E-1027: Innovation and Conflict

E-1027: Innovation and Conflict

France’s Cote d’Azur is home to many famous buildings—from the casinos of Monte Carlo to museums hosting Chagalls and Picassos. But none tell a story of innovation, conflict, and perseverance quite like the often-forgotten E-1027. Designed by Eileen Gray in the idyllic town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, E-1027 is a total work of art and architecture. It is a statement of resilience and innovation that time and circumstance tried to edit, co-opt, and erase.

Out of the countless travel photos I see on social media, only a handful ever truly stick with me. It was one such photo of a villa on a cliff overlooking bright blue waters that I kept thinking of time and time again. Without initially knowing anything about its meaningful place in architecture history, there was something about the villa’s crisp lines, its nautical awnings against the white exterior, and the way it spoke to its surroundings that captivated me from the get-go. I knew I had to learn more. I knew I had to visit.

Journey to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and the Cap Moderne Museum.

My quest led me to the South of France, where I started the journey from an Airbnb in Vallauris (a town near Cannes) with two similarly eager friends. The hour-long drive took us along the A8 autoroute past Nice and Monaco and down numerous windy yet mesmerizingly scenic roads to the quaint little town of Roquebrune Cap-Martin, only 7.5 kilometers from the Italian border. There, we parked in front of a beachy warehouse housing the Cap Moderne Museum (which showcased the history of the site and is just steps away from the town railroad station). After we met our tour guide and proceeded down a heavily vegetated path along the seaside railroad, we arrived not at the villa we were looking for, but at some Le Corbusier-designed cabins (which I will skip over for now… the quick dismissal will make sense later!)

The approach.

After we visited the above-mentioned Le Corbusier buildings, we arrived at our final destination. The walk there was beautiful and the slow reveal of the villa told the story of a once-remote location that captured imaginations almost a hundred years ago. There was E-1027, the white and blue exterior, the mesmerizing way it sat in the landscape. It was time to finally experience it!

Started in 1926 and finished in 1929, E-1027 was not only a vacation house, but Eileen Gray’s experiment and prototype lab. Gray was an Irish-born architect and furniture designer, a pioneer in fields that during her time were largely male-dominated. Despite designing E-1027 with her then-partner, Romanian architect Jean Badovici, Gray’s contributions, from furniture to partitions to building systems, make this her project through-and-through. The villa’s name breaks down to E for Eileen, 10 for the 10th letter of the alphabet J (Jean), 2 for B (Badovici), and 7 for G (Gray). Starting with the name, Gray’s intent was a total work, where “even the furnishings should lose their individuality by blending in with the architectural ensemble” (L’Architecture Vivante).

First glimpses of the exterior of E-1027.

The villa’s exterior consists of a rectangular, flat-roofed white structure, with large ribbon windows that wrap around the building to provide a seamless connection to the surrounding landscape overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Although you might think of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of a New Architecture here, Gray added a strikingly human element that was not present in most other modernist works. E-1027 employs pilotis, a flat roof, horizontal windows, open plans and facade, but incorporates life and flexibility into all of these features. In a 1929 publication describing the house, Gray says: “External architecture seems to have absorbed avant-garde architects at the expense of the interior. As if a house should be conceived for the pleasure of the eye more than for the well-being of its inhabitants” (L’Architecture Vivante). Gray therefore doesn’t want us to stop at the surface, but live in and experience her design.

That is why, for now, we should jump right into the interior!

The entrance, salon, and guest bathroom.

Entering the house, you immediately appreciate Gray’s minimalistic aesthetic. Despite the relatively small footprint (two floors, total of 250 sq meters), the space does not feel constrained and truly embodies the open plan with moveable screens and walls. Looking at both the plan and even the smallest element of the house, the golden ratio is visible throughout. Gray spent a lot of time studying proportional systems such as the golden section and spiral, and combined these classical systems with her own inventions. The superimposed golden spirals below show how each space was subdivided and thought out.

