Architecture tourism in the south of France, at Cap Moderne

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Architecture tourism in the south of France, at Cap Moderne
The exterior of Le Corbusier’s Unité de Camping in Cap-Martin, France / © Anthony Flint

In the category of architecture tourism, Cap Moderne is a niche within a niche: a staggeringly beautiful location next to Monaco at the Cote d’Azur, a museum of minimalist 20th century design — and a sex-charged tale of human drama as well.

The hillside campus features three emblematic architectural achievements: Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027, Le Corbusier’s cabanon, studio, and holiday cottages, and the preserved bar and restaurant L’Etoile de Mer, run by Le Corbusier’s friend Thomas Rebutato.

The tour starts at what is now a makeshift visitor center by the Roquebrune-Cap-Martin train station, and the story unfolds in a walk-through of each of the buildings and grounds in sequence — a French version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, where secrets and dreams emerge through architecture.

A seaside village on the French Riveria close to the Italian border, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin was a getaway destination for the avante garde of Paris in the twenties; Coco Chanel built a villa there. Le Corbusier was enchanted with the location, and over the years has been its most famous summer resident. But the lesser-known designer Eileen Gray actually got there first.

The bisexual daughter of Irish aristrocacy, Gray was a pioneer in modernist furniture and objets d’art in Paris. Her lover at the time, architecture critic and bon-vivant Jean Badovici, asked her to find a spot in the South of France for a vacation house. A hardy soul, she nearly single-handedly designed and built Villa E-1027 — the name is derived from the position in the alphabet of Gray and Badovici’s initials – among the banana palms and lemon trees, a short walk up from the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. […]