Entering a house should be like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you. - Eileen Gray
Cap Martin, October 15, 2000. There are glass doors leading to a narrow balcony and after all the funky smells of the interior, it feels good to step into the fresh air with hints of piñones and mimosa wafting up from the garden. I’d passed through here in October, thirty years ago, hitchhiking with two friends, and when people asked us where we were going, we shrugged and said aucune idée, laughing out loud. And it was true. Other than some half-baked plan to meet Robert Graves in Deià, we’d set out without any particular destination, carrying $40 in traveler’s checks, only the clothes on our backs, the same clothes we’d worn to a Friday-night party on Quai Créqui, near the bridge in Grenoble, overlooking the Isère, but it didn’t matter. We were on the run, eighteen years old and fully empowered, hitching our way south through Digne, following the ancient Roman way, eating garlic soup in Entrevaux, napping on a haystack in Le Brusquet, wrapped together in a blanket “liberated” from a pensione in Gréolieres. We reached Vence the next day and stood bathing in the blue-green reflections of Matisse’s chapel, and visited a house
where D.H. Lawrence once lived–the ancient widow, supposedly one of Lawrence’s lovers, served us watercress sandwiches and chamomile tea–then we hitched a ride to Nice and walked along the coast, stopping here, in Roquebrune, for dinner in a tiny bistro that no longer exists, and we used the same pathway that follows the railway today, less than fifty feet from E.1027, but knew nothing about Eileen Gray or her infamous house at the time, so passed into Italy without a second thought.
Now the garden is overgrown with thistle, olive trees and umbrella pines with clumps of lavender sprouting here and there.The exterior staircase, once daringly cantilevered, is propped up by timbers and overgrown with bougainvillea. The original solarium is still in tact, sunken in the earth, lined with iridescent tiles, and I try to imagine Eileen lying there naked in the sun, out of the wind, on a day much like this, limbs intertwined with her lovers’, Jean Badovici of the crooked Romanian nose, architect and magazine editor, leaning down beside her, sipping anise-flavored liqueur from a tiny glass. I’m not a big believer in Feng Shui, but I have to admit that the place has odious lines of Chi–”poison arrows and killing breath”–flowing through its ruined chambers. Maybe it’s the railway cutting too close to the property line, or the tragedy of Eileen’s own disaffection and heartbreak. Maybe it’s Le Corbusier pissing like a dog all over this, her chef d’oeuvre, painting his murals on every available surface, or maybe it’s the German storm-troopers who used the walls for target practice in 1943, or Peter Kägi, gynecologist and morphine addict, who was murdered in the master bedroom, or the homeless droguers who squatted for months and spray-painted the walls with cultish
graffiti. It’s hard to say. I arrived on a late flight from Amsterdam and it was too dark to see anything so I just went to the hotel and fell asleep. My first real glimpse came early the next morning, looking across the bend of beach and it was everything I’d anticipated with sun breaking through the clouds, illuminating a horizontal slab of white, as if in a dream, distant, mysterious, crystalline, hovering above the rocks and sea. You can’t drive to the house because it’s situated in a kind of cul-de-sac, isolated and wedged between the rail line on one side and the coast on the other. There are ugly new villas and condominiums stacked in tiers, so you have to walk a narrow alley, Promenade Le Corbusier, that runs from Cabbé to Cap Martin.
