From Eclecticism to Doubt: Eileen Gray speaks to Jean Badovici, 1929

The following text was published in the Autumn/Winter issue of architect Jean Badovici’s magazine, L’architecture Vivante (insert publication years); this special issue was dedicated to a house by Eileen Gray, which she designed with him, called E.1027. “E”= Eileen, and “10”, “2”, and “7” refer to the order of the letters “J”, “B”, and “G” in the alphabet: a code for Eileen. Jean Badovici Gray.  Titled “From Eclecticism to Doubt”, it introduced 64 photogravures mainly featuring the interior of the home, with a few entry images depicting the home from the exterior. The publication also included a floor plan. It was later reprinted along with new essays about the reprint and the controversial restoration of the home. Both the original and reprint are rare, but the conversation was re-published in 2015 in the British magazine Disegno along with an introduction that relates to the film Gray Matters (2015). I took the text from that version, which is translated from French by Caroline Constant.

The text feeds off a theme from this post on the role of the spiritual in art as it discusses how the increase in rationality and mechanization affected the practice of architecture and its relation to the human being.

One of my favorite lines is when Badovici asks Gray: “You want architecture to be a symphony in which all inner forms of life are expressed.” And she replies, “Exactly. In it dream and reality will find equal support.”

 

 

Jean Badovici Don’t you fear that this return to fundamentals, this systematic simplification that seems to dictate modern art, will only end by grounding this art in general, and architecture in particular, in a purely theoretical pursuit that is too intellectual to satisfy the demands of both our minds and our bodies? The human being is not a pure intellect. And when one sees these large buildings with smooth lines and especially these interiors, where everything seems to derive from strict and cold calculations, one must ask whether people could be satisfied living in such a place.

Eileen Gray You are right. This return to essential elements, this emancipation from all that was inessential, responded to a need. It is necessary to liberate oneself from such oppression in order to experience freedom anew. But this state of intellectual coldness that we have reached, which corresponds only too well to the harsh laws of modern mechanisation, can be no more than a passing phase. We must rediscover the human being in plastic expression, the human intention that underlies material appearance and the pathos of this modern life, which has initially been expressed only in algebraic terms.

JB To what pathos are you referring?

EG To the pathos that is inseparable from all real life.

JB In short, you mean to rediscover emotion.

EG Yes, but a purified emotion that can be expressed in a thousand ways. It is not necessary to return to old complexities. Sometimes all that is required is the choice of a beautiful material worked with sincere simplicity. It is necessary to reconstruct an ideal that is able to satisfy the most general modern consciousness while guarding against all excesses, but without neglecting individual pleasures.

JB So you advocate a return to feelings, to emotionalism!

EG Yes, but once again to an emotion that is purified by knowledge and enriched by ideas and does not exclude the knowledge and appreciation of scientific achievements. It is only necessary to demand of artists that they be of their time.

JB You intend that they be of their own era and express it.

EG Yes, without any artifice of any kind. The work of beauty is more genuine than the artist.

JB But how can one express an era and, above all, one like ours that is so full of contradictions, where the past survives in so many respects and where, on the other hand, one sees such extreme points of view?

EG Every work of art is symbolic. It conveys, it suggests the essential more than representing it. It is up to artists to find, in this multitude of contradictory factors, those that constitute the intellectual and emotive framework of man as both an individual and a social being.

JB Do you think that inspiration will ever suffice for such a task?

EG It is life itself, the meaning of life, that provides inspiration, but inspiration and faith can no longer provide knowledge as complex as that required today − knowledge of the conditions of existence, of human tastes and aspirations, passions and needs, as well as technical knowledge and material means.

JB You demand that the architect have a universal mind?

EG Almost! But the essential thing is that he understand the meaning of each thing; that he know how to remain straightforward and sensible, without neglecting any means of expression. The most diverse materials will be useful to him in turn, and he will be able to express what he wants of the life around him through the judicious use of new materials as much as through the architectural structure itself.

JB There is a word that you have not mentioned, but is implicit in your discussion: that is unity. For it seems evident that, just as much as the elements of construction, this diversity of inspirational factors would only lead to chaotic disorder if the architect did not direct them explicitly toward a common goal.

EG Indeed, strictly speaking, there is no architectural creation that is not an organic unity. But, while such unity was formerly completely external, it is now a question of making it internal as well, including the smallest details.

JB But could so systematic a unity be reconciled with that diversity of which you spoke earlier?

EG Evidently! It is by interpreting the desires, passions and tastes of the individual that one will best interpret social life and collective order. Art is founded upon habitude, but not upon the fleeting or artificial habits that give rise to fashion. The object should be given a form that is most suited to the spontaneous gesture or instinctive reflex that corresponds to its purpose.

JB Aren’t you afraid that the material life will thus overwhelm the spiritual?

