With its panoramic terrace overlooking the sea, its trellis, reed screening, bar and terraced garden, the Etoile de Mer is a perfect example of the art of living of the humble cottage dweller on the Mediterranean.
It was initially to build a hut in which to store his fishing tackle and picnic equipment for his family that Thomas Rebutato, a plumber from Nice, bought a plot of land on the terraced hillside next to Villa E-1027, below the customs officers’ footpath along the railway line. In 1949, he gave up his plumbing business and converted the hut into a snack bar. Le Corbusier, who was one of his first customers, quickly became a regular visitor to the establishment where he painted several murals that were much appreciated by the owner. They decorate the façade and the bedroom.
The original design of the Etoile de Mer is testimony of what a minimalist dwelling by the sea could be.
A prototype of the minimalist dwelling, built by Thomas Rebutato on the basis of plans by F. Pietra, of Nice, the original Etoile de Mer comprises a main room with kitchenette, WC and a bedroom. On the sea side, the French windows open out on to a terrace 1.50 metres deep on which the bedroom window also looks out. Between the rear wall and the railway embankment, access is by a wooden door and a passageway. On the lower terrace, a wooden hut houses a shower.
This lightweight prefabricated construction with a frame consisting of wooden beams rests on concrete supporting blocks. The walls are made of fibre cement panels and the sloping corrugated fibre-cement roof rests on wooden joists. The ceilings are made of hardboard sheets and the flooring is wooden parquet.
When he built his cabin, Thomas Rebutato originally intended to build another five nearby which he would have sold after setting up a small estate on his land.
Thomas Rebutato thus enlarged and embellished his restaurant, installing a kitchen at the rear and cementing the staircase in order to create a new entrance at its foot. Once the main room had been converted into a bar, he decorated the counter and the walls with his paintings.
Outside, all of the spaces go to make a real garden, in which Thomas’s taste for art brut expressed itself in borders formed of broken bottles, low walls and plant containers made of brick fragments and pebbles picked up on the beach. The terrace and arbour have now become a large summer dining area.
As Le Corbusier took all his meals at the Etoile de Mer, there was a communicating door between the bedroom of the Etoile de Mer and the Cabanon. Hidden in the thick panel of this door there was a tiny safe where his wife kept her jewellery.
On the outside wall of the Etoile de Mer, terrace side, one can still see some paintings by Le Corbusier. Inside the bar room, the walls and bar are decorated by paintings and drawings by Thomas Rebutato.
Both in Eileen Gray’s villa and on the walls of the Etoile de Mer and his Cabanon, Le Corbusier painted murals on the Roquebrune site, which also provided him with inspiration for his drawings. These paintings and drawings all reveal a Le Corbusier who was truly in love with the Mediterranean.
Thomas, Egildo Rebutato, better known as “Robert”, was born in San Remo on 13 June 1907, and spent his childhood years in Beausoleil, a village close to the Principality of Monaco. A plumber and roofer by trade, he set up his own business in Nice in 1940. Of a rebellious nature, he found it no more than natural to join a group of Resistance fighters in the town until it was liberated on 27 August 1944. After the war, once the beaches became accessible again, he would take his wife Marguerite and their children Monique and Robert on summer Sundays to enjoy bathing on Buse beach at Roquebrune Cap-Martin.
On opening day Thomas Rebutato, aided by his 12-year-old son Robert, sees his first customer arrive. A guest of Jean Badovici, he has come to negotiate board for about ten persons for a week. That man was none other than Le Corbusier.
In August 1950, he painted, on a wooden panel, a portrait of Thomas in a cap and cook’s apron, opposite André, the sea-urchin fisher. “At the Etoile de Mer friendship reigns” was to be the title of the work which he gave his friend, who hung it up on the wall of the bar-restaurant. He was later to frame it with a mural.
In July 1952, Le Corbusier installed his Cabanon on the adjacent plot; it had been prefabricated in Corsica by the joinery firm Barberis. After securing the Rebutatos’ consent to its being placed right up against the Etoile de Mer, the architect installed a communicating door between the two buildings.
Once the Cabanon had been completed, Le Corbusier painted a mural at the entrance. On the other side of the wall in which the communicating door had been installed between the Cabanon and the Etoile de Mer, another of his paintings depicts the Rebutato family. Le Corbusier offered to buy from Robert the plot on which he had built the Cabanon in exchange for the construction of 5 holiday cottages on one of the pétanque pitches on the Rebutatos’ land. These are spartan but functional dwelling units whose design was based on the same principles as the Cabanon. They were erected on stilts, by Barberis, during the summer of 1957. The notarial transfer-of property-act was signed in January 1961.
From 1957 to 1970, Thomas and Marguerite used the cottages as accommodation for holidaymakers
A restoration programme is due to begin shortly on the Etoile de Mer.
The mural on the façade which accompanies the painting entitled “At the Etoile de mer friendship reigns” was painted by Le Corbusier as soon as the picture was hung up on the terrace in August 1949. A man in black sits à la Matisse next to a recumbent woman; the footprints are those of Le Corbusier and Thomas Rebutato.
This painting, having been battered by the elements – sun, rain, salt-laden winds - has already been restored several times. Picture restorer Marie-Odile Hubert is about to carry out a further restoration job.
With its Mediterranean vegetation, the garden of the Etoile de Mer is also representative of art brut. In this gardener’s paradise, which constitutes a perfectly coherent whole, the shade and the sun fashion contrasting moods. The trellis and the reed screening which shelter the terrace-promontory, the flight of concrete steps, the inclusion of coloured pottery fragments and pebbles, the succulent collection are a perfect illustration of the cottage dweller’s know-how. The result is a garden full of surprises.
Magda and Robert Rebutato kept the terraces and plants well maintained. They introduced a few new plants, with good results and in line with horticultural tradition. A few of these plants have matured but it is vital to preserve this dream-like world in its original state and merely plant a few extra flowers here and there.
The terraced garden of the Etoile de Mer and the Holiday Cottages, accessible by a narrow flight of concrete steps, is planted with thyme and rosemary, cacti and succulents, palms and olive trees. The paths are embellished with borders made of bottle fragments laid by Thomas Rebutato. Low walls and plant containers made of brick fragments and pebbles picked up on the beach reveal his taste for art brut.