Jean Badovici, mystery man


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.

Jean Badovici

Jean Badovici

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's own house

Badovici’s own house

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.

Categories: Architecture, Travel, WritingTags: , , , , , , , , , ,

12 comments

  1. I loved reading this! Anything related to Le Corbusier is interesting. I didn’t know about Badovici, so thanks for sharing the story!

  2. I really like Badovici’s own house – as you say, he has a real feel for the vernacular. Always interesting to want to know more about someone’s life. There is so much to be discovered …
    I am currently researching Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who Pevsner apparently described as the pioneer of Modernism and I was just wondering if you would agree.
    Should I find anything out about Badovici, you will be the first to know!

    • Thanks, any info on ‘Bado’ would be much appreciated, although I know he’s a minor talent. Unlike Mr Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Not sure I’d agree he was ‘the’ pioneer but he was certainly important – huge influence on the Viennese Jugendstil who seemed to appreciate him more than the Brits. He had such a singular vision and I often think of him in some ways similar to Frank Lloyd Wright with his use of wood and stained glass, although Josef Hoffmann is really his kindred spirit. So awful to see the Glasgow School of Art in flames recently. It’s so interesting joining the dots between these fascinating talents, each person contributing their ounce of originality to the greatness of…art, architecture, life, ever shifting and evolving.

  3. Fascinating insight into Badovici’s house in La Goulotte.

    I recently saw a preview of the new Eileen Gray film, “The Price of Desire”, which gets its premiere in the Dublin Film Festival next month. I don’t think you’ll learn much more about Mr B from it.

    Francesco Scianna plays him, and is indeed overly handsome. But the main tension in the film is more between Gray as the snubbed creative genius and Corbusier as the villain of the piece.

    Corbusier is both in awe of her and doing her down all the time – he comes across as obsessed, if not somewhat deranged and tries to control the narrative, if you know what I mean. For me the real star of the show was E1027 itself, in all its glory.

    • Yes, La Goulotte is a world away from E1027 – and what a glory E1027 is! Interesting about ‘The Price of Desire’. I suspected that LC would be the villain in it, especially when the Fondation Le Corbusier told me that the film makers hadn’t contacted them to verify details or do any research. Of course, it’ll be Saint Eileen in the film, and she certainly does deserve all the kudos, but I remain very fond of LC and his often-insensitive nature!

  4. I did hear of him, since I was born in Romania, too… 🙂

  5. I think the Getty holds a collection of his papers.

  6. Me too Colin. Having read Peter Adam’s book on Eileen Gray, watched the film, and noted that one or two L’Architecture Vivante editions are selling on Amazon for over €400 I can find nothing. I am a guide at 2 Willow Road Hampstead and the Goldfingers were good friends of Zervos – so there might be a connection. They were also friends of Gray’s niece Prunella Clough so they will have mixed in the same circles. There is a relatively untapped archive at Willow Road which I could try and access. Any use? I’m keen to write about Badovici also – not a novel, but gazetteer/guide to his buildings.
    John

    • Thank you for getting in touch, John.
      It’s surprising, isn’t it, this lack of info on him? Apart from the correspondence of Le Corbusier in which Badovici is mentioned, I was directed to a book by the Zervos’s adopted daughter – a book called ‘Un diamant brut’ – which mentioned Bado rather a lot. I had always thought him charming and he comes out of that book very well, being less stuffy/ flaky than the Paris elite that this simple country girl had to learn to live with. No English translation, sadly. Now that E1027 is open to the public, it’s certainly interesting to hear how he guided Eileen Gray in the design – the African-style shutter system is his, they told me.
      How fantastic to be involved with Willow Road. And how interesting that there seems to be a relatively unexplored archive there. In the early 1980s I worked for a week at the RIBA Drawings Collection while a friend who worked there was on holiday. I remember Erno Goldfinger coming in with his wife – a huge, loud and rather fearsome man in a sheepskin coat, from memory. There are times when one wishes one could step back in time with the knowledge one has today – and that would be one such a moment!
      I’m fascinated to know how you get on. If there’s anything I can share with you then I’m happy to. Like you, I’m unwilling to shell out a small fortune for a copy of L’architecture vivante but I think the Zervos museum in Vezelay have several that they might let you look at. Do keep me in the loop if you can! (And let me direct others to your fascinating interview site about architecture – http://www.monitorproductioninsound.eu/encounter – which I am now eager to listen to.)

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