Credit: E.1027 Monograph: “Superimposed golden spirals” by Wilfried Wang (with added labels)
Credit: E.1027 Monograph: E.1027, roof plan with skylight for publication in L’Architecture VIvante, ca. 1929.

Gray’s intent of a total work is clearly seen in both the stationary and the dynamic. The living room, or salon, greets you first: a spacious, light-filled room boasting stunning sea views through ribbon windows that stretch across the walls. This room is devoid of excess, with functional furniture, including bookshelves and a unique built-in bar area. The minimalist aesthetic of the salon, characterized by the white walls and polished concrete floors, forms the perfect backdrop for the built-ins, furniture, and seascape beyond the windows. Color is of the utmost importance here, with swatches peppering the walls.

Credit: E.1027 Monograph: E.1027, view of the salon towards the divan, 1926-1929.
Credit: E.1027 Monograph: (Clockwise) drawing of linen cabinet in the guest shower, drawing of rotating bedside table for guest niche, side elevation, front elevation and plan with components of the Transat armchair, and elevations plan and details of components of cork dining table for all for publication in L’Architecture Vivante.

It’s easy to imagine the salon serving as a comfortable space for relaxation, reading, or socializing depending on the changeable layout and use of the many built-in features. The main salon space itself is made up of three main parts, the fireplace area, the divan area, and the reading day-bed area, all differentiated by floor coverings and moveable furniture. Gray’s furniture design is on full display here, from her famous Transat chair, to incredibly functional bedside tables (one was designed specifically so that her sister would not get crumbs on the bed). The central area is open, with all furniture occupying the perimeter. Both the divan and reading bed areas feature fold-out side tables and the fireplace area has built-in shelving and cabinets for logs and storage. Fully embodying practicality, there is also a restroom equipped with a shower, just on the other side of a screen wall by the divan. Everything seems to have a purpose, yet does not feel limiting or prescriptive.

Furniture, built-ins, and the dining/bar area.

As we venture further, a door leads to the first bedroom, which continues the theme of minimalism and functionality. The room features one of Gray’s signature designs, a wall-mounted headboard and elevated double bed, whose height directly correlates to the windows ensuring a view of the sea. Clever storage solutions are seamlessly integrated into the walls, promoting Gray’s belief in full functionality. The second bedroom is similarly furnished with a comfortable bed, fold-out table, and built-in storage.

Credit: E.1027 Monograph: Tirza Hutagalung, “Bedside Table in Master Bedroom at E.1027”, 2016.

Throughout the villa, all of the built-ins are labeled, from an entryway hat cabinet labeled “chapeaux” to text showing where the mosquito net was to a water shelf reading “eau fraiche”. Each space has multiple entrances and even the main areas of the house can become private sanctuaries, a feature Gray treasured.

Bedrooms and main bathroom, with focus on bedside tables and cabinetry.

Perhaps the most captivating part of the house is its terrace and exterior, a perfect blend of indoor and outdoor space. You can see some of the maritime influences here: the blinds move on intricate ship-like rails, the roof features a mast-like flagpole, and the facade is dotted with blue sail-like canvas coverings. The exterior also features a social area under the house, as well as a sun-bathing pit. The garden was designed at the same time as the house and sought to bring together the architecture and the then-remote, wild landscape. There are natural stones, hand-made tiles, and concrete, mixing together the natural and man-made. The terraced orchard when you first enter seeks to obscure and direct the viewer, narrating the approach.

Exteriors and gardens.

As we circle the exterior, we cannot help but notice the Le Corbusier cabanas in the background. Despite Gray’s intentions, it is inevitable that this villa draws comparisons to Le Corbusier’s work and mantras. With the Swiss architect’s own works having both grown around it and in fact seeped into E-1027 over the years. Again, on the surface you might see pilotis, ribbon, windows, etc. but the details tell a deeper story. Le Corbusier attempted to change and make the house his own despite never being able to outright own it. To fully understand how this house is controversially intertwined with his work, we need to look further at its history.

