Architecture Misfit #3: Eileen Gray

Hello – meet Eileen Gray.

Eilen Gray (1878–1976)

Here’s a good blogpost with a quick bio and here’s another one with pics of most of her important work. In the shallow fiction that is architectural history, she gets namechecked for designing this house, E1027.

E1027 is in a nice little corner of the world. Cap Martin, French Riviera.  43°45’35.57″N   7°27’47.38″E

That’s Monaco in the distance. The beach is at Roquebrune. Roquebrune beach is  famous for Corbusier’s body washing up there late morning 27 August 1965. And what was he doing there you may ask? OK, if you must. Here’s a summary (taken from here).

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret first came to Roquebrune at the invitation of the critic and architect Jacques Badovici. He owned Villa E1027 he had designed in 1929 with the Irish designer Eileen Gray. She was soon exasperated by cohabitation with Le Corbusier and his crews, and the conflict reached its paroxysm when he decorated the walls of her villa with eight murals inspired by ‘Purism,’ a post-Cubist pictorial movement of which he was one of the theoreticians. Eileen Gray slammed the door of E1027 never to return.

The murals have a story of their own but the mural above is the creepiest.

Le Corbusier referred to the mural as Sous les pilotis or Graffite à Cap Martin, and sometimes he also labels it Three Women.  All three are remarkable titles. Why “pilotis” when Eileen Gray never speaks of pilotis? Why would Le Corbusier describe his own work as graffiti? And who are these three women anyway? According to Schelbert, Le Corbusier explained to his friends that ‘Badou’  Badovici] was depicted on the right, his friend Eileen Gray on the left; the outline of the head and the hairpiece of the sitting figure in the middle, he claimed, was ‘the desired child, which was never born.’

This extraordinary scene, a defacement of Gray’s architecture, was perhaps even an effacement of her sexuality, her relationship to Badovici notwithstanding. For Gray was openly gay.

Beatriz Colomina’s psycho-sexual, feminist critique is rather credible, especially given what Nicholas Fox Webster has to say. Anyway, Eileen Gray never returned, never forgave Corbusier and was still cross about it 30 years later and, on balance, probably rightly so.

Eileen Gray, still cross in Paris 30 years on

This next photograph then, must have been taken after she slammed that door in 1937 because that’s definitely a corbydoodle on the wall.

We don’t know who’s taking the photo, but the man on the right is Badovici and the very thirties’ lady at the back, apparently, is La Corbusier. This is the only photograph I’ve ever seen of her. I’m surprised she’s there and she probably is too – I get the impression she’d rather be elsewhere then this historic snap. Nicholas Fox Webster says she had no interest in architecture and forbade it being discussed at the dinner table. I’m feeling that. But, back to E1027. Corbusier apparently loved it, staying there on occasion. Once, after a stay, he wrote to Gray,

I am so happy to tell you how much those few days spent in your house have made me appreciate the rare spirit which dictates all the organisation, inside and outside, and given to the modern furniture – the equipment – such dignified form, so charming, so full of spirit.

Until it all went wrong of course. But hell, all this happened in 1939. Lots more in Europe was going to go very wrong very shortly. Everything that went wrong at E1027 amounts to nothing more than a hill of beans in a teacup. What it would be useful for us to know is a) Is E1027 any good? and b) Was Eileen Gray the first architecture femisfit? Perhaps. Let’s have a look. As we’ve seen, there are worse places for a house to be.

photo: Gino Ginelli

E1027 was completed in 1929, a year before LC’s Villa Savoye and two years after his Villa Stein (á Garches). If LC had a love/hate relationship with either Gray and/or this house then it’s easy to see why as this house is many things that Villa Savoye and Villa Stein, are not.

Location: The site for one. It overlooks water. There’s no need for this house to pretend it’s a ship – it’s better than a ship because you can have a view of real water and at the same time have a nice garden as well, with bougainvillea.

It’s hard to forget the view, but the garden at E1027 simply looks a more pleasant place to be than Corby’s roof garden. If LC’s idea of ‘access to nature’ was a bit of sun and air, then I’d rather the sun and air at E1027 anytime. Even as a terrace – it’s actually terraced! – it’s got real plants in real soil. It’s not a garden because someone says it is. E1027’s relationship to site and nature is a real, not conceptual. The garden is more than a pretend sea for a pretend ship. It’s something that can actually be enjoyed. This difference I’ve noted is not abstract conjecture. Think about VS. How do you even get to the garden? Apart from the main entrance, the only other ground floor doors are a service entry for the kitchen stairs and an external door to the chauffeur’s sleeping space. To be fair, VS was for a site in soon-to-be-suburban Paris. A sea view and coastal climate were never going to be. Corby was probably thankful E1027 was hidden away on the Riviera whilst he was bigging up his intellectual houses in Paris.

Fact: No Corbusian house had a great location except for the small hut Le Cabanon he designed for himself (somewhat creepily) along with these cabins, right behind E1027.

