The Demountable Architecture of Eileen Gray

The trend of leaving the city on short weekend excursions began in Germany in the 1920s.
Initially reserved for a minority, that activity induced the development of prefabricated and
mass-produced small constructions intended for a wealthy clientele. In France, the magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui encouraged the production of structures oriented to individual leisure between 1934 and 1935, through a couple of competitions focused on the concept of “weekend house”.

In 1936 the Popular Front came to power in France and that same year it legislated holidays for French workers. With the slogan “enjoyment of free time for all”, the law expanded the affordability of leisure to the masses. This event led architects and industry to start thinking about the weekend house with a demountable condition.

Reduced Weekend Rail Fares - France
French poster advertising reduced weekend rail fares, promoted under the Popular Front, 1936.

This legislation was the first step in the transformation of the concept of leisure, from a privilege of the elite to a political concern of the masses, in order to favor the freedom and individuality of the working classes. For architects and designers, this translated into the possibility of experimentation in projects of private weekend houses as demountable and mobile structures.1 Indeed, the fifth International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) held in Paris in 1937 was dedicated to housing and leisure themes.

The birth of the new spatial paradigm that I call Petite Architecture was associated with this legislation. The Union des Artes Modernes (UAM) was the ideal laboratory due to the interdisciplinary nature of its members. This group was founded in November 1929 under the ideals of achieving unity among the arts, as well as the integration of new production methods with traditional craftsmanship. It included jewelers, bookbinders, weaving designers, sculptors and lighting specialists, as well as furniture manufacturers and architects. All of them came together to meet the modern lifestyle needs, such as the combination of hygiene, comfort, and utility. This aspiration was sufficient to ensure a certain cohesion in the work of the group.

Founding members included Eileen Gray, interior designers Sonia Delaunay and Henry Hélène, sculptors Gustav Miklos and Jan and Joël Martel, jewelry designers Puiforcat and Templier, and architect Mallet-Stevens, with René Herbst and Charlotte Perriand as intellectual leaders. Through Perriand the ideas of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret were present in the group from the beginning, although they were not active members until 1931.

Along with Charlotte Perriand, Eileen Gray stood out among the members of the UAM for designing prototypes of temporary housing before 1936. Although her proposals still maintaining the characteristics of the minimum habitat, they incorporated an unusual design that freed them from the modern rationalism dogma, in favor of a more humanistic approach. Gray’s demountable dwellings, despite minimal, included a playful component that would anticipate the development of Petite Architecture in the late thirties.

Gray was one of the first to respond to the new concept of weekend homes in France. She had a great interest in experimental materials and construction techniques—in tune with the spirit of the Modern Movement—in combination with something more unique at the time, a design concern focused on the needs of the isolated individual.

A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.2

Eileen Gray

Attention to the physical well-being of the user was something initially alien to the values of modern rationality. In its postulates, the questions of economics and mass production were imposed on the concern about the bodily experience, which Gray described as the poverty of modern architecture: “Everything is dominated by reason, in order to create wonder, without proper investigation. The art of the engineer is not enough if it is not guided by the needs of people.”3 In fact, in the description of their holiday home E.1027 (1924), she and Badovici incorporated the concept of “play” beyond the value of the form itself.

In this house was concentrated, in a very small space, everything necessary for comfort and to contribute to the joie de vivre. Nowhere was a line or a form sought in itself, everywhere was thought of man, his sensibilities and his needs.4

Eileen Gray inaugurated her experiments in architecture and leisure with proposals for the well-being of what she called “the individual mass”. She named the furniture she created for E. 1027 Le Style Camping, which was mobile, adaptable, and for a temporary lifestyle. She also conceived her Tent with Badovici in 1930, in a similar way, as a minimum living environment that had to be flexible and contingent.5

In 1936, Gray designed her Ellipse House, a prefabricated house of low cost and rapid construction, without the need for a foundation. Conceived for a family of four, it combined the concept of temporary housing or emergency shelter with being a house for the enjoyment of free time.

Ellipse House, Eileen Gray, 1936. Demountable Architecture
Ellipse House, Eileen Gray, 1936.

The experimental sophistication of the Ellipse House pursued the ideal of escape – the aspiration to live for a moment the desired life – as a way of fleeing the deep crisis that was being experienced in interwar France, also turning it into a precedent of Petite Architecture. The only thing that kept it from being a Petite project was its status as a minimal habitable cell.6

Several of Gray’s colleagues at the UAM, including Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé, designed prototypes of mobile minimum housing during the same period. An eloquent example was Jeanneret’s Holiday House (1936), which could be folded in the form of a caravan and being transported to different places. Their projects, like Gray’s, were still immersed in theories of low-cost minimum housing, at the time. It was Perriand who definitively introduced the idea of sensorial pleasure, as an essential element that freed that provisional architecture from its character of emergency, and turned it into an object of desire.


1 Echoing one of Friedrich Engels’ arguments: “for our workers in the big cities freedom of movement is the first condition of existence and land ownership cannot be an obstacle”, in Friedrich Engels, Contribution to the problem of housing, 1872, In Constant, Eileen Gray, 168.
2 Peter Adam, Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer (Nueva York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987), 216.
3 Constant, Eileen Gray, 113.
4 Adam, Ellen Gray: Architect/Designer, 216.
5 Eileen Gray, In Constant, Eileen Gray, 172.
6 Faithful to what was stated in the second CIAM, held in Frankfurt in 1929, with the motto “Minimum housing for subsistence”.

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