An old woman was clearing away a tangle of branches and dead palm fronds that had washed down the hillside during last night’s storm. She called to her husband who was repairing tiles on the roof of a neighboring house but he couldn’t hear her. I tried the metal gate but it was locked with a sign that read Propriété de l’État in bold red letters warning that entry was strictly forbidden. I walked back to the tracks and hopped the local train to Mentone on the Italian border, bought the International Herald Tribune, a box of Oscillococcinum, and sipped a cappuccino while watching English and German pensioners strolling down Promenade du Soleil without any soleil in sight. The train from Ventimiglia streamed past and I could see the faces of Italian day workers peering out, on their way to the hotels of Monaco and Nice. I then returned to my own hotel and waited for the local architect who was supposed to show me around the site. The room was shabby and there were suspicious smells wafting up from the foyer. I tried to take a nap but was still wired from jet lag and just lay there, staring up at the ceiling. I could have stayed at the Hotel Victoria, much fancier and further up the hill, but preferred this, the Diodato, with its sleepy, Graham-Greene languor and blossoming bougainvillea. The former villa of a Russian aristocrat, the hotel is situated on a rocky promontory called Pointe de Cabbé and there are cracked Eutruscan pots filled with daisies that lead down steps to the Plage du Buse. It felt as if I was the only person staying there. When he arrived an hour late, Renald Barrés was dressed in a tweed jacket, bow tie, round spectacles, looking like Professor Tryphun Tournesol in the Tin Tin series, which seemed oddly fitting as we were going to enter the lost and ruined world of E-1207 like two archeologists digging for a future that never happened. He was an architect based in Nice and had been put in charge of restoring the house. As we approached, he assured me that I was the first, or at least one of the first, allowed on the property since the French government took charge a few months ago. He unlocked a padlock and waved me across the threshold to the overpowering smell of urine, old, sad, vagrant piss. At first I’m shocked by the dystopian ruin, nothing like the shimmering mirage I’d glimpsed across the bay that morning. There were rags, broken bottles, flies buzzing over shit. The milky glass was cracked, the roof sagged in places, and the mildewed stucco erupted here and there with fissures and swollen joints. “A house is not a machine to live in,” said Gray in response to Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted line about a house being a machine á habiter. “It is the shell of man,” she said, “his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation,” suggesting a softer, more enveloping style of modernism, and I was glad to be seeing her house in its ruined state before the restoration “experts” had stripped away its patina and soul. After all, this is how a modern masterpiece should be witnessed, with scars and bruises in tact. I want to catch some of the rhythms of her life, her sensitivity to light and shadow, her obsessive but playful attention to detail. I want to walk in her footsteps, see the same views, feel the same breezes, walk down the same narrow pathway to the beach where she swam every day. But how much could I learn from this ruined shell of a house, from a wall tinted blue or a broken staircase? Despite so many years of neglect, rot, vandalism and tabloid-style mayhem, Gray’s vision still flutters through here and there. It’s not at all a big house but feels expansive because of the transcendent views and the way that Eileen positioned the house on the bluff, so that each room spills outside. The scale is surprising, almost feline. The Mediterranean casts a sea-brewed luminosity that she captured, somehow, and sculpted so as to suffuse the interior with its subaqueous glow. The light itself becomes an architectural presence in the mottled white surfaces and translucent skylights. I try to imagine her here, eating fruit de mer, bathing in the sea, arranging her art and furniture with quiet purpose. Gray worked on the design and construction of the house from 1926 to 1929 with her erstwhile lover, the Romanian-born architect and magazine editor Jean Badovici, and everything about E.1027 was premised on her love of the sea and sun, like its floor-to-ceiling glass, terraces and sunken solarium lined with iridescent tiles. Gray designed many of her most famous pieces of furniture expressly for the house, including the low-slung Transat armchair, the iconic Satellite mirror, and a circular glass side table. An ingenious skylight-staircase still rises from the center of the house like a spiraling nautilus made from glass and metal. In a sense it is the heart of the house, not only providing access to the roof but also drawing natural light down into deeper recesses.
Only three days earlier I’d passed through London and visited Peter Adam, Gray’s friend and official biographer. I sat on a low, overstuffed divan and watched as he sorted through a box of old photographs and letters from Gray. The windows at the front of the parlor looked out across Addison Road to Holland Park and I could see the nannies pushing their charges in prams, gliding up the walkways beneath a line of poplars. “She was an introvert,” said Adam, holding up the photograph of a young woman, quite beautiful with curly hair, downcast eyes, wearing a single strand of pearls. He told me how she was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1878 to a wealthy family and how she went to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and saw the work of Rennie Mackintosh which made a lasting impression on twenty-two-year-old Eileen.
She enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art and then moved to Paris in 1902 to attend the Académie Colarossi. This was when she first saw the paintings of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gaughin. In another photo, Eileen is dressed like a man in a velvet coat with a high collar, looking like George Eliot. “She was reclusive, bisexual,” said Adam, who’d spent years trying to rescue Eileen from the fickle undercurrents of art history and was amazed at the recent popularity of her work. “Her furniture has gone through the roof,” he said, pouring me a cup of tea. “One of the lacquer screens just sold at auction for $1.5 million.” Something clouded over in his eyes–perhaps the cruel and arbitrary twists of fate or how Eileen had lived until she was ninety-seven but had slipped into total obscurity. Only three people, including Adam, attended the funeral at Père Lachaise Cemetery on a rainy afternoon in 1976. A few months later, the gravesite was mistakenly destroyed and Gray’s remains were tossed into a mass grave, adding insult to injury. “She never took
herself too seriously,” said Adam, looking up. “I’m sure she’s up there laughing about the whole thing.” There were louder noises filtering in from the street, vans and mini-cabs honking, busses accelerating up Addison Road, and the light coming through the windows seemed to grow paler, more anemic as the afternoon unraveled. Adam disappeared for a
few minutes and came back with an old photo album that was bound in dappled blue leather. “It was rape,” he said, incensed by the apparent vandalism of Le Corbusier and his murals. He shook his head and handed me a photograph that showed Le Corbusier standing naked, working on one of his murals at E.1027, a Cubistic composition with stylized guitar, eyes, and a cloud. In the photograph, Corb turns to look at the photographer with an arrogant, quizzical smirk on his face, le violeur caught in the act of desecration, and I could see the paleness of his plump Swiss bottom and the zigzag scars where a propeller had ripped into his thigh while he was swimming in the Mediterranean, not far from E.1027. I’d never seen the photograph before and found it unsettling, vaguely obscene, almost as if the famous architect were literally raping the house.
“I’m warning you. It’s a dismal ruin,” said Adam as I walked onto the sidewalk and hailed a cab. “You might be shocked.” In Roquebrune, three days later, I am shocked but also fascinated and a little confused by the multiple layers of abuse that E.1027 had suffered since Eileen first lived here. The job of restoration would be challenging if not impossible. I could see that. What do you keep? What do you get rid of? It would take an archeologist–a brilliant archeologist of the modern–to make sense of the mess. We were upstairs in the main living area and Barrés pointed out a semicircular screen made of translucent celluloid. Eileen broke up the white walls with bands of vertical blue and a horizontal band of black that ran behind a cantilevered shelving system. Along the north wall she mounted a map and placed her low-slung Transat Chairs and one of her signature rugs. Despite the squalor, there was enough still in tact, for me to imagine what it might have been like when Eileen still lived here, bathing in the sea, eating fruit de mer, arranging art and furniture with quiet, mindful intent. Instead of a sentimental seaside name, Eileen chose a modern streamlined name: “E.1027,” as if it were something inventoried in an automotive catalogue. In fact, it was an enigmatic anagram for herself and erstwhile collaborator/lover, Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect and editor. (“E” stands for “Eileen.” The numeral “10″ represents the tenth letter of the alphabet which is “J” for “Jean,” “2″ for the second letter which is “B” for “Badovici,” and finally the numeral “7,” seventh letter of the alphabet, which is “G” for “Gray.”) Her initials, “E” and “G,” are literally embracing, making love to his initials, “J” and “B.”
Barrés turns and points at a composition that was painted in the late 1930s by Le Corbusier on a freestanding partition where Gray’s daybed used to stand. There are three figures–something akin to Picasso’s “Three Musicians” of 1921, but painted in a mannered surrealism. The figure on the right resembles a wood cutout with a single eye, the middle one is a globular white figure, the third an amorphous red shadow with angry snout. They are three leering musketeers breaking into Gray’s subtle arrangement of space. Barres guides me down the narrow staircase that spirals to the lower level like an umbilical chord. I can hardly fit at 6’4″ and have to tuck my head into my shoulders like a turtle. We emerge into a utility room that has tables laid out with rusty brackets, latches, grilles and escutcheon plates, all tagged and numbered like so many archeological artifacts. This is the beginning, the first step in a painfully slow process of restoration and reclamation, but who will benefit the most? Eileen or Corb?
When betrayed by Badovici in 1934, Eileen left E.1027 behind like a snake shedding its own skin, and never looked back. I find this hard to comprehend. How could she abandon a place that she’d put so much of her soul into? Eileen was born on August 9, 1878, a strong-minded Leo with “grit and ability to come back from difficult circumstances,” according to her astrological birth chart, and some of this seems to have been true as she picked herself up and started over without a second thought, leaving the house to Badovici without an argument or struggle: “extremely proud, can seem vain, high ideals in romance, high level of energy, boundless ambition and immeasurable integrity…” She simply designed another house, Tempe à Pailla, this one strictly for herself, and built it in Castellar, not far up the road from E.1027.
