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.

Rationality is everywhere balanced with sensuality, a vivid awareness of the human body occupying the spaces Gray has created. The house has such a sense of movement that it feels choreographed rather than designed. It is, in its own quiet way, defiantly womanly – and as such a challenge to the heroically masculine egotism that overtook so much of the modernist movement.

Seeing E1027 made me realise that the time has come to rethink the idea of the Irish culture hero.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, for a large part of the 20th century, two great Irish geniuses of modernism lived in France. By the end of this year, it may at last be acknowledged that there were in fact three.

Gray deserves to be placed with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as part of an extraordinary trio of Irish exiles who reimagined existing forms: in the novel, in theatre, in architecture and interior design. There is reason to believe that 2013 will be the year when that finally happens.

It would not be true to say that Gray has been neglected, at least in Ireland. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland held an exhibition of her designs at the Bank of Ireland headquarters, in Dublin, as far back as 1973. In June 2000, thanks to the vision of Michael O’Doherty, chief architect of the OPW, and of the National Museum’s director, Pat Wallace, the museum acquired Gray’s personal collection from her apartment in Paris, for what now seems the low price of €1.1 million. It is well displayed at Collins Barracks.

There was no intention in any of this of simply claiming Gray as an Irish artistic hero, but there is always that danger of reducing an important European figure to the scale of a merely national one. This is why it is important that the Pompidou Centre, in Paris, will open a major exhibition of Gray’s work on February 20th.

It is striking that the French press release for the exhibition brackets Gray with Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as one of the figures who “defined modernity”. Before seeing E1027 I might have thought that such a statement was a little over the top. Now, even if Le Corbusier might resent his place in such company, it seems like simple justice.

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