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Oct / Nov 2012
In Its Holey Presence

Writer & Photographer: Daniel Barney

Perched above Théoule-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur, Antti Lovag’s Palais Bulles is a stunning reminder of another time. Our visit to this still radical structure reveals that his bubble palace is as much today’s tomorrow as it was yesterday’s.


Hailing a taxi at Cannes’ train station proves bewildering. When I arrive from Paris at 12:55, only a few are parked in their normal queue. A couple of dozen baggage-toting travellers line the median, scratching their heads, not only wondering where the taxis are but, for the empty cars actually lined up, where the drivers are too. Welcome to the Mediterranean and its daily two-to-three hour midday break.

Succumbing to the Côte d’Azur pace of life, I sit down for a comfortable lunch to bide the time until the drivers are back on the clock. Forty-five minutes later, I am sitting in the back of a Mercedes chatting away with my driver. Cannois born and raised and a veteran chauffeur for the film festival, he tells me about the assorted celebrities he has driven over the years. “I’ve met them all,” he claims with a proud smile that doesn’t quite disguise a sense of his own exaggeration. No matter, for when I tell him where I’m going, he knows the way perfectly. We drive from the centre of town, along winding mountain roads and up to the cliff-hanging bubble-shaped palace designed by Antti Lovag, Habitologist - a vocation similar to and yet also innately different to that of Architect.

As we approach our destination, I can see the rounded rooftops and slivers of the spherical windows of the Palais Bulles peeking out over the intricately welded metal gate. I step out of the car, thanking my driver for the chat. Walking through the enclosure, I glance back over my shoulder to see the taxi still parked at the entrance. My eyes meet the driver’s and I can sense his curiosity and desire to visit this futurist space, where he has doubtlessly driven countless others over the years.

Antti Lovag, the mastermind behind the Bulles, was born in Hungary in 1920. Shaped by the post-war era of hope and optimism, he was based in France for a number of years in the 1960s, where he crossed paths with celebrated bohemian architect and poet, Pascal Häusermann and visionary architect Jacques Couëlle, both of whom were known for their appreciation of organic structures and penchant for Futurism. Lovag would later work in Couëlle’s studio, where he not only had room to experiment but also acquired hands-on experience with new materials and techniques used to create the kinds of shapes and forms that, at the time, had little place in architecture. Jean-Pascal Hesse, historian and author of the recently published book ‘Le Palais Bulles de Pierre Cardin’, claims that this exchange with Couëlle was a precursor to the research Lovag would later develop under the rubric of ‘habitology’, a study of habitable space and the effort to reunite man and nature.

Construction on the Palais Bulles began in 1979 when Pierre Bernard, a businessman and dreamer, commissioned the home after discovering Lovag’s work on numerous other organic structures scattered along the Riviera.

Today it is owned by couturier Pierre Cardin, who purchased the home from Bernard’s family after the businessman’s unfortunate death in 1992. Cardin lives there from time to time and has reserved a series of rooms - a suite, living room, dining room, kitchen and office - off the patio of the smaller of the two pools. The rest of the time, Bulles is rented out to the likes of MTV, Canal+ and the Cannes Film Festival for grandiose events, receptions, film screenings and photo shoots. Cardin’s exquisite taste and his love affair with innovative shapes have been the backbone of his success in the fashion world. This expertise in form is made even more concrete by his choice of real estate.

During a brief exchange I had with Mr. Cardin in Paris before my visit, I asked him to describe the first time he entered the Palais Bulles in the early 1990s. “I’ve always been inspired by the circle, the cosmos, the geometrical shapes, which for me are the symbol of life and infinity,” he said. “I was immediately interested in this construction and seduced by the unusual side of this new architecture.”

New architecture, indeed, for when construction began, Antti Lovag was required to develop entirely new techniques in order to turn his ideas into reality. Inherent to his bubble homes - the Bulles was not his only experiment with this form - were pieces of built-in furniture, like the Bulles’ pivoting dining nook. This mobile eating unit is installed in a plastic shell that pivots on a steel rail system and opens onto the patio of the larger of the two pools. A wooden table and bench are custom-fitted within the concave space.

The marble, stone and colours used throughout the different spaces mirror the burnt red, orange and taupe hues of the rocky hills around the home. The entire structure was designed with its own disappearance in mind, with each intertwined sphere blending into its surroundings. Immense oval windows frame panoramic views of the sea and cliffs in a number of the sitting rooms, while a spherical glass window doubles as a door in the main reception area and can be lifted up out of sight by a pulley system.

Bulles’ Futurist claims are almost an understatement beside its sculptural presence and experiential dynamic. Stepping through the gates and onto the grounds is an ephemeral experience. The grandeur and scale of the bubbles is impressive and when I enter the seemingly moulded home, I can practically feel its enveloping force pulling in and pushing out around me.

It is at this moment that ‘habitologist’ - the term Antti Lovag insists be used to describe him - truly makes sense. He is less architect than a sculptor of organic living spaces, or perhaps more accurately, someone who shines a utopian perspective on the ways in which we inhabit space. Right angles, straight walls and square windows stand in direct opposition to Lovag’s conception of how we should live. “In nature,” he has been quoted numerous times as saying, “angles do not exist.” And as his friend and collaborator Pierre Roche has further explained, “for Lovag, nature does not only look from behind an opening”. I quite agree. After all, Nature, which includes us as human beings, lives both within and beyond the spaces and forms that confine us.

Located at almost the highest point of Théoule-sur-Mer, the Palais welcomes its visitors with a stunning view over villas and gardens, cascading vines that follow rocky slopes down the steep cliffs and into the pristine, cobalt blue sea. The slowly descending staircase at the entrance transmutes into an undulating corridor that feeds into the main living space and hallway. Each room is poised on a different level from the previous, one sphere flowing into the next. Window placement is expertly calculated and planned to maximise framing the landscape and the light.

I think back to my interview with Cardin in Paris and recall how the designer described Lovag as a genius who dared to achieve his innovative ideas, without even being an architect. “He will leave a mark,” Cardin had continued. “He’s a real creator.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. Architect or Habitologist, Antti Lovag got it right.

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