Psych(ot)ic notions of karma and inevitability, as opposed to mere coïncidence, are part of me, always have been. I’ve lost count of cases where “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” has stepped up to kick me in the ass: “See? I told you. But would you listen? No.” Now, I’m no great fan of Mr Bacon — not that he’s a bad actor; maybe it’s the films that lack luster — but I could easily bypass a “Kevin Bacon” film festival. One of those “coïncidences” occurred a few years ago while I was living in Belgium.
My friend Richard came for a visit and we rented a car for a trip across northern France, a day-trip. We intended to travel as far as an anachronistic English country house by Sir Edwin Lutyens at Varengeville-sur-Mer, a rural commune just beyond Dieppe. But the first stop, the true beginning of our westward journey, was at Lille, technically at Croix, an upscale suburb.
Architect Rob Mallet-Stevens was contemporary of LeCorbusier, though history books don’t see it quite that way. Though just one year separated them, it was Corbu who became a thing, the darling of the Modern Movement, part of a trinity which included Mies van der Rohe and the somewhat older Frank Lloyd Wright. What is it about threesomes?
Mallet-Stevens began his career in 1907, about the same time as Corbu, and though he was successful in monetary terms, attracting wealthy and influential clients, time has not treated him well. Which may have something to do with his death in 1945, while Corb lived on until 1969; those twenty-four years made the difference, if the work did not.
In 1932 Paul and Lucie Cavrois commissioned the design of a large suburban home from Mallet-Stevens for a site in Croix — definitively on the proper side of town for “bourgeois domestic architecture,” according to one source. Cavrois was a Roubaix textile entrepreneur with both money and a taste for the shockingly modern, a good fit with the showman architect. The product of that collaboration was Villa Cavrois, 1840 m² (nearly 20,000 square feet) of sleek modern exterior and custom fittings. There isn’t anything deprived of Mallet-Stevens’ touch. After having become derelict, the house and grounds were acquired by the city of Croix and restored to their 1932 glory, the year the project was complete. This was the destination for Richard and me that spring morning.
Finding the place from space is no problem; it can literally be distinguished from its context in google.earth. Finding it on the ground is another matter, particularly since neither Richard nor I speak French. When we chanced on a lady returning from market, the best I could manage was “veel cav-wah” and a shrug of the shoulders signifying ignorance. She point in a direction and said something about “une chapelle”. With little more than a keen sense of direction — like homing pigeons — we located the villa, surrounded by chain-link fence, in mid-restoration, which was not unexpected. You can find the house today, fully restored and open for tours (as soon as the pandemic has passed) at the intersection of Avenue du Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Avenue François Roussel.
Other intermediate stops on our pilgrimage included several WWI cemeteries designed by the aforementioned Lutyens, during his “classical” period. But our ultimate goal that day was the country house “Bois des Moutiers” at Varengeville-sur-Mer, as spectacular an exercise in Edwardian Arts & Crafts (though geographically misplaced) as the Villa Cavrois was to the Art Deco. Two iconic houses were the brackets of our journey.
And so, we duly arrived at Varengeville with as little knowledge of the house’s location as we had at Croix, except this time there were hints of signage that took us down a single-track road with no shoulder or space for parking. The house was a tremendous experience, again equal to our first stop but here the setting had been provided by the landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll, a cousin of architect Lutyens and frequent collaborator. The interiors of the house have been inaccessible for some time but the grounds were worth the drive and we had an excellent chat with the owners, who doubled as admittance staff. We learned that Bois des Moutiers is embroiled in French inheritance court, shares of the property owned by two dozen cousins of contrary opinion on what should be done with the place — a perfect “tear-down” site for a bunch of McMansions. But as we turned toward the car, our host admonished us to drive right, rather than left, and visit the village church at the end of the road.
A charming Romanesque church, the église de Varengeville-sur-Mer, and its burial ground, tottering on the edge of a cliff above La Mance or what the English so rudely claim as their “Channel.” Come back in twenty years and both chapel and grounds will have collapsed into La Manche, taking its inmates along for the ride.
The church was interesting but the tombs and the view their inmates couldn’t appreciate were a late afternoon spectacle not to be missed. Wandering among the memorials, hoping to find we knew not what, I was drawn to an impressive grave. And was stunned to learn that it is the final resting place of French composer Albert Roussel. Why he should be found in such an out-of-the-way cemetery and not nobly interred at Pere Lachaise, is a mystery. But I took great personal satisfaction that the brackets of our architectural tour had each been houses of iconic status on streets associated with French musicians bearing the surname Roussel: Francois (1510–1577) and Albert (1869–1937).