July 5 1932 must have been a happy day for Paul Cavrois, a wealthy textiles manufacturer whose family-owned spinning mills and a dyeing factory in Roubaix, northern France. As well as celebrating the wedding of his daughter, Geneviève, this was the moment he unveiled the grand modernist house he had commissioned three years earlier from the avant-garde French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens.
“Air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort and efficiency” : that was the brief. Set in the leafy Roubaix suburb of Croix, 8 km northeast of Lille, Villa Cavrois was a minimalist château that heralded a new style of luxury living, one free of superfluous adornment and with built-in clocks, telephones and wirelesses — and fewer staff. Its five-hectare grounds featured a circular driveway and a 72 m-long reflecting pool. There was a 27 m swimming pool with a two-tier diving board, along with immense windows and a roof terrace with a pergola of concrete beams.
A champion of the modern, Mallet-Stevens was born in 1886, a year before Le Corbusier. His surviving works include Villa Noailles in Hyères, Provence, five
houses in the Rue Mallet-Stevens in Paris and a casino in St-Jean-de-Luz, Aquitaine. Villa Cavrois is arguably his greatest project, where he designed everything from the clinic-like kitchens to the angular bedroom furniture, with a little help from the hot talent of the day. Jean Prouvé did the lift and the sculptors Jan and Joël Martel created a haut-relief for the walls.
￼￼￼The neighbours didn’t approve, of course. Paul-Hervé Parsy, who knew Villa Cavrois as a child ￼and is now its administrator, recalls how this monumental, liner-like edifice was dubbed the “yellow peril” on account of the thousands of sand-coloured bricks that decorate its 60 m façade. But for a brief interlude, life here must have been golden for M. and Mme Cavrois and their seven children. Amenities included separate dining rooms for parents and children, a huge games room with a stage, and a smoking room that has a surprisingly small window.
Then came the second world war. The Cavrois’ dream home became a German barracks, with an anti-aircraft gun set up on its manicured lawns. Modifications followed in the 1950s, and after the death of Mme Cavrois in 1985, the furniture was auctioned off and the building sold to a property developer. Demolition seemed inevitable but a pressure group, which won support from the likes of architects Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, mounted a campaign to preserve what is now considered a masterpiece of modernist architecture. Listed as a historic monument in 1990, it remained neglected and vandalised until 2001, when it was finally bought by the French state.
Next month, following a 12-year, € 23 m restoration by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, Villa Cavrois will open its doors to the public. In many ways, this rebirth is as fascinating as the building itself. More than 200 skilled workers were drafted in to restore the mahogany parquet and frosted glass, and paint the drawing room pistachio-green. The boys’ bedroom has deliberately been left untouched, with peeling paint and bare bricks. Visitors will be able to wander freely around the building’s four levels, with black-and-white photos showing how the original interiors looked and a tablet computer for hire offering background information.
There is plenty to swoon over, from gorgeous chrome radiator screens and geometrically patterned clocks to an enormous white marble bathroom rich with 1930s flourishes. Mallet- Stevens’ design choices are engrossing — pearwood and pigskin for the study, sycamore and polished aluminium in the boudoir. But for Parsy, who has written a visitors’ guide to the property, there is no single standout feature. “His genius lies in the sense of gesamtkunstwerk,” he explains, “in the feeling that this is a total work of art.”
This is perhaps best appreciated from the far end of the reflecting pool, where one can contemplate Villa Cavrois’ many rapports and resonances. The organising principles are similar to the classic 17th century château, with a central entrance and tower, but there is a subtle symmetry at work. Horizontal pointing in slate grey is used to emphasise linearity, while a look at the architectural plans reveals further geometry. When viewed from above, the estate comprises a circle, a rectangle and a triangle; seen in elevation, the building’s design is based on a pyramid.
“We need right angles,” Mallet-Stevens once declared, a phrase that is surely destined to appear on a T-shirt in the gift shop. Before his death in 1945, he decreed that all his archives be destroyed, so his uncompromising buildings are his legacy. Looking at Villa Cavrois today, now so splendidly reborn, his fame seems assured.
Villa Cavrois (villa-cavrois.monuments-nationaux.fr) opens on June 13. The nearest tram stop is Villa Cavrois, a 25-minute ride from Gare Lille Europe, see transpole.fr. A visit can be combined with one to La Piscine (roubaix-lapiscine.com), an excellent art and textiles museum inventively housed in a 1932 swimming pool in Roubaix. For more information, visit roubaixtourisme.com