Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Controversy at E. 1027


E. 1027
Hello Everyone:

Today we're going to talk about one of the greats of modern architecture, Le Corbusier. Specifically, we're going to talk about the Swiss-French architect's role in the controversy in Eileen Gray's E. 1027 House. Who was Eileen Gray?  Eileen Gray (188-1976) was a mostly neglected, now highly regarded furniture designer and architect.  The late Ms. Gray, who met Le Corbusier in Paris, France, was influenced by the Swiss architects rectilinear style of modernism and would later go on to develop her distinctive method of combining architecture and furniture design but in a softer manner.  This was brought to full fruition in a house she designed on the Mediterranean coast in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin she dubbed E. 1027.  An article in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Le Corbusier's Role in the Controversy Over Eileen Gray's E. 1027, published on August 19, 2013, explains how this historic home with murals by Le Corbusier was nearly destroyed.

Plan for E. 1027
Eileen Gray famously wrote, "A house is not a machine to live in," in response to Le Corbusier's oft-quoted aphorism.  The late Ms. Gray believed that a house was a person's emotional release, spiritual manifestation, a person's shell.  It was this philosophy that guided her design work and construction on the house between 1926 and 1929.  Along with her lover at the time, Romanian-born architect and magazine editor Jean Badovici, the couple based the concept for house on her love for the sea and sun, evident in the floor-to-ceiling windows and sunken solarium with its iridescent tiles.  A skylight staircase climbed from the center of the house referencing a nautilus shell made from glass and metal.  Eileen Gray opted to give the house a numerological name instead of an oceanic reference.  The name of the house E. 1027 comes from "E" for Eileen, the "10" and "2" come from Jean Badovici's initials and their place in the alphabet, the "7" is for the letter "G" as in Gray.

Eileen Gray

Despite its auspicious beginning as an example of one of the most important examples of domestic architecture in the twentieth century, the house is wrapped in an enigma that one associates with fog shrouded castles not sunny villas in the south of France.  I believe it was W. Somerset Maugham that once said, "Monte Carlo was a sunny place for shady people."  Maybe it's the history of the house that gives it a dubious reputation.  During World War II German soldiers used for target practice.  Peter Kägi, a morphine addled gynecologist ( I'd hate to go to this guy for an exam) who bought the house in 1974, was murdered there in 1996.  How about the homeless drug addicts who squatted in the abandoned house, covering the walls with cult-like graffiti.  Could it be the fact that the coastal railway cuts too close to the property line or Ms. Gray's break up with her lover.  A house with mystery and intrigue, I love it.

Eileen Gray with Jean Badovici (r) and Le Corbusier (l)
Perhaps the worst stab Eileen Gray administered to Jeam Badovici's heart was inviting Le Corbusier to move in with her after Mr. Badovici moved out.  Jean Badovici was an admirer of Le Corbusier, inviting him to stay at the house on several occasions.  Le Corbusier had praised Ms. Gray for her subtle design work.  The architect went as far as to paint eight Cubist large interior and exterior murals between 1938 and 1939, some with sexually provocative images.  Eileen Gray's supporters feel that the murals should be removed and the house restored to its 1929 condition.  The crux in this matter is that Le Corbusier is considered more well-known than Eileen Gray and the murals have been deemed a work of art, even national treasure,
Mural by Le Corbusier
thus should be preserved and restored.  One suggestion was to put up scrims to cover the murals when Gray scholars were on site and pulled back for Corbusier scholars were present.  This almost sounds like that ugly vase your mother-in-law gives you for Christmas.  You take it out only when she comes for a visit.  In the meantime, the house is not available to the public and mired in bureaucracy.  All this while the house falls into a state of disrepair.

The irony of the situation, is that after years of obscurity,  Eileen Gray is more famous than she was in life.  The price for her furniture at auction has reached stratospheric heights.  The Centre Pompidou recently mounted a well received retrospective of her work, featuring a partial reproduction of the E. 1027's living room.  If that wasn't enough, there's even a movie in the works on her life.  I'm wondering who the producers would get to play Jean Badovici and Le Corbusier?  Regardless of this late blooming fame, the house still remains in limbo.

Le Corbusier
By the time Le Corbusier started painting his murals, Eileen Gray was already living in Tempe à Pailla, another house she designed in Castellar, north of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. When she got word of the mural, she was furious at what she perceived as a desecration of her original vision.  Her friends regarded it as graffiti by a jealous competitor (or a spurned lover?).  Friend and official biographer Peter Adam called it "rape."  Disrespect for another person's work or enhancement, you decide.  Le Corbusier tried several times to buy the property, settling for an adjacent lot, where in 1951 he built a cabin and studio that sit on hill directly behind E. 1027.

Even restoration of the house has be fraught with twists and turns, behooving the house's history.  The restoration process has been painfully dragging out for decades.  French architect Renaurd Barrés, who supervised previous restoration efforts, referred to the agonizingly slow process, "This is a real scandel, but no one dares talk about it."  Mr. Barrés, calls the current campaign a "massacre."  Pierre-Antoine Gatier, the official architect in charge of historic buildings for the Alpes-Martimes region, took charge of the project in 2003.  No wonder, the restoration process has been dragging on so slowly, look at all the layers of French bureaucracy a person has to go through.  Mr. Gatier's restoration efforts on the house went horribly wrong.  The housing for the distinctive skylights was improperly replicated, according to Mr. Barrés, who along with architectural historian Burkhardt Rukschcio, assembled a twenty-two page report outlining the problem of the Gatier restoration.  Some of the problems include: original 1920s electric switches were replaced with modern day switches; new mass-produced glass where original mottled glass was still intact; the porch railings, a key element in the overall design, were not reproduced to original size.  This highlights the difficulty in finding contractors and workers who specialize in historic preservation work.  The problems outlined here, are not unique to this house but representative of the problems facing historic building rehabilitation and restoration the world over.

Rendering of E. 1027
Retired businessman Michael Likierman in nearby Menton has been actively fund raising for the house's restoration and says the situation is "worse than a hornet's nest.  All of these people, 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."  Yeah, well that's no big revelation.  Mr. Likierman concurs that Mr. Gatier might not be the right architect for the job.  However, Mr. Likierman sees aesthetics as the bigger issue.  When he offered to buy the villa and convert it into a visitors center, his offer was rebuffed by officials who said it had no added value.  In his defense, Mr. Gatier states, "Restoration is a complex and cultural act.  Choices may b challenged, but they deserve a debate.  The villa E. 1027 is a legendary and fragile work and I want to treat it with the greatest respect."  That's all well and fine but from the tone of the criticism of his work, it doesn't seem the Mr. Gatier bothered to put too much care into finding skilled contractors and workers.

New York University Institute of Fine Arts and Twentieth European modernism professor Jean-Louis Cohen observes the situation with a certain amount detachment, referring to the multiple restoration phases of  Le Corbusier's landmark house Villa Savoye in Poissy.  According to Professor Cohen, "the current state of E. 1027 bothers me, but mistakes can be fixed...There is nothing easier than replacing an electric fixture..The process is stuck but the solution is very clear."  This may be true but finding the right fixture and the right person to do the job is another matter.  In the meantime the battle for E. 1027 rages on, bound up in the battle for Eileen Gray's legacy, overshadowed by Le Corbusier.  Eileen Gray outlived Le Corbusier by eleven years.  Le Corbusier met an ignoble end, death by drowning, a possible suicide.  A mystery wrapped in an enigma.

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