The Crazy Story Behind Cap Moderne
On the other side of the bay from Monaco, there is an outstanding cultural and natural site now known as Cap Moderne. This unconventional museum consists of Eileen Gray’s villa E-1027, Le Corbusier’s Cabanon, holiday cabins, and the bar-restaurant Etoile de Mer (which stopped serving in 1984) — all of them mythical architectural icons in surroundings of outstanding natural beauty. The collection of fabled buildings at its heart was rebranded Cap Moderne when it received visitors for the first time in 2015.
The real star of the show is E-1027, the house that prodigious Irish designer Eileen Gray built in the roaring twenties. Everything from its cryptic name – using the position in the alphabet of the first letters of Eileen Gray’s name (E, 7) and of her then-lover Jean Badovici (10, 2) – to its history of being defaced by murals Corbusier painted (while naked) on its walls, a murder, and neglected abandonment, make this the most enigmatic of France’s many modernist houses.
The Story Behind Cap Modern’s E-1027 House
In 2009, a chocolate-leather Dragon armchair by the Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray sold at Christie’s in Paris for $28.3 million, shattering the record for 20th-century decorative art. Those in the know were always aware of her massive but somewhat unrecognized talent, but the auction officially –and finally– crowned Gray as one of the immortals of modern design.
She moved to Paris in 1902 and distinguished herself as a pioneer in the use of the lacquer so paramount to the Art Deco movement. In the 1920’s she incorporated chrome, steel, and glass in her designs concurrently with her peers Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe. But it is Le Corbusier, her contemporary and onetime friend, with whom Gray’s history on the Cote d’Azur is most intertwined.
Gray and her lover, Romanian critic Jean Badovici, were looking to build a beach-side love nest on the Cote d’Azur, and here Gray found the perfect secluded site. From 1926-1929 — without any clue that she was creating a masterpiece years ahead of its time — Gray oversaw every detail of construction of the house, including wrangling the mules that hauled materials up and down the hills to the site.
Set on a gentle slope saturated in Mediterranean sunshine and thick with pines, the house was the pinnacle of modernism: tiered with squared-off planes of white, floor to ceiling windows, sliding doors and open spaces making full use of the sea and sky. It is a marvel of elegance and simplicity, with right-angled roofs and walls fashioned from white concrete, the kind of house that by now we may have seen before, but which no one but Gray could have dreamed of in 1929.
She named it E-1027, a numeric code: E for Eileen, IO for J as in Jean, 2 for B as in Badovici, and 7 for G as in Gray, devised as a tribute to their entwined lives.
It is a sheer drop past olive trees and rosemary bushes to the cliffs below. Gray furnished it with her own designs, adding ingenious touches such as a black tiled swimming pool that she filled with sand and where she relaxed for cocktail hour.
Enter Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier), who visited Badovici and Gray often at their seaside idyll. Whether he was or was not threatened by her talent, most scholars agree that Le Corbusier was obsessed with Gray and her triumphant E-1027.
He was so jealous, in fact, that in 1938, after the bisexual Gray split with Badovici and returned to loving women, Le Corbusier took it upon himself to paint –some say defile– the interior walls with eight garish murals depicting charged lesbian imagery. To add to the insult, he took photos of himself doing so, wearing nothing but his trademark glasses. When she heard about this brazen act of disrespect, Gray was horrified and vowed never to return.
But Le Corbusier continued to visit. In 1951, Le Corbusier arranged with the owners of the cafe L’Etoile de Mer (in the lot adjacent to E-1027) to construct a beach hut connected to their restaurant.
Soon, he added a hyper-efficient guesthouse next door to the property. At E-1027, the drama turned to tragedy. Nazi soldiers looted the house and used it for target practice during World War II; in 1996, its morphine-addicted owner was murdered there. The house was abandoned and left for dead, battered from disrepair, appropriated and damaged by squatters, junkies, and drifters.
Finally, in 2000, a group of concerned conservationists and the local landmarks commission stepped in to rescue one of the country’s most distinct architectural treasures from the wrecking ball.
The Story Behind Cabanon le Corbusier
Whatever your theory of Le Corbusier’s role in Eileen Gray’s disappearing into decades of obscurity, his little Cabanon is ingenious, a masterstroke of high style and low maintenance, nestled among the citrus as if house and trees were joined at the roots.
Corbu believed that a house should be a machine for living in, and this one is a feat of efficiency, where the bedroom, dining table, chairs that double as storage boxes, bathroom, and cabinets either have their dedicated corner or disappear into the walls of this tiny, wooden space.
Everywhere are Cubist-looking bright blue, electric green, and yellow murals that Corbu loved to render, the architect most at home in another medium. The miniature restaurant connected to the house by a door is chic, and every corner of the room, from the rounded bar lined with vintage carafes and painted with fish, to the tiny table in the corner, has the patina of wear and style.
Le Corbusier spent many peaceful holidays at Le Cabanon, and each time he walked down the steps to jump in the waves, or back up to resume his painting, he passed by E-1027, a couple of arm’s lengths away. One wonders what his memories were of the place, or of Eileen Gray, or if he even chose to access them. Le Corbusier was said to truly admire his former neighbor’s work, but it’s hard to imagine what possessed him to appropriate the walls of a villa that did not belong to him.
Some have said that later, Corbu may have taken credit for some of Gray’s design. Lanie Goodman doesn’t sugar coat it. “Corbu’ s murals are an unquestionable act of sabotage, whether he was conscious of what he was doing or not,” she says. “As Gray’s former friend and mentor, he was certainly not very invested in her success.”
Certainly, he owed her some gratitude for drawing him to this lush corner of the Riviera in the first place, at least while he lived. In August 1965, he drowned while swimming in the water at the foot of the hill, on the beach just below Le Cabanon and E-1027.
Video Tour of Cap Moderne
Visiting Information for Cap Moderne
Open Hours: Cap Moderne’s pre-booked tours costs €15 per person and take 2.5 hours, meeting at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin station.
Open from 10am to 5pm daily except Mondays. In July and August tours start at 9:45am and 2:45pm. In September and October there is a tour at 1:45pm.
Reservation required. You can get tickets here. The permanent visitor center is in a former train carriage at the nearby SNCF station.
Website: Official Cap Moderne website