Gray’s former partner, Badovici, took ownership of the house upon their split in 1932. Badovici was close friends with Le Corbusier, who tried to buy the property. Despite being unable to buy E-1027, Le Corbusier bought adjacent property and built his own vacation house and guest camping cabanas, the Unités de Camping. His own dwelling is simple and stark, with the cabanas a bit more colorful and welcoming. Declaring this cliffside in Roquebrune as his own by any means necessary, Le Corbusier was intent on putting his own mark on E-1027.

Le Corbusier’s Cabanon (first three images) and Les Unités de Camping (last three images).

Le Corbusier’s most infamous alteration to E-1027 was a series of eight large murals he painted directly onto its walls in 1938 and 1939. These murals, which were added without Gray’s permission, were bold, abstract, and, in some cases, explicit – in stark contrast to Gray’s understated, minimalist aesthetic. Gray, who saw her architecture and interiors as complete works of art, was outraged by these unsolicited additions, feeling that they violated the integrity of her design. Le Corbusier published photographs of the murals without ever mentioning who designed the walls on which he had painted. He claimed the murals were painted on blank walls, but Gray’s design “left nothing undetermined,” meaning that each color, or lack thereof, was highly intentional (A Total Work of Modern Art from O’Neil Monograph). The first of the murals is clearly seen when you enter the house, as it takes up the entirety of the cocoon-like entrance vestibule.

Before delving further into the murals, it is important to note one particular space in E-1027. Placed off to the side of this vestibule, it is easy to miss the kitchen, a space attached to the exterior without as much care as the rest of the rooms we could visit. Aside from the kitchen, there are maids quarters that don’t possess many of the themes that E-1027 embodies. The maids’ quarters have a small window that could be blocked out to completely hide its inhabitants from the terraces and social events outside. As I thoroughly enjoyed the house overall, these spaces–the kitchen and maids quarters–are a controversial product of their time. As much as Gray broke barriers for women in the 1920s and onwards, there are reminders that nothing is as idyllic as it might first seem.

The entryway, kitchen, Le Corbusier’s murals, Eileen Gray’s entrance text, and the view to Les Unites Des Campings above from the E-1027 gardens.

Just past the kitchen, around the corner from the entrance mural, and before the second mural in the great room is Gray’s text reading “Defense de rire,” translating roughly to “this is not a laughing matter,” a clairvoyant phrase. Even after Le Corbusier died (just below the house, on one of his daily swims), E-1027 continued to suffer mistreatment, from becoming German soldiers’ target practice in WWII and original furniture being auctioned off, to falling into disrepair at the hands of another owner, who was murdered there in 1996, and having squatters further neglect the historical elements of the space. Thankfully it was bought by the Conservatoire du Littoral in 1999 and restored.

Credit: E.1027 Monograph: E.1027 photograph of vandalized salon, June 1998.

The continual controversy and neglect of the house from when Gray and Badovici split to the new restoration saw the villa continually attributed solely to Badovici. Although Gray’s furniture gained popularity throughout the 40s to 70s, her work on E-1027 was not correctly attributed until much later. Even a former owner of the villa, Madame Schelbert, misattributed the villa, not correcting a 1975 decree that added the “Villa constructed by Badovici” to a register of historical sites (Where the Paper Trail Leads from O’Neil Monograph). In 1999, the record was finally cleared, attributing the villa to Gray, and giving it additional historical status.

E-1027 viewed from the back terrace garden.

E-1027 stands as an icon of early modernist architecture. My visit took me on a walk through architectural history to a villa that is a testament to perseverance. E-1027 is a landmark of women’s accomplishments in architecture and should be more widely known and celebrated. There is visible joy in every element of the design that goes past the visible and into the personal, the liveable, and the tactile.


Wang, Wilfried, and Peter Adam, editors. E.1027. Distributed Art Publishers, 2017. Vol. 7 of O’Neil Ford Monograph.

Gray, Eileen and Jean Badovici. “E1027 maison en bord de mer.” L’Architecture Vivante, no. 4,  1929, pp. 2-14. Translation by Rachel Stella.