Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


To his disciples he was the great prophet of Modernism, the inventor of a whole new way of living. An architect, painter, poet, writer and theorist, Le Corbusier was also a revolutionary thinker whose reputation was defined by a famous series of crisp villas, curvilinear churches and towering apartment buildings, crowned by the epic Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, the archetypal Modernist social housing project.

Yet there was another side to Le Corbusier, or Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, as he was christened. There was a softer, quieter and more contemplative side, drawing inspiration from nature and the past in a way that seems more in tune with the thoughts of John Ruskin or Henry Thoreau than utopian Modernism. "How can one's powers of creation be enhanced?" he once wrote. "Not surely by taking out a subscription to an architectural review, but by setting out on a voyage of discovery into the inexhaustible riches of the natural world." This is Le Corbusier who praises the trees as the friends of man, and the intricate patterns made by the waves breaking on a beach.

Even so, it is always a surprise to arrive at the place where Le Corbusier was most in tune with the natural world. This is a small enclave at Cap Martin, well along the coast from Marseilles, overlooking the Bay of Monaco. Here, in 1952, the same year that Unité d'Habitation was completed, Le Corbusier built himself a small timber cabin. The sheer simplicity of this small bungalow, overlooking the sea and the bay, forms a striking polar opposite to the complexities of Le Corbusier's most famous projects. Essentially this is a one room summer home, made of pine, surrounded by cacti and palms and a neighbouring carob tree.

In his book Modulor Two, Le Corbusier proudly declares that he designed his cabanon on the Cote d'Azur on the corner of a table on the 31st of December, 1951, in just 45 minutes. The plans, he writes, were definitive. Nothing changed. The cabanon, he adds, would be a birthday present for his wife Yvonne, who was born in nearby Monaco.

Le Corbusier had known the spot for many years. Famously, Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici had got there first and built E-1027, a sleek white liner of a house perched on the hillside overlooking the beach below. In the 1930s, Le Corbusier visited the house a number of times and was mesmerised not only by the building itself but by the location. Some like to suggest Le Corbusier was jealous of the building, using the fact to explain Le Corbusier's motives for adding a series of murals to the house that enraged Gray.

In the summer of 1949, after the war, Le Corbusier came to stay at E-1027 and to work on a master plan for Bogota. He began to take his meals at the Étoile de Mer, a 'guingette', or small restaurant with a garden, just a few steps up the hill. The whole area was accessible only by a slim communal pathway which ran parallel to the coastal railway line, complete with Roquebrune-Cap-Martin station just along the path. Here he befriended the owner, Thomas 'Robert' Rebutato.

Rebutato was a plumber turned construction entrepreneur turned modest restaurateur. The Rebutato family used to take regular weekend boat trips to the bay and the beaches, until Thomas decided to buy some land to build a cabin, finding himself with a generous parcel just behind E-1027. In the late 1940s he started building a small home, which – after the sudden end of his construction business - became Étoile de Mer.

His son, Robert Rebutato, now an architect practising in Paris, remembers helping his father at the restaurant and meeting Le Corbusier, in the summer of 1949, for the first time. "The relationship between Le Corbusier and my family really started at the restaurant," says Robert Rebutato. "For me, I was very lucky to meet him when I was so young because thanks to him I became an architect and knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Le Corbusier explained architecture to me – space, colour, natural forms, light. He taught me how to discover a poetic sensibility."

Le Corbusier became a regular visitor to Étoile de Mer, later adding murals to the walls of the simple restaurant and terrace. When Le Corbusier finally built the cabanon for himself and Yvonne in 1952, it stood alongside the restaurant and had no kitchen. Instead there were a series of three doors which led to the kitchens, the dining room or terrace. The cabin itself, largely made of pine and prefabricated in Corsica, is essentially one room with a flat roof. There is a toilet to one side, behind a small curtain, with a built in table, bed and storage compartments. When Yvonne came down with Le Corbusier, she would take the built in bed while Le Corbusier slept on a camp bed close to the floor.

"Le Corbusier liked this spot where the mountains plunge directly into the sea and where he could resuscitate his relationship with nature," says architect Marc Barani, who oversaw the restoration of the cabanon – now owned by the local Conservatoire du Littoral – in 1994. "It was, without doubt, for him a place that allowed him to evaluate his work and gave him the necessary outlook to feed his imagination. And it was precisely the modesty of the cabin that gave it its force and integrity. In itself it is not a major work in Le Corbusier's career but it helped to verify important ideas about the home and living space."

Barani argues that the cabin and its site helped revitalise Le Corbusier and his work, helping in the conception of major projects like Chandigarh in India and the monastery at La Tourette. He later added a small studio, little more than a shed, a stone's throw from the cabanon, where he could work and gaze through an open window in monastic simplicity. Their breaks at Cap Martin were also a tonic for Yvonne, who had many reservations about her life in Paris and struggled with poor health.

But there was also the small matter of how to settle up with Thomas Rebutato for the land on which Le Corbusier had built his cabanon. Le Corbusier wanted an agreement that meant he would own the land on which his summer home now stood, but was reluctant to pay for it. For some years Rebutato and Le Corbusier discussed prices with no resolution.

"Le Corbusier said that instead of handing over the money that he would design a building for my father instead," says Robert Rebutato. "He told my father it would be better for him, because if he gave money it would be spent but in this way he would be investing for the future."

So, in half an hour, on the 29th of August 1954, Le Corbusier designed Unités de Camping for the Rebutatos. This was a simple series of five rooms, raised up on piloti stilts, facing the sea and built to the other side of Étoile de Mer. A bathroom and a small kitchen were placed on a lower level. From 1956 until 1982, Unités de Camping provided another modest element to the Rebutatos business, complete with another dramatic Le Corbusier mural and vibrant colours.

"Most people who came to stay appreciated the building," says Robert Rebutato, who has also worked on the conservation and completion of a number of Le Corbusier's buildings. "Some were surprised that it wasn't a traditional Provençal house and didn't like the noise of the railway."

Robert Rebutato is now deeply involved in the protection of the whole site, including the cabanon and E-1027, which is currently being restored. Unités de Camping will pass from the Rebutato family to the ownership of the Conservatoire, with ambitions for a comprehensive study and cultural centre encompassing the whole site, including Étoile de Mer.

For Le Corbusier, it was a place of escape and contemplation, even after the death of Yvonne in 1957. He once said that he would like to end his life at Cap Martin and did so, suffering a fatal heart attack while swimming from the beach below in 1965. He and Yvonne are buried at Roquebrune cemetery under a headstone of Le Corbusier's own design. "Drawings, paintings, sculpture, books, houses and town plans stem in my case from a single creative source," he once wrote. "You build with stone, wood, cement: you make houses, places.... Your ingenuity is at work. Then suddenly you catch my heart, you do me good, I'm happy and I say: that's beautiful. That's architecture."

Le Cabanon only can be visited by the public by appointment. Contact l'Office de Tourisme de Roquebrune-Cap-Martin – + 33 4 93 35 62 87.