EG The public has already reacted against such a misinterpretation and brought swift justice to it. The introduction of camping furniture, deck chairs and folding furniture into a room intended for rest or work is just such an excess. No more intimacy, no more atmosphere! Everything has been simplified to death. Simplicity does not follow from simplification, particularly such crude simplification. Formulas are nothing; life is everything. And life is simultaneously mind and heart.

JB In short, you want to react against fashionable formulas by returning to the past.

EG No, on the contrary, I want to develop these formulas and push them to the point where they reestablish contact with life, to enrich them and incorporate reality within their abstraction. Art is not just the expression of abstract relationships; it must also encapsulate the most tangible relations, the most intimate needs of subjective life. In addition to inspiration, genuine scientific experimentation is needed to sustain it.

JB You want architecture to be a symphony in which all inner forms of life are expressed.

EG Exactly. In it dream and reality will find equal support.

JB Decoration could be a powerful aid in this.

EG Architecture must be its own decoration. The play of lines and colours should respond so precisely to the needs of the interior atmosphere that all detached paintings or pictures would seem not only useless, but detrimental to the overall harmony.

JB Isn’t that what so-called avant-garde architecture sought to accomplish?

EG In a sense, yes, but in one sense only. For the avant-garde, architectural creation must be self-sufficient, with no consideration for the atmosphere that the inner life calls for. It is a creation of proportions that are sometimes intelligent, but detached from its main object, which is the living human being. It relies on the occasional, the accidental, when only universal sentiments should be conveyed and fulfilled and only the human being should be considered, but the human being of a particular era, with the tastes, feelings and gestures of this era.

JB Yes, but all the same it was the avant-garde who first stressed the need to respect proportions in order to create well-balanced objects.

EG The avant-garde has only reminded us of a very old and often forgotten principle, while overlooking the fact that proportions and balance were only present in art because they existed first of all in life, as vital principles. It is over-intellectualised: an art of thought and calculation, but lacking in heart.

JB 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?

EG 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 mechanisation. But there is more than mechanisation; the world is full of vivid allusions, vivid symmetries that are difficult to discover, but nevertheless real. Their excessive intellectualism suppresses that which is marvellous in life, just as their misunderstood concern for hygiene makes hygiene intolerable. Their desire for strict precision has made them neglect the beauty inherent to all forms: disks, cylinders, undulating lines and zigzags, ellipsoidal lines that are like straight lines in motion. Their architecture has no soul.

JB It is clear that they build houses just like engineers build their machines. But is that necessary?

EG In terms of technique, yes. But technique is not everything; it is only the means. One must build for the human being, that he might rediscover in the architectural construction the joys of self-fulfillment in a whole that extends and completes him. Even the furnishings should lose their individuality by blending in with the architectural ensemble.

JB Today’s architects scarcely speak of anything but standardisation and rationalisation. Can you explain the meaning they give these terms, which I have often heard elsewhere but with a significance that I can hardly associate with architecture?

EG It’s always the same thing. Technique becomes the primary concern. By focusing on the means one forgets the ends. If we aren’t careful, standardisation and rationalisation, both excellent means for reducing costs, will only lead to providing buildings that are even more deprived of soul and individuality than those we have seen thus far. One seeks a type of architecture more than a genuine style. But for a certain type of architecture to have true value, it must correspond to a generally accepted conception, to a collective taste, to an ideal. How can we achieve such a result if we build without the least concern for the inhabitants’ well-being and personal comfort and if we don’t take into account their human need to discover in the places where they live certain characteristics that express their individual personalities and their own tastes? How can architects who focus only on minimising costs both satisfy public taste and please the elite? Besides, it seems inevitable that this kind of typological research can only lead to extreme simplification and ultimately to concepts that are as poor as they are limited.

JB The search for a building type evidently coincides with economic circumstances against which one can do nothing.

EG No doubt! JB But is it necessary to present something as ideal that results only from such an unfortunate necessity?

EG I think that most people are mistaken in the meaning that they have agreed to give this word “type.” For them “type” is synonymous with a creation that is simplified in the extreme and destined to be reproduced in series. But I understand otherwise. To me a maison type is only a house whose construction has been realised according to the best and the least costly technical means and whose architecture achieves the maximum perfection for a given situation; that is to say, it is a model, not to be reproduced ad infinitum, but that will inspire the construction of other houses in the same spirit. JB Certainly it is along these lines that research into the architectural “type” of our era should be understood. Far from being dangerous, research of this sort would become not only an economic necessity, but a logical and moral one as well. Besides its great advantage of opening up enormous possibilities for future pursuits, it encompasses a sort of fundamental unity, which, through its diversity of details and multiplicity of applications, will increase the value of future developments. The type should not respond solely to commercial concerns. It must express the psychological reality of an era.

• Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici from a special edition of L’Architecture Vivante on Maison Au Bord de Mer from 1929. Translation: Caroline Constant.”