Orientation: Nor did LC think much about orientation. You might remember from The Darker Side of the Villa Savoye that Villa Savoye is orientated with respect to the street. It’s all about the driveway and “the approach”. As is Villa Stein. E1027 is oriented with its main windows facing south-west. E1027 is great for academics. Beatriz Colomina did the psycho-sexual feminist reading. Daniel Ryan of the University of Sydney re-evaluates E1027 in terms of proto-sustainability or, as he puts it, an “environmental re-imagining”, whatever that is.

The strategy in most of Gray’s Mediterranean work of orienting bedrooms to the east, living rooms to the south and west and service areas to the north reflects a negotiation of
both the Zeilenbau approach of designing for morning sunlight in bedrooms and afternoon sunlight in living areas and Adolf Behne’s counter-idea that service areas should be located to the north and living areas to the south. … While Gray did pick up a more or less southern orientation, she shifted the building away from its terraced site.

upper level

lower level

The bedrooms indeed have large windows facing south-east. The living room does have a large window that faces south-west and slightly outwards towards the sea, rather than the coast. It may be coincidence but the alignment is exactly 22.5° off the E-W axis. This means that the bedrooms are pleasant places in which to wake up. The large living room windows can be easily shaded by (blue?) canvas awnings and the one west-facing window seen below, would provide a shaft of evening light along the length of the living room.  The third picture below is of a daybed in the dark corner of the living room by that narrow west window. It looks like a nice place to read or have a nap in the afternoon when it’s too bright or hot outside.

Layout: There’s more to the layout than where people are at various times during the day. Again, unlike Villa Savoye, guests in this house are going to stay the night or maybe a few days. They can leave the guest room and fix themselves a meal or walk down to the water without passing through the main room. The house has a summer kitchen and a winter kitchen, both of which can also be accessed without going through the main room. In fact, it’s possible to go from any room, directly to the outside. There’s even some stairs to take you to directly to the main bathroom after a swim. (This photo is from a series showing the recent restoration here, at Friends of E1027.)

Whereas overnight stayers at Villa Savoye are controlled and choreographed, guests at E1027 can come and go through multiple, uncontrolled and natural transitions between inside and outside. It’s relaxed. Hosts can relax for they don’t have to entertain their guests. Guests can relax for they don’t have to entertain their hosts.

Interior: Perhaps the biggest difference between E1027 and Villa Savoye is the interiors. All the rooms at E1027 have been designed. This may just reflect the difference between a house for oneself and a house for a client. Showing too much of an interest in interior design, colour and texture and all that, has never gone down well in the macho world of architecture. The truth is, we know a lot about Corbusier’s ideas for how other people should live, but we don’t know much about how he would like to have lived. Or, indeed, until he moved to Cap Martin and built his shed, how he actually did live. In E1027, the furniture and tables are constantly inviting the visitor to lay down, have a cigarette, pick up a drink, an olive or a novel. The main space of E1027 is more suited to lounging than formalized conversations about art, jazz, Josephine Baker, or politics.

Vernacular techniques: Apparently, the walls of E1027 have a layered construction that was probably recommended by the local builders Gray used. Below, you can see how the windows rotate and slide to provide 100% opening. The window shutters are of a type commonly used around the Mediterranean and they too slide to provide 0-100% shading. They’re set away from the wall for improved airflow and parts of them also open outwards for the same reason. None of this is new. If it ain’t broke, etc.

Here’s them being restored.

Irony: Eileen Gray and E1027 have been ignored for decades. After Gray decamped, Corbusier never encouraged its physical restoration or its historical rehabilitation despite living next to it from 1952-1965. It’s the exact opposite of the agenda that made his name in the 1930s. In the heroic alpha-male world of architecture he breathed, it’s easy to imagine him dismissing terracotta and timber, colour and texture until he ‘discovered’ them in the Maisons Jaoul twenty years later. It’s easy to imagine him scoffing at the life preserver that adorned the front balustrade of E1027, secretly dismissing it either as naff ornament or girly whimsy.

I wonder if the thought of that live preserver flashed through the mind of the man the world knew as Le Corbusier as he drowned offshore. I wonder too if Eileen Gray, in here Paris apartment, thought of it when she heard the news.

Eileen Gray, Misfits salutes you!

7 May 2015

Sure, Eileen Gray paid attention to colour and pattern and texture and designed a tray that didn’t make a clatter when you carried it. Rowan Moore is guilty of the traditional “Women – they’re so good at colour and texture!” prejudice that Gray must have suffered from in her lifetime – not least of all from backyard villain LC.

Sure, the house is sensual, but much of living is to do with satisfying the senses – getting the internal temperature right, keeping the inside dry, letting enough sun in and keeping too much out. It’s these unseen dimensions of architecture that Moore fails to see, let alone give Gray any credit for. Gray designed a relaxed, liveable and enjoyable house that had multiple entrances and exits for guests to come and go as they please, where sunlight entered at the right angles and times to make the rooms more pleasant, where real plants in real soil were there to be lived with and enjoyed, and where you could see, hear and smell the real sea from a real house, not a pretend sea from a pretend boat.

8 May 2015

To celebrate the re-opening of E1027 to the public, Friends of E1027 has launched a new website.

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