In 1878 Queen Victoria, the woman dubbed “Grandmother of Europe” for making her children marry into almost every country on the continent, visited the capital of the French Riviera, Nice. To help her manage the hardship of being away, local business types ran up a home away from home evoking as much Victorian pomp and circumstance as you would find in Whitehall. With a façade longer than a running track, electric elevators, croquet lawns, sea views and – pity the cleaning staff – 400 rooms, La Regina, hit all the spots as a hotel for Victorian celebrity and royalty. And whilst no longer a hotel, this enormous lump of 19th Century majesty still looks down on Nice, unamused, forbidding, a stucco reprimand to the mediaeval warren of the old town and the licentious beach beneath.
So what’s this got to with Modernism? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about clean lines and modernity? I mention 1878 because I want to lead you gently by the hand to the birth year of a lady who created something just outside Nice that is much more modest (in the best sense of the term). This place with a clear vision of cool beauty, minimalist dreaming and, artistically at the very least, of freedom, kicks arse as far as Modernism goes.
While Queen Victoria was hardly the Feminist trailblazer (she once wrote of “checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights,’ with all its attendant horrors“), the architect of this building, Eileen Gray, could paint, build, design and lacquer most men into a cocked hat (and she drove an ambulance in World War One).
Any self proclaimed lover of Modernism will most likely want to ignore Nice’s Boulevard Anglais, look away from the wedding-cake fancy of the Hotel Negresco and steer well clear of vulgar expensive Monte Carlo to make the detour to E-1027. You get there by leaping on either the local train or bus that run along the coast. Get off at Cap Moderne.
Since the re-fit and a re-opening in 2015 a visitor centre has emerged where you can buy books, mementoes and the like before meeting your guide who walks you the five minutes or so to the house itself. Our guide was a curious hybrid of Dan Cruickshank and Charles Aznavour who added hugely to the charm of the experience by crooning out the details. He told us that this early example of minimalist nomenclature is a code for Gray and her lover stroke client Jean Badovici (E for Eileen with the rest of the pair’s initials coded numerically as 10, 2 and 7) as we approached the house from behind and above the roof line, a modest back view with a sliver window and a porch merely hinting at the goodies to come at the front.
In cerulean blue plastic galoshes, we toured a quite frugal interior space, pausing to admire her innovative built-in furniture as well as furniture donated by Aram in London. It is said she created a tea trolley with a cork surface to reduce the rattling of cups for this house as well as another trolley designed to move her heavy gramophone from inside to outside. The London shop Aram provided the adjustable E1027 table and the squishy leather Michelin man Bibendum chair that she is best known for. We gaze lovingly at the outdoor shower and sunbath before joining in the chorus of envious sighs as the building opens out and waves back at the deep blue beyond.
There is much to be said here about placement as much as design. We spent as much time looking at Eileen’s shapes as we did the azure distance. Her temple lies just along the coast, a tiny pearl hiding at the edge of the sea. This long low box, raised on pillars, with layers that work like a series of screens placed to play with the lay of land and sea was the designer’s first stab at architecture. Completed in 1929 when she was 51 years old it makes good use of the shadows and light around it and the stave of wind and movement of sun which she studied avidly. The building is mostly white although the interior has touches of pink or pistachio, with a hint of deep blue or black in places, all based on a maritime theme. Testament to this is the large nautical chart on the the back wall of the living room, which, she said at the time, “evokes distant voyages and gives rise to reverie”.
Eileen Gray wasn’t the only modernist on this site. After she left, Le Corbusier moved in and, depending on who you believe, either enlivened or vandalised the place by painting some rather pornographic murals that have been left in place as part of the restoration. The Guardian newspaper called the Corbusier intervention an act of “naked phallocracy”. While the French government demurs, the E-1027 website has you feeling that Eileen had only a small part in the proceedings. Jealous rant, joke or lively gift?
Whatever the truth of the motivations behind the painting, what is certain is Corb also created a terrace of colourful holiday chalets on site – that look like an arty Butlins – as well as his stunning monastic Cabanon.
These will be part of your tour and like so much of his output made me think of Ian Nairn writing that Le Corbusier was “a sculptor of genius who fits interiors to his magic plastic shapes with quite unexpected humanity”. Mind you, he also called him the “high priest of arrogance” which explains the daubing on the walls of Eileen’s light white loveliness.
Another bus ride (it’s one and a half euros to go more or less anywhere on this coast) takes you high above the shore along a road with more hairpins than Dolly Parton’s ‘do’ to what looks like a coach park. The collection of charabancs and selfie-sticks is due to the adjacent presence of a village ancien crammed with souvenir shops and synthetic fabrics. You will notice people with difficult architect glasses will head in the opposite direction, A fifteen minute walk up a hill through a wood opens onto a building that will have you gibbering even before you clock the art dripping from every one of its concrete pores.
Welcome to the Maeght Foundation; a mesmerising complex of Josep Lluís Sert’s buildings containing the art collection of Marguerite and Aimé Maeght. Sert might be best known for the Joan Miro Foundation above Barcelona.
This place with its huge scooped roofs, criss-crossing glass corridors, soaring galleries and splashes of primary paint did it even more for me once I basked in the overall colour scheme, a mix of salmon paste brick and bright white concrete made luminescent by the Provence sunlight and the dozens of art works that lie inside and out.
Not all the collection is on show so you might see Arp and Calder brushing against more recent bits by Sui Jianguo, Takis and Tàpies. You will definitely see a rather stunning mosaic by Chagall and a garden of Miro sculptures full of impish Iberian jollity before you head back to Nice with its Provencal physicality and older, rather staid promenade life-style, like Eastbourne with added garlic and glass of rosé.
It is a charming old town with a properly communal beach. You could have a perfectly fine time here without thinking of concrete, Dada artists or the role of women in art and architecture. But look a little further, beyond the bulk of Imperial Britain at the seaside, and watch the work of two creative ladies, Eileen Gray and Marguerite Maeght, emerge into the brightest sunshine.
Matthew Loukes, well-travelled lover of Modernism, is the author of the Slim Gunter detective novels, published by Soul Bay Press www.soulbaypress.com He travelled to the South of France to Nice Airport with British Airways. To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this c Modern Shows feature please contact Lucy@modernshows.com. Modern Shows produces Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism