Modern Architecture Meets Mediterranean at Cap Moderne
Bordered by Monaco and Menton, the communities of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin occupy an enviable spot on the French Riviera. Wedged between the sparkling Mediterranean and the Alpes-Maritimes, there is no doubt why crowds flock to the Côte d’Azur for their holidays. Although not undiscovered in the late 1920s, the area was the “playground” of a select group that included architects who are revered a century later.
Cap Moderne, a one-time holiday refuge for creative types, is a unique property even for exclusive Cap Martin. This site includes three buildings designed by three different architects: Eileen Gray (1878 – 1976), Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965) and Thomas Egildo Rebutato (1907 – 1971). The vacation retreat suffered from the passage of time and lack of upkeep; it was an eyesore on the beautiful shoreline. It took 20 years, but eventually, the French State acquired the land and buildings and began an extensive restoration project.
Tricky and worthwhile is how Michael Likierman, the non-profit Cap Moderne Association president, described the six-year restoration project. The Association assumed the project management role in 2014, at a time when the re-construction was far from complete and funding uncertain. With the restoration finished at the end of 2020, the property transitioned to Centre des monuments nationaux for ongoing management and day to day operations. The Conservatoire du littoral, the French government organization with the mandate to safeguard the coastline, owns and protects the site.
Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027
Villa E-1027, built over three years from 1926 to 1929, is a contemporary structure that would easily suit the California coastline or Palm Springs. Working with her partner Jean Badovici (editor of Architecture Vivante), architect Eileen Gray embarked on her first project designing the house and all its customized furnishings, including lamps, built-ins and freestanding furniture. The villa’s unconventional name is a combination of the partners’ initials starting with E for Eileen, 10 for the letter J of Jean, 2 for the B of Badovici, and 7 for the G of Gray.
Eileen Gray’s vision for this home was a refuge where she and Badovici would work with little interruption. His notion differed and likely influenced the design. Badovici wanted a retreat by the sea where they would entertain friends. The duo only shared the property for a short period, and it remained Jean Badovici’s home until he died in 1956.
Constructed on two levels, Villa E-1027 is tiny by current standards. The L-shaped building is only 120 m2 (just under 1,300 sq ft). The home’s upper level, set on stilts, includes an open plan living room, kitchen, and entrance area. The master bedroom-studio and bathroom are also on this level, with the guest room and servant’s quarters below. Gray’s design was minimalist and neutral white. She used moveable furniture, screen partitions and functional built-ins.
Additional reading about Eileen Gray’s biography.
The Impacts of Time
A fan of the French Riviera and a friend of Jean Badovici’s, Le Corbusier stayed at Villa E-1027 twice in 1938 and 1939, during which time he painted seven murals. Badovici encouraged the artwork additions, which were not at all to Eileen Gray’s liking. The war years resulted in damage to the murals, which Le Corbusier undertook in 1949 and 1963. Over time, three of the murals have disappeared.
After Jean Badovici’s death, the villa’s ownership transitioned to Madame Schelbert, a relation of Le Corbusier, who passed it on to her doctor Peter Kaegi. Sadly, Kaegi was not interested in the villa’s upkeep nor paying his bills. Murdered by his gardener over unpaid debts, and Villa E-1027 left to squatters. When the Conservatoire du littoral when acquired Villa E-1027, the situation was bleak. The home was in structural disrepair, stripped of its furniture, and the remaining Le Corbusier murals were damaged once again.
A Big Project
It took over 20 years for the Conservatoire du Littoral to control the entire site and its structures. The Cabanon was acquired in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Villa E-1027 transitioned to the State with financial assistance from the city of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The Rebutato family donated l’Étoile de Mer and the cabins in 2000. However, that was only the start of the work. Restoration work between 2004 and 2012 directed by the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs focused on conservation. Sadly, the efforts were hampered by underfunding and other factors. In 2014, the not-for-profit Cap Moderne Association began restoring Villa E-1027 to its 1929 state, including the structure, furnishings and the garden.
When Cap Moderne Association came on board, the aim was to restore the villa and its contents as accurately as possible, using Eileen Gray’s original materials and methods. The undertaking required many expert disciplines with particular attention focused on repairing the building’s foundations after a century of exposure to sea air and heavy seasonal rainfall.
