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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
    The exterior of Le Corbusier’s Unité de Camping in Cap-Martin, France.

    ROQUEBRUNE-CAP-MARTIN, France — 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.

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    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.

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    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.

    The two-level structure, built on stilts on the terraced hillside, is an original all-white modernist beach house, a place to cook and read books and nap in a hammock – quite possibly the best-positioned hammock of all time, under a sleek overhang at the southwest corner, with views of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin’s pebbly crescent beach and Monaco in the distance.

    Gray thought of the home as a living organism, and designed every aspect to let in sunlight and breezes. Everything is neat and compact and simple, right down to the tidy built-in drawers in the bedroom. Entrez lentement – enter slowly – is printed at the vestibule, an instruction to leave your troubles behind and relax. A compact kitchen is to the left, and to the right is the main living area, with Gray’s Bibendum chair, enveloping tubes inspired by the Michelin Man, adjacent to cushioned twin deck chairs.

    Villa E-1027 was completed in 1929, when Gray was 51. She participated fully in the construction, pushing wheelbarrows alongside the workers. But while Gray had in mind a peaceful retreat, Badovici mostly wanted to party. The couple drifted apart, and Gray began work on another house for herself in nearby Menton.

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    That’s when Le Corbusier, well on his way to becoming a star architect, came on the scene. Badovici allowed the modernist master to stay there in the 1930s with his wife, Yvonne, and Le Corbusier soon decided the place needed some livening-up. He painted a series of racy murals on the plain white walls, to Gray’s great displeasure. She considered it an act of vandalism – modernist graffiti – and even retribution. Gray had differed with Le Corbusier’s axiom that a home was a “machine for living in,” and may have thought Le Corbusier was jealous that a woman could build such a lovely structure, similar in many ways to his Villa Savoye outside Paris.

    Villa E-1027 was abandoned during World War II, and Italian soldiers briefly moved in, drank wine, and used the walls for target practice. Le Corbusier returned to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin after the war, and when he couldn’t acquire the villa outright, instead started developing adjacent land owned by Rebutato, a retired plumber from Nice. He and Yvonne had become regulars at L’Etoile de Mer, feasting on sea urchins, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine. Up went the Thoreau-like cabanon, measuring just 12 feet by 12 feet, next door, a perfect place for the busy architect to get away from it all – though he couldn’t help himself and also erected a simple one-room studio a few steps away.

    The cabanon – lovingly recreated in its entirety for the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition on Le Corbusier – has all the efficient use of space of a room on a cruise ship: a tiny kitchen, a table to eat on, built-in storage, and little windows framing the verdant world outside. The architect and his wife slept on single beds – in her case, essentially just a bench along the back wall – and the aircraft-style lavatory was tucked in the corner. Le Corbusier used the outdoor shower after his daily swim in the ocean, and the couple took virtually all their meals at the L’Etoile de Mer.

    As part of this somewhat parasitic arrangement, Le Corbusier agreed to build five holiday cottages on the other side of the restaurant, which Rebutato rented out to vacationers who sought minimalist vacation digs. The two men dreamed of an even larger assembly of the cottages to accommodate mass seaside tourism, though that development never materialized.

    Le Corbusier died in 1965 at the age of 78, when he took his daily swim, against doctor’s orders, due to a worsening heart condition. The Le Corbusier Foundation donated the cabanon to the French Conservatoire du Littoral, a coastal conservancy agency, in 1979, and while it was possible to arrange private tours, the complex was never consecrated as an historic site. Villa E-1027, meanwhile, was left to deteriorate completely, occupied by squatters and even becoming the scene of a murder.

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    Enter Michael Likierman, a British businessman who came to France in 1972 to launch the UK-based Habitat chain and went on to cofound the Grandvision corporation. Likierman had been drawn to the area himself, and took an interest in historic restoration; his vision was to group all the buildings together on a single campus, and make it an architectural tourism destination.

    Several threads came together to jump-start the idea of Cap Moderne. Likierman became friends with Robert Rebutato, the son of the owner of L’Etoile de Mer, who liked the idea of preserving the hillside complex. An effort to restore Villa E-1027 got a boost when it became the shooting location for a film documenting the ménage-a-trois tale of Gray, Badovici, and Le Corbusier — “The Price of Desire,” supported by Julian Lennon and including in its cast the singer Alanis Morrisette, as Gray’s lesbian lover from Paris. The film, which debuted last year at the Dublin Film Festival, sped along the restoration work, so the villa was presentable for the cameras. It also helped to have Prince Albert of Monaco on the board of Cap Moderne, bolstering the $5 million project.

    Future plans call for transforming an unused warehouse building by the train station, currently featuring portraits of the three major figures of the story — Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, and Thomas Rebutato — into a reception, visitor center, and exhibition space. Negotiations are ongoing to purchase the vacant Villa Giori, next door to Villa E-1027, to turn it into what Likierman calls a “laboratory of living architecture” for international researchers, in a recreated atrium that once stood on the site.

    There are plenty of other reasons for visiting Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and it’s a magical place for strolling and fine dining and gazing out on the yachts anchored off the coast. Cap Moderne now offers a cultural and educational excursion to experience the quirks and foibles of 20th century design.

    Anthony Flint can be reached at anthony.flint@gmail.com