Eileen Gray's E.1027
Eileen Gray, who nearly lived 100 years, would be 135, an age we will someday routinely reach, but until then we can only toast the greats posthumously. More than Julia Morgan, who designed hundreds of buildings, Gray designed but a few but with perhaps more impact. Each failed to change architecture, then entirely dominated by men, into a more coed sport. At a recent panel reviewing the Cornell Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island, the lone woman on the stage was Marion Weiss, a continuing reminder of how lopsided the profession, at some levels, remains.
While the history of modern architecture is exclusively focused on the architecture of men, even before Le Corbusier finished the Villa Savoye Eileen Gray built E.1027 overlooking the Mediterranean just outside of Monaco in Cap Martin.
And while LC famously said “a house is a machine for living”, Eilieen gray countered with "Formulas are nothing" (touché). A woman after my own heart, she then proceeded to christen her house E.1027 as an alphanumerical code:
The intertwined names graphically illustrate their love and their collaboration on the house. Or possibly their love of codes.
Le Corbusier had included Gray’s furniture in his 1925 Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris effectively launching her career, and to some degree his.
In Gray’s absence during the late 1930’s LC painted a series of murals in the house that may have saved the house from destruction, when during the postwar period when his fame far outshone hers.
But whether she saw the murals as defiling the integrity of the architecture or, as others have suggested, mocking her (bi)sexuality, she never spoke to him again.
A friend of ours describes architects (well, this one) as unabashedly willing to knock on any door, hop any fence or climb into anything in the name of architecture. She considers us to be artistically-driven 'breaking and entering' fiends.
So, while E.1027 is currently undergoing a restoration and is unavailable for public visits, we did just that. Officially on a visit to Le Cabanon just a few yards away, my then partner William Russell and I hopped the wall and skirted some barbed wire to inspect the restoration. (n.b. the first several times I saw Philip Johnson's Glass House, as a teen, I engaged in a similar wall hopping intrusion)
E.1027 is one of those icons of modernism that has rarely been seen in pristine condition, but like the Villa Savoye (once abandoned) is it now ready for its close up.
Even in a mild Riviera rain the house simply glowed. Most photos and descriptions of the house focus on the crisp white volume, and the canvassed terrace, but the way the house meets the ground is at least as skillful.
The house sits on a steep rocky hill above the water and it beautifully negotiates the landscape as it creates a sequence of differently scaled and oriented outdoor spaces. Routes through the house and around the house similarly connect the site to the road above and the sea below.
Its small scale allows a clarity and precision that larger buildings never accomplish, and remind us that nearly every home we admire is tiny by modern standards.
Someday the house will finally be open to the public and all of this will be clear once more, but for now the exterior will have to suffice. And it does.