after building his cabin, Corbusier couldn’t resist and built himself a little studio–the ultimate private retreat to design and work on his projects.
I feel the need to point out that his Cabanon, as well as the five cottages he designed, were complete anomalies in his design oeuvre. Corbusier was famous for his use of reinforced concrete and steel in his buildings. And his own villas were rectangular, had flat roof structures with roof gardens, an open floor plan and ribbon windows. All of this structure sat on pilotis…or a grid columns that supported the weight of the structure . So to build his private retreat out of wood and in such a rustic technique was quite a departure.
Le Corbusier spent more and more time at his seaside retreat. Despite his doctor advising that he not continue his daily swims in the sea, Corbusier went for a swim on the morning of August 27, 1965. It is assumed that he died of a heart attack. Swimmers found his body and he was buried beside his wife high up in the medieval town of Roquebrune.
The architectural tour was truly fascinating, but it was almost 3 hours long, and even the best behaved child would be bored, tired and ready to move on. Lena was no exception. She was very patient, but it was time for the next stop!
We wanted to visit one of the other towns along the Riviera besides Nice. We weren’t really interested in St. Tropez or Cannes or Monaco. But we had heard great things about Antibes…Menton…and Eze. However, after such a long tour, and because we were literally starving (there was nowhere to eat at Cap Moderne), it only made sense to go to Eze…it was literally on the way back to Nice via the train. So we hopped on the train and less than 20 minutes later we got off at Eze. There was a bus stop right at the train station that takes you up the twisting and turning rode up the mountain to the little village of Eze.
I think it was maybe 1.50 Euros a person for the bus ride, so it was very reasonable. You should be warned that the bus ride is not for the faint of heart. Many of the turns are literally hair pin turns…with traffic in both directions…you have to hold on very tight!
And once you arrive at the bottom of town, the bus drops you off and it is all up hill from there. Once again, I will stress that if you plan a visit to Eze, you will be climbing many steep stairs and paths. If you have an injury,…have weak legs…have a baby in a stroller….I would consider another less challenging town to visit. But if you are able to make it….it is really quite beautiful. It’s hard to capture in photos just how majestic the view is.
The town itself is tiny. You could easily walk all of the paths in an hour. In order to go all the way to the top of the town, you have to pay a fee to enter the beautiful Jardin Botanique d’Èze, which is a lovely garden with cacti and other succulents. The garden terminates at the highest point with what remains of the former castle/fortress. The town has hotels, at least one of which is the Château de La Chèvre d’Or a 5 star hotel that seems perfect for a honeymooning couple. There are also shops selling artwork and jewelry as well as other hand crafted items. I would say Eze has fewer souvenir/trinket stores compared to all of the other hill towns we visited in Provence. There are also several restaurants. As I mentioned, we were starving and weren’t particularly picky about what we ate. But we were lucky to find La Taverne. We had a delicious pasta and a glass of wine and the waitress was very friendly and patient with our broken french. Despite it being super hot, we ate outdoors under an umbrella, but they do have indoor seating which is rather unique…sort of like the inside of a cave.
After a short train ride back to Nice, there was still plenty of time for a dip in the sea. Our custom of enjoying the beach after a long day of sight seeing became a really nice tradition and a wonderful way to relax and cool off. Tomorrow we leave Nice and head to Barcelona for the last leg of our trip!