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One of the strangest stories in modern architecture is that of Le Corbusier’s obsession with a villa (modernistically named E 1027) by the Irish designer Eileen Gray at Cap Martin in the south of France.
Gray was a hugely talented but little-known designer whose reputation today far outstrips the one that she had during her career. (As if to underline how far, last month an armchair by Gray fetched an astonishing €22m [$28bn] at the Paris auction of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection.) Le Corbusier was the most famous and influential architect of the century. Yet Le Corbusier was so drawn to Gray’s villa that, after staying there, he returned to the site to build himself a cabanon, a retreat or hut of the most elemental kind.
A replica of that hut now stands in the loft of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Art Deco Florence Hall. But it is a strange object. Reproducing the interior only, it appears as a blind black box, its creators – the Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina – having apparently decided that the log cabin non-aesthetic of its exterior was somehow unnecessary.
This seems odd to me, as it embodies such an obvious, if subconscious, memory of Le Corbusier’s Swiss roots. Entering the tiny space feels a little like walking into a fun-fair ghost house and, indeed, it reveals a space haunted by the contradictory dreams of modernism.
Le Corbusier, imaginer of a world of towers in parkland, of elevated walkways and endless freeways, of the destruction of central Paris to create boulevards of terrifying but monumental banality, and inspirer of the worst high-rise housing in the world, built his primitive hut in 1952.