While working on extremely large-scale projects like the masterplans for Chandigard and for Bogotà, Le Corbusier spent his summers in a small square house of 366x366cm in the south of France facing the Mediterranean sea. Drawn to the area because designer Eileen Gray had already established there her famous villa E.1027, he found the site for the only project he built for himself, a project known as “Le Cabanon de Vacances” or just “Le Cabanon” (the Cabin).
Many articles romantically report the beginning of the Cabanon adventure with Le Corbusier sketching it in 45 minutes at the corner of a coffee table and offering it to his wife Yvonne for her birthday on the 30th of September 1950. In reality, the project was born in his mind several years earlier as part of a larger plan for a complex of several vacation houses (called “Roq”) and a smaller system of 6 vacation houses (called “Rob”) on a strip of land owned by Thomas Rebutato, a close friend and keeper of the small fish restaurant “L’Etoile de la Mer”, in Roquebrune, Cap-Martin (South-East of France). The architect proposed to keep a studio for his own which, at a first time, was the only part of the plan which has seen life. The projects for the vacation complexes were part of a larger reflection the architect was conducting on spaces for leisure time (Unités de vacance) in connection to that of “Existenz Minimum”, minimal space for living.
In the winter of 1951-52 two collaborators, Jacques Michel and André Wogensky, developed the original croquis by Le Corbusier at the office, and during the summer of 1952 Le Cabanon was built. The architect worked on the details for the furnishing in June 1952.
Le Cabanon is a minimal unit which lives in mutual exchange with the coastal environment and its design includes an obsessive yet subtle research to place the exteriors views and lights in a specific relationship with every inch of the interior space. It’s a spacial device aimed to inhabit a land with a minimal impact on it, relying on the exterior open space for all the activities which could not fit the essential interior. The “Etoile de la Mer” restaurant also plays an important role in the project: not only Le Cabanon is close fitted to it through a small corridor and adjusts the height of its roof on that of the existing building, but it is also the place where the architect and his wife would eat their meals, as the Cabanon is provided with no kitchen. Sometime after the construction, Le Corbusier even added a door to directly join the restaurant and his friends, the owners, from the interior of the cabin.
While the exterior of Le Cabanon looks like a generic vernacular cabin, the wooden interior sums up an extreme simplicity and rationality in the distribution with wider architectural themes of proportion and geometrical spatial order typical of Le Corbusier’s research. A double bed is located on the North-East corner with a small window which lets the sea be visible from a lying position, while on the South side is a small lavabo close to a window opened on a huge carob tree. The south side is then a living space with a small fixed table oriented to get a view over the Monte-Carlo bay. The rest of the furniture is made of a cupboard closed to the corridor and two small rectangular chairs. The furnitures are arranged following a spiral disposition starting at the entrance and ending with the diagonal table which acts as the central focus of the composition in plan.
The image of the primitive hut is combined with the architect’s research on a construction combining the artisanal and the industrial: carpenter Charles Barbéris, who worked also for the Marseille project interiors, realized the cabin in his atelier in Corse and the panels and structural element were then carried on site to be assembled. The wood details are simple and standardized and the whole atmosphere results cozy. The surfaces are completed by the architect’s paintings on the walls.
It is well known that on August 27th, 1965, Le Corbusier went for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea and never came back. As he somehow had announced in a former interview (1952) with Brassaï, he spent his last night in his Cabanon: “Je me trouve si bien dan mon cabanon que, sans doute, je terminerai ma vie ici” (“I feel so well in my Cabanon that, without any doubt, I will end my life in here”).
The multiple reproduction of the interior of Le Cabanon, built across the world seem always to miss the importance of the relationship between Le Cabanon and its environment, as well as the spontaneous way Le Corbusier intended to live in it. In fact, the reconstructions, devoid of the exterior façades and, of course, of the outside environment, end up reading the construction as a mere exercise in interior design.
Le Corbusier à Cap-Martin, written by Bruno Chiambretto
Le Cabanon by Le Corbusier (PDF with many photos)