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«Abstract This paper seeks to explore an environmental re-imagining of the work of Eileen Gray. The scarcity and troubled history of Gray's ...»

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Imagining: The 27th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians,

Australia and New Zealand, University of Newcastle, 30th June—2nd July 2010

From Eclecticism to Doubt:

Re-imagining Eileen Gray

Daniel Ryan

The University of Sydney

Spoken Version


This paper seeks to explore an environmental re-imagining of the work

of Eileen Gray. The scarcity and troubled history of Gray's architecture

has lead to a large amount of publication on her work that has sought to re-establish her role as one of the leading twentieth century architects and furniture designers. This process occurred largely after her death and has focused on Gray's alternative vision of architecture.

This paper investigates why despite the increased validation of Eileen Gray's work, the environmental significance of her architecture has been overlooked. It points to new approaches to studying early modernism, incorporating recent knowledge in the areas of both conservation and environmental simulation.

Introduction Eileen Gray continues to be portrayed as a figure of some mystery, despite four monographs of her work, and major retrospectives on her architecture being held almost every decade since the 1970’s.

Though the principal drawing that explains Villa E-1027 relates occupants’ movements to the path of the sun, and her writing stresses the influence of climate in designing for practical comfort, she is not generally considered an “environmental architect”. This paper explores why her work has been overlooked in recent environmental histories and how other historians have dealt with this reclusive architect who built little and was rediscovered at the end of her life. It argues for greater research into the environmental considerations of early modernism that requires not just a new lens but new techniques.

The Selective Environment of Banham When Villa E-1027 was originally published, it was noted for its regional interpretation of modern architecture, particularly its technology. Siegfried Giedion, in 1931, saw that the modern demand for large openings required a different approach in a hot climate and recognized the solution of the multiple-layered membrane. 1 Currently within histories of environmental architecture, Eileen Gray is still given a token mention. This oversight rests primarily with Reynar Banham who did not include Gray in his pioneering 1969 book “The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment”. This book opened up a new way of reading history, not as a succession of styles, but one that considered architecture as the creation of habitable environments.

It was not that Banham was unaware of Gray’s work, for he shortly afterwards reviewed her 1972 London exhibition in the journal New Society. He appeared to mock Joseph Rykwert’s series of articles from 1968-72 on Eileen Gray, which had argued that the scarcity of Gray’s work was compensated by its quality. Though Rykwert referred to dialogue between Gray & Badovici in the 1929 Architecture Vivante publication on the house, he failed to pick up on the influence of climate on Gray’s approach to architecture.Yet frequent mention is made of the influence of the Mediterranean climate to the design of Villa E-1027 in the original texts.

Banham’s review poked fun at the nitpicking over an architect who built so little. His disinterest in Gray’s work is curious, as in many ways her combination of the practical and poetic aspects of modernity was exactly the approach he praised in Wright’s Robie House and Chareau & Bijvoet’s Maison de Verre 2, a European building where “the ‘Machine Aesthetic’ pretensions of this elaborate and introvertedly handsome interior are matched-and how rare this was at the time-by its mechanical performance.”3 Feminist Critiques and the Restoration of Reputation The initial wave of renewed interest in Eileen Gray’s work, occurred at the end of her life.

However, questions asked of Gray were in the context of architecture at this time,

without a feminist analysis. As Lynne Walker notes:

When Eileen Gray’s architecture and decorative work were first exhibited in Britain thirty years ago (1972-3), the Women’s Movement was reaching its peak and the challenge of second wave feminism was a galvanizing context for the exhibition and its critical reception. However, gender issues arising from her work were scarcely addressed explicitly, as no feminist critique was in circulation in architectural discourse in Britain. Gray was merely inserted into an existing modernist history and her place in the hierarchy of the mainstream of modernist history was considered.4 It was only by the mid-1990’s that Gray’s significance as an alternative voice within the modern movement was accepted. This came about through attempts to tell her story with Peter Adam’s biography of 1987, and then a period of intense scholarship that examined her unbuilt work and set her architecture in the context of debates about modernity during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The feminist critique of the 1990’s reframed the significance of the house as one which manifested the erasure of female voices from the early history of modern architecture.

Scholars began to investigate Le Corbusier’s obsession with Villa E-1027, and the control of authorship of the work. The preoccupation with Le Corbusier and the conservation of the house have come to dominate discussion of the building as this connects with the restoration of the reputation of Eileen Gray.

Though Walker has criticised Banham’s review of Gray’s retrospective, she also highlighted some of the dangers of focusing too much on issues of gender whereby “in this narrative of negativity she has become either token woman or feminist icon”5.

The Non-Conformist Environmentalist Why was it then that Gray’s work is rarely cited by environmental architects as an influence? Banham revealed in the introduction to his second edition of ‘The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment’, how his book came to be misinterpreted as “a tract in favour of wasting energy”6. He notes how despite the energy crisis in the west brought about by the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74, architects could not deal practically with this issue, except for “a return to traditional modes of construction, inherited wisdom about location and orientation” 7. Perhaps this reveals a key consideration as to why Villa Ewas not considered for inclusion, as Gray was happy to mix both modern and vernacular technology, the sliding shutters the most visible manifestation of this pattern.

Yet though Gray’s work might demonstrate concern for comfort and environment, it remains within the formal aesthetic of heroic, European modernism. At the time of the 1996 exhibition on Eileen Gray, Green Architecture fell into the trap of style, by presuming that it had to aesthetically express its difference from mainstream modernism by celebrating “the relationships between the building arts and natural forms” 8.

