“A house is not a machine to live in,” wrote the intrepid Irish designer Eileen Gray, as she contemplated plans for her first home with Le Corbusier’s rigid, five-point rational principles—which had become the bible of the modernist movement—looming over her. She was joined by a small constellation of notable architects, artists (Dalí, Balthus), filmmakers (Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel), and ambitious patrons on the Côte d’Azur between 1920 and 1970 who embraced a more personal approach to modernist design—eventually, even the master himself. It was in this sweet spot combining talent, money, discipline, high jinks, and swagger that these five legendary homes, spanning Marseille to Nice and open to the public, came to life.
Villa Noailles, Hyères
Mies van der Rohe declined; Le Corbusier was too haughty. So the commission from the wealthy, eccentric patron Charles, the Vicomte de Noailles, for “a small, interesting house” below a belvedere in Hyères, near Toulon, went to Robert Mallet-Stevens. The commission marked the young French modernist’s first for a private home.
The mercurial vicomtesse, Marie-Laure, descended from a noteworthy mélange of rich Belgian Jews—including her grandmother, who was a model for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, and the Marquis de Sade—was an extravagant hostess who needed ample space for her themed balls and endless houseguests. The Cubist design, completed in 1927, thus endured many improvisations when her coterie of important Surrealist artists and their works expanded alongside Charles’s horticultural and wellness obsessions. In the end, there were 40 rooms, a large pool covered by a ceiling of glass bricks, a gym, the first private screening room, a squash court, and furnishings from many modernist-design stars.
The Villa Noailles became a nucleus of the European avant-garde as the progressive, ambitious couple acquired more art, artists, and, not least, controversy. While a Man Ray home movie about the house was well received, their commission of Luis Buñuel’s experimental L’Age d’Or backfired.
The unconventional pair had a darker side. The vicomtesse took up with a series of bisexual lovers after discovering the vicomte in bed with his trainer. He retreated to tend his gardens and his body. Today, their legend endures in the villa, which has become a vibrant center for contemporary exhibitions and performances.
Maison Bernard, Théoule-sur-Mer
In 1970, Pierre Bernard, an ambitious industrialist with a penchant for art and experimentation, invited Antti Lovag, a renegade Hungarian architect who preferred the appellation “bricoleur,” or “habitologue,” to discuss a commission for a holiday home overlooking the Bay of Cannes for his family of four. The alliance of the two adventurous men resulted in a space-age dwelling of 26 ocher, multi-level, spherical modules which spilled over the rocky, red outcropping of Port la Galère, in Théoule-sur-Mer.
There were no detailed plans or drawings, no deadlines or budget, and certainly no rectangles. Instead, Lovag, whose raffish attire and deep scar on the nose gave him the air of a pirate, practically lived on the site for 20 years, scaling the metal frameworks, testing the placement of the patios and windows as he dreamed up the Utopian bubbles, which he eventually covered in polyurethane.
The interiors were furnished with organic, circular designs that flowed with the family. “It’s man, the human realm that interests me, to create an envelope for his needs,” Lovag said. “I work like a tailor.”
Lovag would go on to design two other “Bubble Palaces,” one for Bernard, which, due to financial issues, was bought by a tailor of a different kind—Pierre Cardin. “My clients have the courage to confront the unknown,” he boasted.
Villa Santo Sospir, Cap Ferrat
In 1949, Francine Weisweiller, the 33-year-old beautiful and charming wife of the wealthy American Alec Weisweiller, finagled an invitation to meet Jean Cocteau, 60, the celebrated poet, playwright, and artist-about-town, on the set of his film adaptation of Les Enfants Terribles. Their mutual coup de foudre inspired Francine to invite Cocteau—who had been suspected of being a collaborator during the war—to visit her villa, Santo Sospir, with his young lover. The villa, overlooking the bay of Villefranche, at the tip of Cap Ferrat, had been the gift Alec had given Francine for their having survived the war as Jews living in Europe.
Already restless after only a few days in paradise, Cocteau asked Francine if he could draw the head of Apollo above the fireplace. Influenced perhaps by youthful stays on the Côte d’Azur among tattooed sailors, he began to draw colorful, Greek-myth-inspired scenes on the walls as the week-long hideaway turned into Cocteau’s part-time residence for more than a decade.
Cocteau used the villa as a location for his film Le Testament d’Orphée. Francine, his steadfast patron, had a cameo, and his friendship helped assure her place in the artistic firmament of the day. Cocteau was unreasonably jealous, however, when she fell in love with the writer Henri Viard, and he decamped to his much smaller dwellings two years before his death. He had predicted in his journals that “[their meeting] was a piece of good fortune I shall doubtless have to pay for.” Francine and Cocteau were reconciled on his deathbed.
In the summer of 1926, Eileen Gray, then 46, could be found in remote Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, near Monaco, pushing a wheelbarrow along a narrow dirt path, or sharing a sandwich on the scrubby hillside with her small team of masons. They had been engaged to build her first house, a collaboration with her inconstant, much younger lover, Jean Badovici, the French architect and editor of the most influential architecture magazine of the time, L’Architecture Vivante. He had encouraged her transition from the elegant Art Deco furnishings which had been her calling card to modernism.
E-1027, an acronym based on alphanumerics of Gray’s and Badovici’s names, became an angular white structure on blue pilotis aligned with the modernist movement she admired—with reservations. “I want to enrich [formulas],” she said, “make some reality penetrate their abstraction.” She filled the house’s small spaces with light, and kitted them out with surprise and ingenuity, making them seem larger—tables pivoted or emerged from cabinets; couches turned into beds, as if a luxury liner had run aground.
In 1932, after a series of indiscretions, Badovici abandoned Gray for Le Corbusier’s wife’s best friend; in life, as in art, things were modern. The very private Gray, who was by that point fed up with Badovici’s antics, and had already begun working on a new house, abandoned her beloved home.
In 1999, a local conservationist group began to rescue E-1027 from a sordid series of occupants, including a drug-addicted doctor who was murdered in the living room, and unruly squatters, and in 2014, Cap Moderne, a more official organization, was created. With the help of the city of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and the French government, the organization has largely restored the property to Gray’s original vision.
Le Cabanon, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
Jean Badovici invited Le Corbusier to use the now vacant E-1027 in 1938. Although he had originally published negative comments about Gray’s plans, Le Corbusier was seduced by the house’s open, fluid charms, and began to paint a series of seven colorful wall murals he felt added much to the décor. It wasn’t until 10 years later that Gray learned about his incursions, which infuriated her.
Le Corbusier began taking all his meals at a newly opened café next door to E-1027 and grew close with the owner, Thomas Rebutato. Still under the spell of E-1027, Le Corbusier also painted murals for the café and, in 1952, was permitted to build an adjoining rustic cabanon, for himself and his wife, which overlooked Gray’s influential house. Eventually, as he spent more of his time there, he added an atelier as well as a multi-part camping unit for Rebutato’s family to derive income from. The ensemble is enchanting.
In 1956, Le Corbusier, who had drawn vitality and inspiration from both properties, drowned in the crystal waters below. But he left his mark—besides his own cabins, four of his unauthorized murals still remain next door.
Villa Noailles, Maison Bernard, E-1027, and Le Cabanon are open to the public. Villa Santo Sospir will reopen to the public this fall
Patricia Zohn is a culture columnist who has contributed to numerous publications, including the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Town & Country