Between 1934 to 1956, Badovici had the house to himself and frequently invited Le Corbusier and his wife to visit. This is when the imposition, the so-called “rape” of the house began. There’s a group of grainy photographs, recently uncovered, that shows Le Corbusier lounging around the house in his underwear, or naked, or in pajamas. The snapshots must have been taken some time before World War II and there’s something vaguely pornographic and onanistic about the way he’s lying on the divan in the living room, touching himself, drawing something on a table while his foot is propped on a stool, or posing in front of one of the murals, further indicting himself.
Le Corbusier sucks the oxygen from a room, at least that’s how I imagine him, sitting on the divan, late August evening, rambling on about one of his perceived enemies–and there were many–while Badovici plays host, accommodating to a fault, indulging the maître’s remarks about less talented architects while opening another bottle of Côtes du Rhône or running to the kitchen for a pot of moules marinières, Corb’s favorite dish. Not that much is known about Badovici but he comes off as an opportunist and could easily be dismissed as one of those characters who flit in and out of art history, sponging off the talents of
others and then slipping back into obscurity. While some of this may be true, it isn’t entirely fair for he seems to have genuinely loved Eileen, encouraged and championed her and helped to expand her reputation beyond a mere “designer” of furniture and decorative objects. Badovici had an accommodating personality. He was an editor and enabler of sorts and encouraged those he admired, bringing out the inner cave painter in friends like Fernand Léger who, in 1934, painted a mural on a garden wall at Badovici’s house in Vézelay and started something of a trend. Le Corbusier also did his first mural at Vézelay that summer, and then–again, encouraged by Badovici–turned his attention to the walls of E.1027. There’s dispute about how many murals he painted in all. Some say eight. Others say as many as nine, and in his shamelessly self-congratulatory book, My Work (1960), Le Corbusier mentioned seven. During my own rather hasty investigation, I found evidence of only six, and could see that at least one had been painted over. Most were drawn in shallow depth with overlapping compositions of standard Cubistic elements: heraldic figures, clouds, guitars, vases, trees, bodies in motion, hands clasped together, etc. with vague sexual allusions and, in some
cases, hints of voyeurism and violation. At the time, Corb was obsessed with Edouard Schuré’s Les Grands Initiés, a book about secret initiatory cults,
and at least one of the murals seems to suggest some form of Orphic rite with a symbolic figure painted in yellow that represents a caduceus, the staff carried by Hermes, messenger of the gods and guide of the Dead, with twin serpents intertwined. Was he trying to exorcise Eileen’s spirit? Counteract the feminine energy of the house? Claim it for himself? At the bottom of the mural, beneath his own signature, Corb wrote the date “1939.” He returned to finish it after the war and added a looping green line and a vermillion bladder. He returned once again, after Badovici died,
and a Madame Schelbert had taken up residence, and he continued to work on the same mural. Ever methodical, even in his madness, Corb recorded the date of each revision at the bottom of the mural: “1939″ / “1949″ / “1962″, as if offering future art historians a key to this work of art that developed so slowly, over a twenty-two year period. Despite all that time, however, the composition never really gelled, or Corb simply lost interest, and it remains conspicuously incomplete. Le Corbusier saw the murals as perpetual works in progress, gestures that helped take his mind off the polemics of architecture, allowed him to unwind, but less consciously were crude markers of territory, both spatial and psychic.
The most aggressive and conspicuously territorial mural of all was the one that Corb painted at the main entrance to E.1027. A path curves around from the north into a protected little alcove, and a red wall serves as a kind of invitation where Eileen stenciled the words: “Entrez Lentement,” just beside the door and the words “Défense de Rire,” a bit further to the left. Are these riddles, puns, cryptic messages, Eileen’s poems to the genie of the place, or as I prefer to imagine, the walls of E.1027 itself speaking out? They can be read in several ways. Entrez Lentement, might be a traffic sign to all those who enter E.1027, advising them to come in slowly, leave the hectic world behind, relax. Eileen and Badovici would come here to escape the city and be romantically close so it might be a simple reminder, but Enter Slowly also has sexual overtones, while Defense de Rire seems to be a whimsical play on the prohibitive signs that are posted all over the metros and streets of Paris: “Défense de Fumer,” “Défense de Cracher,” “Défense d’Afficher,” but instead of forbidding smoking, spitting or the affixing of posters, Eileen’s message forbids laughter, a tongue-in-cheek admonition to take her work (or perhaps herself as a woman architect or lover) more seriously. For Gray, the act of entering was a mysterious exchange, a coy seduction, the opening act of a gradual unveiling. In her notebooks she wrote about the “desire to penetrate”, “pleasure in suspense” and most enigmatically: “Entering a house should be like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you,” combining the lure of sensual pleasure–a tongue searching a lover’s mouth–with the anticipation of entrapment and pain.
