Sniffing at Corbu and E-1027

E-1027, overlooking the Mediterranean. (architectmagazine.com; Manuel Bougot)

E-1027 (1929), overlooking the Mediterranean. (Manuel Bougot; Architect)

Anthony Flint has an intriguing piece in Architect magazine, “Restoring Eileen Gray’s E-1027.” It’s about restoring the rather Corbusian seaside dacha designed by the Irish furniture designer (and lesbian) Eileen Gray. She had befriended the founder of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, who moved into E-1027 when she was away and left a trove of Picasso-esque lewd graffiti on the walls that ruptured their friendship when she found out about it. The essay includes some rarely seen nude shots of the Great Man. Anyway, here is Flint, who is with the Lincoln Institute, in Cambridge, pulling aside the Wizard of Ozian curtain of this farce:

Visitors start with E-1027, proceed to L’Étoile de Mer and the camping huts, and only then do they explore Le Corbusier’s cabanon. Which could lead to some scandalous thinking: How much was he actually inspired by Eileen Gray? The simple dining table, the compact kitchen, the acutely positioned fenestration — suddenly the cabanon looks more derivative and less like a unique creation. Nearly a century later, this is Eileen Gray’s revenge.

Like Flint, I discount the possibility that Corbusier was significantly influenced by Gray. She was probably more influenced by his work, which was relatively well known by the time they met in the early ’30s. Long after, Corbusier died during a swim near E-1027. It was on Aug. 27, 1965. Maybe that was the real revenge of Eileen Gray, leaving aside that of the world.

Flint has written a book about Corbusier, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow. Architect of tomorrow? Let’s hope not. Architect of the day before yesterday? I’m afraid that cannot be denied. Flint has also written an excellent book about the clash between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, Wrestling With Moses.

Flint continues to scrape the Corbu scab via Gray’s beach house:

Here was a modernist summer home so superb Le Corbusier himself could have created it—but built by someone untrained in architecture, and a woman, no less. Gray had also angered Le Corbusier—not hard to do—by quibbling with his dictum that a home was a “machine for living in.” A home, she argued, was actually a living organism.

“[S]o superb Le Corbusier himself could have created it”? Well, nothing he created was superb, unless one limits the field to other modernist works. And Gray’s house, to  judge by the photos included in Flint’s essay, was no “living organism.” If she did indeed quarrel with Corbu over his notion that a house should be “a machine for living in,” then her beach house cannot be used as evidence for her side of the argument. It is a just another crapatorium in the canon of Corbusier – a house that exalts the sharp angles that humans tend to flee. It, no less than his famous Villa Savoye, is a compendium of elements that are at war with the very idea of a home as a “living organism.”

Notwithstanding “so superb,” it is not a far stretch at all to suppose that someone completely untutored in architecture could design a house that reflects the principles Corbusier has inflicted upon the world!

Corbusier was a jackass, a fact does not absolve him of greatness. Flint also plugs his less admirable qualities in the following paragraph:

[T]he public opening of E-1027 coincides with a new rash of criticism of France’s favorite son. [?!] A recent exhibit at the Pompidou Centre was faulted for omitting the architect’s time in Nazi-controlled Vichy during World War II, which was detailed in two recent books that raise troubling questions about the extent of his fascist sympathies. For those who argue that Le Corbusier is responsible for the destruction of cities, and the proliferation of blank walls and soulless towers, there is no little glee for this latest attack. He was a swaggering figure, not always particularly nice to be around, a serial philanderer, and somewhat parasitic in arranging his personal affairs. His behavior at E-1027 has been likened to a dog marking its territory.

Well said, Anthony Flint. Corbusier was indeed responsible for the destruction of cities. The legacy of Robert Moses in New York City is prime evidence. But, really, that last bit is unfair to dogs.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Sniffing at Corbu and E-1027

  1. Pingback: Corbu, Paris and Pinceau | Architecture Here and There

  2. Peter Van Erp says:

    The influence of Corbusier cannot be underestimated. When younger, I was enamored of his work, and asked for his chaise lounge as a birthday present. It’s an interesting piece of sculpture, but it’s a horrible chair. Redolent of fascism, it forces one into a specific fixed position, which becomes excruciatingly uncomfortable after about 20 minutes. Then comes the joy of getting up from the chair. I’ve probably sat / laid on it for a total of 2 hours in 20 years.
    As a chair, it doesn’t even work as a place to pile clean clothes before you put them away.

    Like

  3. A very nice essay relating the unhealthy psychological relationship between Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier.

    But speaking of dogs… Corbu’s favorite dog named “Pinceau” (paintbrush) died… and …

    Read the sick, sick story on p. 159 of my book “Algorithmic Sustainable Design”. Along with an extended and thoroughly unflattering appraisal of Le Corbusier and his ideas.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Like

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