View of “Alvaro Urbano,” 2021. Photo: Pablo Gómez-Ogando.

View of “Alvaro Urbano,” 2021. Photo: Pablo Gómez-Ogando.

Alvaro Urbano

Two or three years ago I ran into Alvaro Urbano while we were both visiting Casa Mollino in Turin. This apartment is said to have been conceived by Italian architect Carlo Mollino, who died in 1973, as a kind of tomb for his spirit to inhabit in the afterlife; its ambience is both morbid and mesmerizing. It was an appropriate place to meet: Urbano, trained as an architect, deals with the narratives and the dreamlike auras of mythical spaces of twentieth-century architecture in his sculptural installations and environments, orchestrated down to the last detail with theatrical flair. He finds inspiration for his evocative atmospheres in such modern monuments or their ruins, and in the echoes of the voices of those who built and inhabited them. He did so when he mused over the run-down pavilions of modernist Spanish architecture firm Corrales y Molezún in his show for La Casa Encendida in Madrid in 2020, and in his 2021 project at TEA Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, which thematized the unfinished and ghostly Hotel Gazmira by Rubén Henríquez on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

For his recent show “L’invitation au voyage” he found an appropriate starting point in the history of E-1027, the villa built in 1926–29 by Eileen Gray on the French Riviera. Gray took Corbusian principles (pillars, a free facade, horizontal windows) as a basis and adapted them to nuance Le Corbusier’s notion of the machine-à-habiter (machine for living in) with a more organic and even spiritual idea of what a domestic space should be. Later, Corbu himself meddled with her original project by painting on its walls unasked-for murals that altered its essence (and had himself photographed naked while doing so). Gray never forgave him that particularly aggressive form of aesthetic manspreading, and the controversy continues to this day. Le Corbusier later built his famous Cabanon vacation home a stone’s throw from the house, in what can be perceived as a kind of perpetuation of the bullying. He would end up dying of a heart attack while swimming near the foot of the villa.

At Travesía Cuatro, Urbano transformed the gallery space into an enveloping environment and elaborate real-size trompe l’oeil to evoke different aspects of this history. He displayed interior elements and furnishings of E-1027 carefully replicated in painted cardboard, along with withered plants and flowers reproduced in metal and a scale model of the Cabanon as a doghouse. As an epilogue, and with a certain poetic justice, he asked Berlin-based Norwegian painter Tyra Tingleff to paint over the photographs of the naked Le Corbusier at work in the villa. The whole was bathed in the dim light of a suspended Mediterranean twilight, in the sound of the sea and the breeze at the original house, and in a few looped snatches of Henri Duparc’s song “L’invitation au voyage” (1870), which set Baudelaire’s famous poem to music. Gray had written the title in large letters on the panel that presided over the living room of the house.

Urbano has acknowledged the importance of theatrical and cinematic elements in his work, and here one was reminded of the surreal interiors of David Lynch, or of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946)—the poet and director was a regular guest at Gray’s original house. A small hidden door in the gallery space allowed visitors to peek backstage at the concealed electric fans and spotlights, underlining the installation’s theatrical character. The setup reminded me of the invisible lights and scaffolding that hide behind and enable the carefully composed space of Duchamp’s Étant donnés, 1946–66, in Philadelphia.

The resulting tableau cleverly evoked a space straddling reality and dreams. Yet it also conveyed a profound reflection on the changing notions of masculinity and gender, on the patriarchal visions of architecture and art, and on the question of whether and how much they’ve changed since Gray’s time. The history of E-1027 became here a moral (and architectural) fable of sorts.