For Corb, entry was more a frontal assault, a victory march: “Voila ce qui donne à nos rêves de la hardiesse: ils peuvent être réalisées.” (“Here is what gives our dreams their boldness: they can be realized.”) He appropriated Eileen’s words and surrounded them with a cartoon-like sequence of stylized forms that spelled out “Entry” in his own cubo-heiroglyphic alphabet: a flesh-toned torso followed by bands of yellow, red, a perforated screen, ghostly white pages turning, and a teal-blue escutcheon. Enter Slowly? It not only defaced Eileen’s original treatment, but distorted her intention in a way that I find unimaginable for one artist to do to another artist’s work. What, I wonder, prevented Corb from painting over Gray’s composition altogether? Had Badovici intervened or did Corb experience a sudden flicker of guilt? There’s a photograph that shows the culprits at the scene of the crime: Le Corbusier and his wife, Yvonne Gallis, sitting with Badovici and you can see Corb’s mural in the background. It’s a blustery day in the summer of 1939 and they’ve escaped to the leeward side of the house to avoid the wind. They’ve just finished lunch and there’s an air of conspiracy: Yvonne with eyeliner and leafy headband, looking bored, leaning into the shadows of the doorway, Corb sitting in a bathrobe, sucking his pipe with a complacent but petulant look on his face, turning away from Badovici who smiles as he points to the camera with a blurry paw: a piece of inculpatory evidence if ever I saw one.
I went back to my hotel on the opposite shore of the bay. I showered, changed clothes and took a taxi to Restaurant Casarella on Rue Grimaldi where I ate dinner alone–endive salad, homemade pasta and moules marinières with lots of garlic–and then walked back through the darkened streets of Cap Martin, thinking about the peculiar feelings that E.1027 provoked in me. That night I dreamt about Eileen Gray. She walked right into my room, her ghostly hair brushed into long, silvery braids. She seemed warm and familiar like one of my Scottish aunts, and sounded genuinely pleased to have me visit her house, but she warned me not to stay too long and I woke up before I could ask her what she meant. The next morning I returned to E.1027 and met Barrés who guided me down to a shady, underlying area where Corb had drawn another mural as a looping fresco in wet plaster, as if the intertwined figures had been made with a single gesture of the artist’s hand. It’s the only mural at E.1027 without any color, just black lines on white background.
Some have read it as two lovers intertwined in erotic ecstasy. Others see the love-hate relationship between Eileen and Badovici or two women with a child lying between them. I see an entanglement charged with ambiguity and conflict: thighs, vagina, nipples,
buttocks, a woman leaning back, naked, contorted into a knot, her arms raised above her head as if in self-defense, and I have to wonder if it’s not really about Corb’s own sublimated desires and the troubled relationships he had with women throughout his life. In one letter to his mother, Corb drew a naked self-portrait with sagging penis–who sends his mother something like that? Then there was Yvonne, former dressmaker and fashion model, who married him in 1930. She seems little more than a shadow, flitting in the background, a moody, long-suffering
footnote to architectural history. In the photos that show them together, Yvonne appears withdrawn, sitting in a corner, her face turned away from the light or concealed behind a scarf. She was emotionally unstable. She starved herself, fell down drunk and crashed into furniture, breaking her brittle bones in the process. By 1947, she’d shriveled down to an anorexic scarecrow of eighty pounds at about the same time that Corb was painting this same mural on E.1027′s foundation while also having an affair with Minette de Silva, a Sri Lankan architectural student in London. Does any of this come through in the mural? Not directly, but there’s plenty of underlying ambiguity and a
sense of pending violence in the mural , a pushing and pulling, as if the male figure were shoving the woman away in anger or pulling her closer in lust. Le Corbusier always complained about Yvonne’s alcoholism and her “weak bones,” but he stayed with her until the end.
