Cap Martin is a rocky finger barely 2km long that pokes out into the Mediterranean at Roquebrune, just east of Monaco – but it’s one of the most important sites in the history of modern architecture, and of women in design. The collection of fabled buildings at its heart was rebranded Cap Moderne when it received visitors for the first time in 2015 (only ad hoc access was possible before this).
Recently, a new, permanent visitor centre opened up in a former train carriage at the nearby SNCF station; a shipping container had been used as a temporary information post. Le Corbusier’s simple holiday home, Le Cabanon has been open for guided visits for a few years but now the famous Etoile de Mer restaurant next door – sadly no longer a functioning eatery – is open too, since the death last year of Robert Rebutato, son of the former restaurateur.
The real star of the show is E-1027, the house that prodigious Irish designer Eileen Gray built in the roaring twenties. Everything from its cryptic name – using the position in the alphabet of the first letters of Eileen Gray’s name (E, 7) and of her then-lover Jean Badovici (10, 2) – to its history of being defaced by murals Corbusier painted (while naked) on its walls, a murder, and neglected abandonment, make this the most enigmatic of France’s many modernist houses.
Following years of restoration – the bathroom has been restored for 2016; it wasn’t working before – its cool white lines and forward-looking furniture are especially important because it’s rare for a woman to have been in a position to create this in the “man’s world” of the early 20th century.
This year the replanted garden at E-1027 is also open (those who make the mistake of walking on the grass will be sternly told off – that’s a guarantee). And on 1 September a documentary, Gray Matters, will be screened at Cap Moderne to mark the 40th anniversary of her death.
The whole of Roquebrune can be seen as a kind of architecture theme park. There’s the beach at Cabbé where Corbusier died while swimming in 1965, which today teems with retirees patronising a kitsch copy of Le Cabanon, which serves as a shoreline cafe. Up above is Roquebrune’s cemetery, where a brutalist memorial marks Corbusier’s grave, and the Hotel Victoria (doubles from €89 room only), which is themed around Gray and Corbusier, with paintings and photos from the fecund period when this Riviera hotspot was at the centre of the artistic world, with people such as Coco Chanel and WB Yeats passing through as well.
• Cap Moderne pre-booked tours costs €15pp (2.5 hours, from Roquebrune-Cap Martin station daily except Mondays). In July and August tours start at 9.45am and 2.45pm. In September and October there is a tour at 1.45pm. Booking essential. capmoderne.com
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