Down a quiet, leafy footpath in the Côte d’Azur hides perhaps the most modest piece of interesting architecture of any historical period and yet it was designed by one of the twentieth century’s most influential and least modest architects.
The Swiss born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, or Le Corbusier as he preferred to be called, was a frequent visitor to Eileen Gray’s and Jean Badovici’s nearby Villa E-1027 which Gray had designed over 30 years before. He fell out with her after he got up early one morning and painted an unwanted mural in her house. An ‘act of violation’ as she described it.
Le Corbusier had become friends with another neighbour, Thomas Rebutato, a former plumber who owned and ran a small café cum inn next door, L’Etoile de Mer. It was whilst the two were planning the redevelopment of the site, with the intention of building Unités de camping, that Corbu persuaded Rebutato to give him a sliver of adjoining land on which to build a cabanon or small hut. He built it as a model in minimal habitation and as a birthday present for his wife, Yvonne.
Designed in December 1951 in less than an hour, building work lasted only six months and it was completed in August 1952 using rough pine boards for the exterior and plywood and oak pieces for the interior, mostly prefabricated in Corsica. The initial idea was to have used aluminium cladding which would have had a completely different, if not incongruous effect.
The surface area is about 16m2. There is no kitchen: the couple took all their meals, including breakfast, at the café, to which a door in the small entrance corridor provides direct access. There is no door to the WC and the bidet abuts the headrest of one of the beds: Yvonne covered it with a cloth. “Not a square centimetre wasted! A little cell at human scale where all functions were considered” as Le Corbusier described his smallest ‘machine for living in’.
He devoted much thought to the interior detailing, using vivid red, green and blue panels on the ceiling to contrast with the yellow-painted floor and wooden warmth of the walls. The ceiling is low to allow for ample storage. He painted a colourful mural along the entrance passage. The little furniture there is is made of recycled materials: crates for stools; railway carriage reading lights; porte-abus for a lamp and so on.
At the time Le Corbusier had made two long trips to India and it is possible that he was influenced by Hinduism and Sannyasa, the notion of a life of renouncement and poverty. Certainly the cabanon expresses the simplicity, truth and freedom of the individual. He made precise plans of Punjabi houses and appeared as interested in their building techniques and way of housing as he was in their architectural forms. He used these plans to design the Peon houses, simple structures that were to have been sited behind the Governor’s palace in Chandigarh.
The layout is conceived more from the interior than with regard to connecting to its immediate surrounds and yet this makes perfect sense. There are only two windows, which are small, but the shutters fold back inside to reveal mirrors that reflect the turquoise sea and, framed by pine and palm trees, the other not-so-modest machines for living in across the bay in Monte Carlo.
Although the cabanon has virtually all one needs to pass a non self-catering holiday, Le Corbusier also built an even tinier hut a few metres away for an atelier to work in, the shade of a large Carob tree linking the two.
Thirteen years after completing it, he drowned off the coast, during a long swim. This may have been an act of suicide, his wife having died in 1957. “How nice it would be to die swimming towards the sun”, he once remarked to a colleague. He also designed an austere but elegant and, of course functional, concrete tomb for Yvonne and himself and it sits in the Vieux Cimetière at the top of the old town.
The ensemble of cabanon, atelier, café, the unités de camping (built between 1954 and 1957) and Villa E-1027 has become an historic monument. The first two are in good state and can be visited. The others are currently the subject of research and restoration.
Le Corbusier’s Cabanon is open to the public in September. Although the 2003 timetable is not yet available, it is likely to reflect that of 2002 when guided visits were organised by La Commune de Roquebrune-Cap Martin, Office du Tourisme, 218 avenue Aristide-Briand, tel: + 33 (0)4 93 35 62 87, fax: + 33 (0)4 93 28 57 00, office-du-tourisme.rcm(at)wanadoo.fr. In September 2002, visits were organised on Tuesdays and Friday mornings at 10:00. €8 for adults; €5 for students; free for children under 12.
La Villa E01027 is in a poor state of repair and has been described as ‘dangereux’ but there are plans to restore it fully. In September 2002, guided visits were organised on Monday afternoons at 15:00 and it is likely that this arrangement will continue in 2003. Apparently the best view of the exterior is from the sea.
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