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This modernist villa on the Côte d’Azur, designed by Irish architect Eileen Gray, has witnessed wartime shootings, murder and vandalism by Le Corbusier. Now, at last, it has been brought back to life
I don’t know exactly how Howard Carter felt when he entered Tutankhamun’s tomb, or what it would be like to meet the Queen of Sheba, and it is possibly excessive to compare these experiences to a visit to a small holiday house on the Côte d’Azur, but there is still something of the same magic in seeing E1027, a building brought back from near death, a lost legend of 20th-century architecture. It never quite disappeared, but for decades it was as good as nonexistent, inaccessible and overrun by decay.
E1027 was the first architectural work of the designer Eileen Gray, completed in 1929 when she was 51 years old. It was a pioneering and accomplished work of the modern movement in architecture, putting into practice ideas that were still new. More than that, it brought essential qualities into building that other modernists lacked. Gray talked of creating “a dwelling as a living organism” serving “the atmosphere required by inner life”. “The poverty of modern architecture,” she said, “stems from the atrophy of sensuality.” She criticised it for its obsession with hygiene: “Hygiene to bore you to death!”
E1027, which was built for Gray and her lover, Jean Badovici, grows from furniture into a building. She created a number of pieces of loose and built-in furniture for the house and installed others that she had previously designed, always with close attention to their interaction with the senses and the human body. She created a tea trolley with a cork surface, to reduce the rattling of cups, another trolley for taking a gramophone outside, and the E1027 table, whose height can be adjusted to suit different situations.
The house contained the Transat, a kind of exalted deckchair, and the Bibendum, which engulfs you in thick squishy tubes. She built a series of cupboards and storage units with minute consideration of such things as the way that the light falls on their contents, the integration of electrical fittings and radiators, the way that drawers might open on a corner, the arrangement of mirrors that would allow you to see the back of your head. […]