This complex project required a budget of close to five (5) million Euros. There were five significant areas requiring restoration, each representing approximately one-fifth of the financial allocation. The work included reinforcing the foundations and installing proper drainage for overflow rainwater on the whole site. All the exterior surfaces – roof, windows and openings, shutters and awnings – required repair. The interior decoration, along with fixed and mobile furniture, was recreated. Site construction also included a new public reception and exhibition facilities and parking at the nearby station. Part of the project included the restoration of the Le Corbusier Cabanon, the holiday cottages and l’Étoile de Mer.
Étoile de Mer by Thomas Rebutato
Thomas, Egildo Rebutato came from humble beginnings and worked in construction for much of his life. Born in San Remo, on Italy’s Ligurian coast, he never strayed far from his roots or the Mediterranean. Already familiar with Roquebrune Cap-Martin and its beaches, Rebutato jumped at the prospect of buying the 1000 m² property adjacent to Villa E-1027 in 1947. He envisioned a holiday development with six compact cottages, one of which was to be his.
The project timeline did not follow its prescribed course, and Rebutato converted his cabin into a small seaside eatery called Étoile de Mer – Chez Robert. Fate stepped when the restaurant’s first two guests, Jean Badovici and Le Corbusier, walked through the door. A friendship and business arrangement were born. Le Corbusier designed the remaining five (5) cabins in exchange for a small parcel of land where he built Le Cabanon. The rustic seaside cottages welcomed visitors from 1957 until 1987 when Rebutato’s wife Marguerite died.
Additional reading about Thomas, Egildo Rebutato.
Le Cabanon by Le Corbusier
Already familiar with Villa E-1027, Le Corbusier acquired a tiny slice of the adjacent property, owned by Thomas Rebutato, where he built his “Castle on the Riviera.” Diverging from the recognizable Le Corbusier modern white villas, Le Cabanon is a modest wooden cabin, perhaps a harkening back to his Swiss mountain roots. Completed in 1952, Le Corbusier used the Cabanon extensively until he died in 1965.
Conservation and the Future
2000: The entire site and all the structures belong to the Conservatoire du Littoral, France’s coastal protection agency.
2014: Cap Moderne Association is a charitable body established to restore and prepare the Cap Moderne site for visitors. Its current operations conclude in 2021 and will transition to the Association Eileen Gray Le Corbusier, responsible for the site’s cultural animation. Please consider donating to the organization.
2015: Restoration of the Cabanon and the workshop concluded.
2016: Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027 seaside Villa and Le Corbusier’s Cabanon received French Historical Monuments designation and the property listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
2017: Étoile de Mer and holiday cottages restored.
2021: Cap Moderne reopens to public visitors. The Centre des monuments nationaux now operates Villa E-1027 and the property’s balance, safeguarding the buildings’ integrity and controlling the number of visitors allowed on the site.
Guided site tours will restart in May 2021.
Buy your tickets online in advance of your visit.
Touring the site requires the ability to manage stairs and some uneven surfaces.
Image credits: Photos by Manuel Bougot. All photos were provided by and published with the permission of the Cap Moderne Association.
French Riviera Books to Read
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Written by Philippe Collas and Eric Villedary, Edith Wharton’s French Riviera is a richly illustrated history of the French Riviera and influences from British and later American residents.
Maureen Emerson and her husband spent in the South of France for 22 years. She became enthralled with the stories of those expatriates who lived on the Riviera in the 1920s and 1930s and how WWII affected their lives. Maureen has published two books on influential residents of the French Riviera during that era.
Her first book, Escape to Provence, published in 2008, is the true story of Lady Winifred Fortescue (author) and Elisabeth Parrish Star (Great War heroine). The book is available in Kindle format here or by clicking the book cover below to purchase.
Riviera Dreaming, Love and War on the Côte d’Azur, published in 2018, is the biography of American architect Barry Dierks. Dierks completed a vast body of residential design work on the Riviera for a long list of famous clients.
Mary S. Lovell was a Project Accountant before 1986, when she made a career shift and began writing on a full-time basis. The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High Society is her latest book. A biography about the rich, or famous, who spent time on the French Riviera from the 1920s to 1960. Many of these people gathered at the art deco home of Maxine Elliot Château de l’Horizon near Cannes. The book is for anyone who likes history and learning about the lives (not rumours) of the era’s famous names.