Eileen Gray: the third great Irish genius of modernism
From the narrow path around Cap St Martin on the French Rivera, you can barely see the most important work of Irish architecture of the past century. One white corner of Eileen Gray’s breathtakingly beautiful modernist house, E1027, can be seen against the backdrop of a choppy, wintry Mediterranean. The obscuring of the rest is quite deliberate.
The great male maestro of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier (Charles- Édouard Jeanneret), built a wooden cabin right in front of Gray’s house in 1952. He also literally occupied it, defacing its pristine simplicity with eight aggressively assertive murals of his own, like an angry child scrawling on a rival’s copybook. You don’t have to be a feminist to see an element of male rage at work, a woman’s claim to a key place in the history of modern architecture being ruthlessly expunged.
I went to see E1027 before Christmas. You can’t get in officially, because restoration work that was supposed to be completed last year is still going on. You have to clamber down a steep slope and on to jagged rocks to get a decent view. But it is well worth the effort, because the house is utterly entrancing and deeply moving, sheer delight captured in concrete. It has no trace of the brutalism that was the dark side of modernism, none of the narrow rationality that could make the movement so arid. It revels in minimalism, practicality, the stringent demands of form following function.
But it is also completely alive to its environment, respecting the slope of the land, conversing with the surrounding sea, fully awake to the shifts of light and sun – the bedrooms, for example, are orientated towards the dawn.
It is easy to see why Le Corbusier developed such a pathological relationship with E1027, for it is a stunning rebuke to his dictum that a house must be a “machine for living”. Gray’s house is easily as innovative as anything Le Corbusier was making, and it is astonishingly early: it was designed in 1926, two years before the Swiss architect created the template for modernist house design with his Villa Savoye, near Paris.
E1027 draws on ideas Gray shared with Le Corbusier: the use of piers or stilts (pilotis) to raise the building above the ground, long horizontal windows and doors, a roof that could be used as a terrace or garden, and a floor plan and facades that are freed from the constraints of having to bear loads.
But Gray’s use of these elements is the antithesis of the machine. Her aesthetic brings into the 20th-century avant-garde the Irish love of flowing, organic forms. The centre of the house may be a rectangular concrete box, but any sense of rigid geometry is continually broken by its relationship to the sloping land, by the way the balcony (which feels like the deck of a ship) opens up to the sea, and by the interplay of the vertical axis and the horizontal planes.