Eileen Gray Matters
Posted on: 07/10/2015
Ahead of our Australian premiere of documentary Gray Matters, presented in collaboration with MPavilion, CINECITY founder Louise Mackenzie questions why designer Eileen Gray has largely been overlooked in architectural history.
Architect Eileen Gray was a huge figure in the Paris modern avant-garde from 1910 to the 1930s. Cloé Pitiot, curator of the Eileen Gray exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, states in Gray Matters, “if you can say that Le Corbusier is one of the fathers of Modernity, then you can say that Eileen Gray is one of the mothers of Modernity.”
However, the equal footing that this statement indicates is not reflected in the history of modern architecture. Eileen Gray doesn’t figure with nearly as much significance as other architects, such as Le Corbusier or Gerrit Rietveld. One of the constant, yet subtle, themes running through Gray Matters are the questions regarding Gray’s position in architectural history.
Is it because she was independently wealthy and didn’t need publicity and clients to keep working? Is it because she was a recluse? Is it because Gray designed in so many fields - carpets, furniture, interior design, architecture? Is it because she didn’t train as an architect? Is it because some of the history on the subject, while not written as untrue, was written as a lie, by omission? Was it (and is it still) because she was a woman?
Marco Antonio Orsini filming Gray Matters
Eileen Gray lived a long and productive life, working up until her death in 1976 at the age 97. Born in Ireland, she lived in Paris during her adult life and was already famous in the 1910s in the Paris modern avant-garde, receiving commissions for furniture and interior design from the Paris aristocracy, and opening her own shop to sell her design work. She featured regularly in avant-garde design magazines from the late teens to the early 1930s. Then, seemingly, she was forgotten, however she kept working, and was revived in the public mind in 1968 by an article written by architect and scholar Witold Rybczynski, published in Domus. Her work once again entered the public consciousness to a point where on 24th of February 2009 a chair Gray designed in the late teens called Fauteuil Aux Dragons, Vers (1917-1919), the Dragons Chair, sold at auction for 19.5 million Euros, plus taxes.
The Dragons Chair
In 1929, Eileen Gray designed a holiday house for herself and her partner of the time, architect Jean Badovici, called E1027. The house was located in the south of France, on a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Like its designer, the house too had almost been forgotten and by the late 1990s was in a state of disrepair. At this time a restoration project began that took over 15 years to complete.
Eileen Gray can easily be read as Le Corbusier’s - one of the most influential architects of the 20th century - great nemesis. Gray received guidance and advice from Badovici and Le Corbusier. However the design of the house, by many, if not all, accounts is hers. The design takes in great consideration sunlight and ventilation, using age old vernacular techniques of controlling the sun and air by various means such as positioning the house in relation to the sun and the use of shading and air control devices like shutters and external screens. Architect Daniel J. Ryan suggests that Gray and Badovici believed in providing hygienic living conditions in part via sunlight and air, however unlike some of their contemporaries, they also believed that this should be provided with a comfort for the human body (2010 p. 340). Ryan writes in relation to Gray and E1027:
The survey of attitudes to the environment at the time demonstrates the confusion between techniques to create healthier living environments and those for comfort. Gray critiques Corbusian principles to create one of the first modern dwellings appropriate to the Mediterranean climate and culture. (Ryan, 2010, p. 346)
After Eileen Gray and Badovici had separated, Le Corbusier, while staying with Badovici, famously painted murals on the walls of E1027. At Gray’s insistence Badovici asked Le Corbusier to leave the house. He took up residency at a cafe just above, overlooking the water and E1027. After World War II, Le Corbusier designed a holiday house, for himself and his wife Yvonne, next to the cafe, which like many of his other works became part of the Le Corbusier global pilgrimage. In 1965 Le Corbusier died of a heart attack while swimming in the water, just below the cabin, the cafe and E1027.
A fiction film The Price of Desire (2015), named after the auction of The Dragons Chair, has been made about E1027 and the relationship between these two architects. An attraction, at least, a tension existed between them. The fiction film is directed by Mary McGuckian the producer of Gray Matters.
Gray Matters suggests that without Le Corbusier’s arrogance, E1027 would most likely have been lost to us - as the house was often cared for only because of Le Corbusier’s murals and furthermore the house itself when published, by omission, was allowed to be credited to Le Corbusier, - but instead, due in part to the makers of the film The Price of Desire, by contributing to the funding, the house E1027 is now almost fully resorted, and can be visited in combination with Le Corbusier’s cabin, above, next to the cafe.
Eileen Gray does matter – her work is equal to many of her avant-garde contemporaries, many of whom, for various reasons play a greater part in design history as it’s presently told. We can see that the title of the documentary plays on Gray’s name but would we today, or at any time, call a documentary film, Le Corbusier Matters or Rietveld Matters?
The interior of E1027
It may seem superfluous to state that Gray’s diminishment in architectural history is because of her being a woman, but in the words of philosopher Slavoj Žižek, from a lecture at an architecture conference in Melbourne in 2011, "don’t underestimate saying things publicity what everyone knows."
Ryan, D.J. (2010). Sunshine and shade in the architecture of Eileen Gray. Architectural Science Review. 53, p. 340–347.comments powered by Disqus