Badovici died in 1956, the house slipped into a downward spiral of neglect and ruination, like some kind of Gothic tale, but updated for the 20th century, a modernist House of Usher that absorbed the wounded pathologies of its former tenants and self destructed as with E.A. Poe’s “barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.” Badovici’s sister inherited the property but she was a nun who lived in Communist Romania and the Romanian State asserted its rights, confiscated the property and put it up for sale in 1960. Le Corbusier encouraged Madame Schelbert to buy the house and preserve it, but this seems to have been a completely self-serving gesture on Corb’s part because he wanted to make sure that his own murals were protected. The plot thickens when a character named Dr. Kaegi enters the scene.
Kaegi was Madame Schelbert’s gynecologist and somehow convinced her to sell him the house. He was a morphine addict and a compulsive gambler who lived in perpetual debt. Claiming to need the money to restore E.1027, he sold off the iconic Eileen Gray furniture at auction for a paltry three million francs, but never made any improvements. In 1994 he put the house on the market for $5 million, but was murdered before he could find a buyer. The official police version states that Kaegi hired two young Frenchmen to work in the garden and they stabbed him to death in the living room of E.1027 when he refused to pay them for sexual services rendered. The house remained unoccupied for the next five years and suffered leaking roofs, broken windows and vandalism from a group of indigent squatters. The City of Roquebrune assumed control in 1999, put up barbed wire, boarded over the windows, and placed the house under police surveillance. By that point it looked as if the structure would either collapse on its own or be demolished as a public hazard. This was when I first learned about E.1027′s precarious fate and became interested, but was unable to gain access until 2000 when the French Government stepped in and announced that they would help restore the house as a national monument.
Now I hear the tide rising with a rushing sound through openings in the jagged shore, and a sleepy melancholy steals over my entire body. The afternoon light flickers through pine needles as I stand on the roof and look across the bay to Monaco, the city-state that appears to rise up tall in the strident light. During morning hours it blended into the haze of the Alpes Maritime so perfectly that I hadn’t even noticed. An adjacent garden descends in terraces, with cypress, quince, poplars and tiers of rotting trellis, clusters of honeysuckle and gorse, gesse, ficaire, like an ancient Roman garden, ordered yet overgrown and chaotic with stunted cedars, Judas trees, marronnier and mimosa. Le Corbusier acted as if this were his turf, his trees, his dappled southern light. That’s how he spoke about the place, and Gray’s “intrusion” infuriated him. She was a woman, an Anglo-Irish outsider, an “insignificant” designer of lacquered screens, and worst of all, a self-taught architect. On several occasions he attempted to purchase E.1027 and make it his own, but unable to buy the house, he settled for a small lot just to the east where, in 1950, he built himself a tiny cabin called La Baraque but now known as Le Petit Cabanon: “I have a château on the Riviera which measures 3.66m by 3.66m (12 feet by 12 feet),” said Le Corbusier. “It is wonderfully comfortable and pleasant.”
I walk up a steep path behind E.1027, through a green metal gate with a hand-made latch to Corb’s own perch with its darkly rustic, split-timber siding and a sloping roof of corrugated concrete. I have to wonder how this man who conjured up a sprawling Ville Radieuse for three million people could have squeezed himself (and wife) into such a tiny truffle of a shack where every inch had to be micro-planned like a submarine. The main room is tiny, only 108 square feet, but was designed to be as functional as a monk’s cell. Furnishings are rudimentary, childish, like kindergarten furniture and designed to serve multiple purposes. Windows were positioned to
take advantage of cross breezes and frame the most desirable views. The floors are stained yellow and the wood-veneer walls have a mellow, hand-rubbed patina. Thumb-tacked to a wall is the faded photograph of a woman sitting in a Thonet chair with a dog lapping at her face. There are shells and parts of a sheep’s skull, bleached white in the sun, resting on a clumsily built shelf. In an early sketch for the cabin, Le Corbusier drew a stick figure looking through a slit window with binoculars, and the figure–one presumes it to be Corb himself–gazes down at E.1027, as if keeping vigil over his strange obsession.
Further to the east he built a tiny atelier, painted olive green, propped on rocks, with a single door at one end and two large shutters that swung open from overhead hinges, for light and air. This was where he came to draw and write in private and gaze out over his beloved Mediterranean. Corb came frequently to his rustic little shack for vacances. He walked up and down the hill, swam in the Bay of Cabbé and on rainy days sat with Thomas Rebutato, proprietor of L’Etoile de Mer, a little bistro that is weirdly attached to the cabanon through a vagina-shaped hatchway. There’s a photograph that George Brassaï took of Le Corbusier in 1952 and there’s something hideous about the way he’s staring out from the palm-frond doorway of the L’Etoile de Mer, his nose a ball of putty hanging from the black-rimmed spectacles, and he’s wearing a bathing suit that looks like an oversized diaper. “Je me sens si bien dans mon cabanon que, sans doute, je terminerai ma vie ici!” (“I feel so good in my cabin that I will probably end my life here!”) And there was already a sense that his days are numbered after the death of Badovici, his mother and then Yvonne in 1957, all within a two-year period. His personal world receded and he spent more time on his own, painting, writing, swimming against his doctors’ orders, from the rocky outcropping below E.1027.
