One of the surprising things about writing a novel set within the last hundred years is how difficult it can be to find out information. It seems like such recent history and yet some people’s lives are already lost in the fogs of time. I’m reminded of how, as a child, we used to visit my great grandmother who was born in 1874 – she died in 1976. It used to astonish me that it was entirely possible that she had talked to her great-grandmother who might have been born in the 18th century. Thus the world shrinks. But did I ever ask her about her memories? Nope.
Researching the lives of the real-life characters in my novel, I wished I knew more about one in particular – Jean Badovici. Born in 1893 in Roumania, he trained as an architect in Paris after the First World War and went on to edit an architectural journal called L’Architecture Vivant, which showcased the best of the emerging Modern Movement. In 1926, when he was in a relationship with designer Eileen Gray, she designed a holiday house for them that nestles into the rocky slopes of Cap-Martin on the Cote d’Azur, just below the little village of Roquebrune. The house is called E1027 although Gray preferred to call it her maison en bord de mer – house beside the sea. E stands for Eileen and the numbers stand for her and Badovici’s initials according to their place in the alphabet. It is a stunning house, every bit as important as the best of Le Corbusier, who admired it greatly (and built his own holiday hut next to it).
The story of Le Corbusier defiling its walls in the 1930s with his colourful murals is well-documented and, to my mind, overly exaggerated. I won’t go into it here but it’s a story easily found on the Web. And a film was recently made about the tale that has an overly-handsome Italian actor playing Badovici.
I was interested to look at Badovici’s own work, which is found in Vezelay in the Burgundy region. I had read in Le Corbusier’s letters about the times he and his wife, Yvonne, stayed there, especially during the Second World War when poor Yvonne was left waiting for her husband for a year. In the late 1930s, Badovici had worked on a more famous building just outside Vezelay in the hamlet of La Goulotte. This was for the super-smart couple Christian and Yvonne Zervos. Christian published the important art journal Cahiers d’Art, supported by his wife who was a close friend of Picasso. They knew everyone in artistic Paris and their home at La Goulotte was their retreat from Paris. It is now an arts centre for the Zervos Fondation (a lovely museum housing their art collection is in nearby Vezelay – a must-see collection it is, too: Musee Zervos).
As I wandered around it, I thought it a strange house. At first glance you think it’s an ordinary Burgundian farmhouse but then you notice the details – huge windows up high, metal-railed balconies, a thin tower to view the whole area – and you can see this is a house of the 1930s. A huge covered loggia makes it party-central during the summer.
Back in Vezelay I was keen to find Badovici’s own house. I had expected something along the lines of La Goulotte and was surprised to find a very modest house that, at first glance, looks like an unsympathetic restoration. It’s tucked away along a laneway, next to one of the vast grain stores that still lie empty in the village. But look at the size of those upper windows and that asymmetrical roofline, designed to grab as much light as possible. Imagine how radical that must have looked in the 1930s. Inside there was a dining room that was open to the first floor, rather in the vein of Le Corbusier’s beloved double-height living areas. It was here that Le Corbusier painted one of his early murals. In the tiny courtyard behind, Fernand Leger painted his first wall mural, and thankfully this survives, preserved on a huge wall within the Musée Zervos.
Badovici was a lover of old buildings but he saw the importance of changing them so that they worked for modern life. Like those whose work he published, he sought natural light and functioning rooms but he also loved the charm of old stone and the local vernacular.
He was a close friend of Le Corbusier, often joining the architect and his wife at Le Piquey on the Atlantic Coast and also down at E-1027, which Eileen Gray appeared to have given him. (In the early 1930s she built another house for herself in nearby Castellar, Tempe a Pailla, which the artist Graham Sutherland bought from her when she moved back to Paris full-time).
Badovici was buried in Monaco cemetery in 1956 but it seems to me that so little is known about him. And that’s why I’m writing this post – if you know anything more than the standard tiny potted biographies, I’d love to hear.