Inevitably, Le Corbusier and the International Style continued to be contrasted with Frank Lloyd Wright’s organicism as a short-hand for academic, impersonal universal modernism, compared to an individual, organic and bioclimatic approach. 9 Susannah Hagan and John Farmer, attempted at this time to place environmental architecture within the realm of architectural theory. Hagan’s case studies were of buildings found after the first oil crisis and therefore little regard was paid to particular examples of earlier modernism. When the modern movement was referred to, it was to invoke the problems that environmental architecture had still to deal with. This highlighted a presumption, still present in this author’s opinion, that the environmental difficulties of early modernism were never resolved and that only the current paradigm of sustainability could allow this to happen.

As theoretical texts, neither Farmer nor Hagan paid particular interest in a more detailed tectonic reading of environmental architecture. This fell to Colin Porteous, in 2002, who revised Banham’s study of the enclosure of modern architecture. He reversed previous assertions of the purely ideological approach to technology of European functionalists by demonstrating the pragmatic evolution of multi-layered wall construction in many of their buildings, including Villa E-1027.10 New Directions for Study The conservation of Modern movement buildings has involved detailed investigation of their construction and prompted debate as to the validity of preserving buildings

dedicated to the future 11. It also has involved a revision of what Alan Cunninham termed:

the false inference that a monolithic, co-ordinated international movement existed, and second, that it could be adequately described in terms of its outward contingent appearance. 12 Caroline Constant interpreted the functional and sensual aspects of E.1027 as grounded in an anti-theoretical worldview. She assessed how the house was a general critique of avant-garde ideas of dwelling at the time, contrasting Gray’s sunpath and activity diagram to Hannes Mayer’s approach.

Gray’s stress on the sensual and social aspects of plan-making parallels concerns that Hannes Meyer introduced to the Bauhaus architecture curriculum – ventilation, lighting, acoustics and odor, in addition to visual privacy. Yet Gray’s drawing lacks the scientific precision of Meyer’s technique for depicting human circulation in relation to sunlight. She extended the qualities of inhabitation at E.1027 beyond Meyer’s quantifiable criteria, suggesting affinities with the “thinking and feeling” human subject that was the focus of Oskar Schlemmer’s compulsory Bauhaus course “Man” of 1928-29.

Constant’s observations regarding Gray’s sunpath diagrams and critique of functionalism are a starting point for further research. Re-reading Gray & Badovici’s dialogue “From Eclecticism to Doubt”, one finds a concern with the application of hygienic principles to architecture.

- It is true that many works are a bit cold, but isn’t that because we are influenced by the recent past? And aren’t the principles of hygiene partly responsible for this coldness that disturbs us?

- Yes! Hygiene to bore you to death! Hygiene that is badly understood, because hygiene excludes neither comfort nor activity. No, the avant-garde is intoxicated by mechanization. But there is more than mechanization; the world is full of vivid allusions, vivid symmetries that are difficult to discover but nevertheless real.14 Hygiene was not completely dismissed by Gray, rather she pointed out the aspects of hygiene that were missing in works of the time – comfort and activity. Gray’s disposition of rooms to relate activity and movement to the path of the sun, and her method of circulation and sun-path diagrams continue this critique of hygiene.

The strategy in most of Gray’s Mediterranean work of orienting bedrooms to the east, living rooms to the south and west and service areas to the north reflects a negotiation of both the Zeilenbau approach of designing for morning sunlight in bedrooms and afternoon sunlight in living areas and Adolf Behne’s counter-idea that service areas should be located to the north and living areas to the south. 15 Peter Adam’s claim that Eileen Gray calculated “the precise passage of the sun” was never properly explored in his biography. Therefore, it became clear that it would be useful to investigate further how the building related to the sun. While Gray did pick up a more or less southern orientation, she shifted the building away from its terraced site.

Jean-Paul Rayon suggested that “she opted for a superior cosmological order; the trajectory of the sun. The north-south axis appears as the diagonal of a pair of rectangular co-ordinates in the horizontal plane. 17 Further analysis by this author revealed the significance of this act, in that the axis of the house is aligned to the solstices. This analysis was based on Gray’s published site plan in Architecture Vivante, which must be treated sceptically.

Yet the few photographic plates in her archives include plans and images of two of the most significant ancient monuments – Stonehenge and Teotihuacan, both noted for their solar alignments.

The ongoing conservation works (2006- ) at Villa E-1027 have revealed significant differences between published drawings and the actual building 18. The architect in charge of restoration, Pierre- Antoine Gatier, highlights how the roof build-up published in L’Architecture Vivante showing a reinforced cement intermediate layer, was found to have been simplified on site to the more traditional brick on edge, “demonstrating the necessity for a critical eye to be given to the documentation.” Gatier’s essay offers a framework to assess how Gray and Badovici combined modern and traditional construction techniques in the building and offers insights into variations of detailing around the building.

As Gray can no longer be questioned, Villa E-1027 has become the site of investigation.

Survey-work has so far concentrated on issues of conservation, yet the material information is also useful for detailed assessment of the environmental performance of the building. The use of current tools of practice, such as building simulation could allow for detailed study of the development of Gray’s techniques to adapt the building to its climate. It also could allow for further study of the thermal space of the building and how furniture can be adapted to modify environmental transitions.

At the same time, the use of simulation requires a critical awareness of its limitations and issues of verification. Obtaining accurate data of the physical properties of historical materials requires extensive site analysis and archival research as the composition of those materials is likely to differ significantly to those found in contemporary material databases.

The ability of the exterior shell to be adapted to changes in weather and desires for privacy suggest the possibility of the house as a major case study with lessons for current architectural practice. An environmental approach expands the conservation of the house from visual restoration to consideration of thermal and acoustic environments.

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