Preview: The Rape of Eileen Gray

Le Corbusier’s assault of Gray’s Modernist masterpiece: the case for a reform in architectural education.

Western men and their buildings dominate the discourse of architectural history while historic female figures have been systematically forgotten. Most damagingly, their contributions to affecting architectural change have been swept aside.

The men of Modernism, such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, are exalted as Gods, while the prominent female figures who worked with and around them are conveniently forgotten. For starters, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House was designed under strict accordance to the demands of a single women client, and Le Corbusier, the great pioneer of Modernism, was driven to an unhealthy and violent obsession with Eileen Gray’s e-1027.

Eileen Gray designed e-1027, her first building, in 1929 when she was 51 years old, for her and her partner, Jean Badovici. It was a triumph in Modern design, incorporating Le Corbusier’s famed five points as well as Gray’s own detailed knowledge of the movements of the sun and the wind on the site. She rejected Corbusier’s concept of the house as a machine for her much more sensual understanding of the dwelling as a place of human experience and feeling. It is no wonder then that when Corbusier visited the house for the first time he fell in love with its spirit, its clarity, and what he called its ‘dignified, charming, and witty shape.’

However, the way Corbusier went on to treat the house, as an object of desire that needed to be studied, marked, and penetrated, shows a disturbing side to this iconic man, a side entirely left out of mainstream architectural education. When their relationship ended, Eileen left the house while Corbusier stayed with Jean and, while naked, painted eight murals on its walls, while he was completely naked. What he saw as a gift to Gray (he published the murals with the statement that they were ‘prepared free of charge’), Gray saw as outright vandalism, and was distraught by it until her death at 98, more than forty years later. Even more absurdly, Corbusier went on to buy land above e-1027 and built a small wooden hut where he would obsessively sit and sketch. After his wife and Badovici’s deaths, he built a two-storey guesthouse that towered, obtrusive and threatening, over e-1027; made even more uncomfortable by the fact that Gray had originally chosen the site because it was ‘inaccessible and not overlooked from anywhere.’ In his last years, Corbusier finally occupied e-1027 himself, and lived in it until he had a fatal heart attack in the sea in front of the house.

Because Gray lived a modest and quiet life, for many years after Corbusier’s death the design of e-1027 was attributed to him – despite the fact that e-1027 is a code for Gray and Badovici’s names (e=Eileen, 10=J, 2=B, 7=G). One critic called Corbusier’s behaviour towards the house ‘a rape,’ and it is not hard to look at his desire to own, to mark, and to penetrate the house, as a form of sexual assault. What is saddest about this story is that the revolutionary contributions that Gray and her ideas could have made to modern architecture were cut short, silenced, and forgotten, because a man felt threatened by this woman’s quiet but incredibly powerful voice.

Gray is just one example of the vast number of accomplished women that need to feature prominently in contemporary architectural education, to allow us to understand the profound effect that women had on shaping modern architectural practice. We need to acknowledge that their visions and contributions were cut short and overlooked so that we can ensure that women practising now are given the space that they deserve. We need to recognise the profound good that comes from feminist architectural practices, so that the Corbusier’s of our time can learn from, rather than assault, the Grays that surround them. And we need to insist that we remember these women now, to ensure that women stepping into architectural practise today can stand on the shoulders of these slighted but magnificent giants.

[Text by Sophie Pipe. Illustration by Jo Russman. All rights reserved.]