On my last day, I eat a salade de tomates and loup de mer at the Grand Inquisiteur in the precipitously steep village of Roquebrune. After lunch, I climb up to the cemetery perched high above the town and find Le Corbusier’s gravesite, a concrete cube painted with strokes of yellow, red and blue. It’s a beautiful spot, overlooking the sea. The hand-scribed dedication reads:
Charles Edouard Jeanneret
le 6 octobre 1887
le 27 aôut 1965
Roquebrune Cap Martin
After placing a little posy of lavender atop the grave, I walk past the church, down Escalier Chanoine Grana and Avenue Villaren all the way back to the beach where I take off my shirt and make myself go swimming in the spot where Le Corbuser drowned. He loved to
swim and I love to swim so it seems like an appropriate gesture to make on my last day here. Waves are breaking against the rocks, and I can see how the current sweeps around the point and tugs out to sea. Was Corb caught in this same current? Was that why he drowned? I hold my breath, take the plunge, and kick past the swells–it’s much colder than expected–and I find myself thinking, oddly, about Norman Jaffe, another architect who drowned while swimming, and how he once told me about Corb’s death, almost as if it were a final design challenge: planning an elegant demise, and I had to wonder if their deaths were linked, somehow. Were they both suicide? Had they suffered heart attacks or had they simply drowned? “A current under sea picked his bones in whispers,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the “Death by Water” section of Wasteland, and that’s what I’m thinking as I swim
around the point, imagining Corb’s pale corpse lying at the bottom, amid a spectral kingdom of seaweed and coral, and I think about how we start life in the amniotic fluids of our mother’s womb and then struggle through life, only to come back to the sea again, to drift and die, in a symmetry that Le Corbusier must have appreciated. In the end, Eileen Gray outlived him by twenty years and she undoubtedly lived a happier life, never bothering with cities for three million, simply wanting to create a beautiful environment for herself and a handful of friends. On the very last morning of her life, at age 97, Eileen sent her maid out to buy cork panels and other materials so she could start working on a new piece of furniture.
I stayed in the water for another few minutes, bobbing and splashing, kicking against the current, dunking my head below the salt water, saturating myself in the vaporous folds of sea and sky and the aura of unfulfilled dreams that haunts this southern coastline. I frog-kicked back to the landing, pulled myself up by a rope railing, climbed the coral steps, dried off with a towel and hurried back to Hotel Diadato where I packed my bag and left for the airport. As I walked the beach for the last time, I could hear the tide receding and then swelling against the shore with the pull of the moon, oblivious, remembering nothing.
