Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


It is a hillside labyrinth of circular shells, sinuous tunnels and blinking eyes. Walking through this Seventies space age warren it is all too easy to become disoriented, enhancing the surreal experience of visiting Pierre Cardin's Palais Bulles, or Bubble Palace. Your mind wanders, while your gaze is gently drawn by a series of lenses and sky domes that frame blue skies and glimpses of the Mediterranean and the promise of Cannes, out across the bay, as well as the surrounding pools and gardens and banks of oak trees. Cardin likens his summer palace to the human form - a sensuous collection of curves, limbs and eyeballs - yet the experience is almost outer body.

For Cardin, who owns over 30 houses and properties around the globe, the Bubble Palace seems in many ways the most apposite of his homes. This is after all the great avant garde couturier, the inventor of the bubble dress and trapeze coat, whose empire snowballed so vibrantly in the 1960s and '70s with his futuristic miniskirts and sculpted compositions. But Cardin is also a man of epic commercial brilliance, who gambled his reputation by being the first of his generation to expand from haute couture into pret-a-porter and then move headlong into lucrative global licensing.

Having skilfully retained control of his own fashion house since its inception in the 1950s, Cardin now has 900 licenses across 140 countries, stores around the world and countless lines from his ongoing couture collection through to perfumes, cosmetics and furniture. Taking control of the great Parisian restaurant group Maxim's in the 1980s, Cardin the restauranteur took his business global once again, opening restaurants as far afield as Peking and Moscow. The Bubble House is bathed in both the wealthy, sophisticated glamour and the iconoclastic, progressive futurism of Cardin's creativity.

Not that it is everybody's cup of tea. Some of the local residents of the Esterel hills found the Bubbles so offensive, says Cardin, that they argued the whole house should be covered over with a giant plastic coat to hide it from the world. Now the Palace is so decidedly iconic that its future seems as secure as the seismically tested cells that make up the house in the first place.

This organic, ground hugging cross between a Hobbit house and a stalled retro spaceship, was one of a series of innovative, zoomorphic houses designed by the Finnish architect Antti Lovag in the 1960s and '70s. Lovag is a Finnish born experimental architect who once worked with Jean Prouvé in Paris before developing a new system of living, based around interconnected pod-like structures with echoes of troglodyte cave dwellings and igloos. Lovag's concrete coated cellular homes banished both convention and right angles in favour of bespoke, ergonomic spaces interlinked by tunnels and tubes and illuminated by a host of sky domes and porthole windows, influenced by the architect's time studying naval engineering. There were few solid doorways or divisions, creating a fluid space interlinked with pools and courtyards.

In the late 1960s Lovag was commissioned to design and build a large cellular home at Théoule-Sur-Mer, not far from Nice, on a wooded hillside site with views out across the Mediterranean. Sadly, Lovag's industrialist client did not live long enough to see the house unfold and Cardin was soon persuaded to take on the project, despite having just invested a large chunk of his capital in Parisian property.

Lovag and Cardin, after all, had much in common when it came to design. Both were pushing boundaries, both fought convention and constraint and both rebelled against the tyranny of the right angle, preferring more fluid, circular forms. Throughout the early 1970s, Lovag and Cardin collaborated on designing the 28 circular bedrooms of the Palais Bulles, complete with their bespoke circular beds and adjoining circular baths. There was also the vast spherical living room, with marble floors and specially commissioned coral-like sofas, and a sweeping window which could second as a diving platform for the adjoining swimming pool. A large dining hall nearby is illuminated by a whole sequence of portholes, while additional snugs and retreats pepper the house, some with viewing platforms perched above, and many pieces of bespoke furniture by Lovag and Cardin.

With the addition of a 500 seater amphitheatre alongside the house, it wasn't until 1989 that Cardin finally declared the house complete. With the concrete shells painted in a earthy ochre shade, integrated within a landscape of palms, water gardens and scented mimosa, the house appeared to fold back into the earth, now become part of a large compound where Cardin was at liberty to stage fashion shows and open the Palais up for theatre and concerts. 'All my other houses are just made from money,' Cardin says of the Bubble Palace. 'But what you see here is my character, my love and my life.'

With the news that Cardin - now in his early 80s - intends to divest himself of some parts of his fashion empire to allow himself more time to devote to culture and the arts, as well as freeing up as much as $1bn, it could be that Cardin might at last have more opportunity to enjoy his grand invention. There is much work to be done in restoring another of Cardin's prizes, the Chateau Lacoste in Provence, former home of the Marquis de Sade. But in the Palace of Bubbles, Cardin can always be sure of a cocoon to reinvigorate himself for adventures and inventions to come.