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Addendum: October 24, 2012
Twelve years later I’m on a press trip in the south of France, not far from E/1027, and I’m curious to see how the restoration turned out, but I need permission from the local authorities so I call the Roquebrune-Cap Martin Tourism Office but they’re closed for the rest of the week. I then call Eric De Backer, Cultural Director at the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes but only get his voice mail and he never returns my call. Then I try Christian Desplats at the Conservatoire du Littoral, a conservation agency that technically owns the property and I get an administrative assistant who’s irritated and tells me that work on E.1027 was never completed. “Comment? Ce n’est pas possible!” I say in my shitty French. “Yes, it is possible,” she says in her shitty English, and explains that her
office doesn’t have authority to grant access to the site. After some prodding she gives me a number for the Mayor of Roquebrune-Cap Martin and promptly hangs up before I can ask any more questions. The Mayor’s office is equally unhelpful and they make it clear that no one is allowed on the property, even journalists. “Je suis desollée.”It turns out that, in keeping with the villa’s sad legacy, the promised restoration has been just as compromised and conflicted as the house’s prior history. Pierre-Antoine Gatier, Architecte en Chef des Monuments Historiques, took charge in 2003, but as several experts have asserted, he was not properly qualified for the job and made some glaring mistakes. “Eileen Gray would be spinning in her grave at Pere Lachaise if she could see what’s going on,” said Michael Webb, an English architectural historian who’d managed to see E.1027 a few months earlier and was shocked to find rusting metalwork and cracks in the foundation walls. Work on Gray’s own bedroom hadn’t even begun and the garden remained overgrown. “It’s a sad fate for such a wonderful work of art,” said Webb who filed a scathing report in the British journal, Architectural Review. After speaking with Webb, I called Sandra Gering, a New York gallerist and founder of the not-for-profit Friends of E.1027 foundation, and she was equally dismayed. “We receive hundreds of inquiries from scholars, journalists and students from around the world and we have to tell them that the villa is closed until further notice,” she said. Michele Brown, Gering’s associate, went to inspect E.1027 and found filthy floors, backed-up gutters and newly replaced windows that leaked rainwater onto the living room floor. There was no apparent supervision or maintenance of any kind. “This is a real scandal, but no one dares to talk about it,” said Barrés, the French architect who’d originally shown me around the house in 2000 and supervised early restoration efforts. Barrés refers to the current program as a “massacre.” Work began in 2000 and is still incomplete through a bungled restoration plan, construction delays, bureaucratic in-fighting, scholarly disputes over historical correctness, lack of funds, and a seemingly indifferent local government. Original 1920s electric switches were discarded and thoughtlessly replaced with modern-day fixtures. The housing for E-1027′s spiraling glass-and-metal skylight was improperly replicated and new, mass-produced glass was used when the original mottled glass was still in tact and could have easily been preserved. Porch railings–a key element in Gray’s overall design–were not in scale with the originals and the canvas awnings badly fitted. To further complicate matters, there’s been a complete lack of management. “It’s worse than a hornet’s nest,”said Michael Likierman, a retired entrepreneur who lives in nearby Menton and has been raising funds for E-1027′s restoration and trying to find a way past the current deadlock. “All of these different agencies have their fingers in the pie and that’s why nothing gets done and so much money has been wasted.” He agrees that Gatier is not the right architect to be in charge of restoration. “Simply put, he’s not competent.” But Likierman sees an even bigger problem that has nothing to do with aesthetics. When he offered to buy a neighboring villa and turn it into a visitor’s center for E.1027, his efforts were blocked by local authorities. “The town sees no added value,” he said, citing the fact that Mayor Cesari is up for re-election in the Spring of 2014 and seems intent on keeping the place closed, at least until the elections have passed. Jean-Louis Cohen, Professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and an expert on European modernism, views the situation with philosophical detachment and cites the fact that Villa Savoie, Le Corbusier’s famous house in Poissy, France, underwent numerous phases of restoration before reaching a final, satisfactory form. “The current state of E.1027 bothers me but mistakes can be fixed,” said Cohen, who curated the recent Le Corbusier exhibition at MoMA: “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes.” He visited E.1027 last year and despite some reservations, supports the work that Gatier has done so far. “There’s nothing easier than replacing an electric fixture.” The irony is that after years of such relative obscurity, Gray is more famous today than she’s ever been. Her unique furniture—chairs, lacquered folding screens, expanding side tables, industrial lamps—has reached stratospheric heights at auction. Her Dragon’s Armchair went for a staggering $29 million in 2009 and set a record for 20th Century furniture. A much-celebrated retrospective of Gray’s work was recently on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and featured many examples of her furniture as well as architectural models and a full-scale reproduction of E.1027′s living room. There’s even a movie in the works, “The Price of Desire,” by Irish director Mary McGuckian with Winona Ryder cast to play Eileen and Alanis Morissette as her lesbian lover. Gray’s late-blooming success seems to have made little difference to E.1027’s fate, however. The house remains shut to the public in a state of disrepair. Now, hopelessly caught as it is in bureaucratic limbo, the fate of E.1027 remains uncertain. “The only solution is to take the property away from the town and give it to a non-profit association that can maintain it as a historic site,” says Likierman. Cohen agrees and believes that some kind of cultural park should be established that’s run by a single, not-for-profit entity. “The process is stuck, but the solution is very clear,” he says. Personally, I don’t see the situation being resolved any time in the near future but that may be in keeping with Eileen Gray and the “barely perceptible fissure” that runs through E.1027′s legacy.
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An updated, shorter version of the E.1027 saga was published in WSJ. Magazine on August 19, 2013: