Poised on a hilltop clearing in a forest north of Paris, the house looks as if its constituent parts had been teleported here in the wrong sequence. From above, it’s an asymmetrical assemblage of Tetris tiles: a rectangular spine onto which a dozen cubes have latched seemingly at random. Many of these cubes are stacked, giving the impression of a second floor that exists only in isolated blocks. Some walls are glass; some are brick; some are part brick, part glass; some have portholes. With its fragmented façade, the house is the architectural equivalent of a Georges Braque painting, a fitting abode for one of France’s most esteemed art auctioneers, Jean-Claude Binoche.
Binoche’s parents had the house built in 1970, the first solo commission for a French architect named Gilles Bouchez. He had studied with a disciple of Le Corbusier, whose concept for a “museum of unlimited growth” inspired the then 30-year-old to create a house that could be expanded and customized ad infinitum, depending on its inhabitants’ evolving tastes and needs. Any number of standardized concrete modules could be added to the central frame or even to other modules, like Legos. Need an extra guest room? Add a cube. Want to expand the kitchen? Add a cube.
Bouchez had meant for the house to remain forever a work in progress, so he was almost disappointed when his clients accepted his sample designs without question. “I would have loved for them to tell me, ‘Okay, we can do that, but I don’t like it—I’d prefer stone vaults,’” Bouchez told me with a laugh. “I would have loved for it to have become a kind of patchwork.”
The call he’d hoped for didn’t come until about ten years ago. After Binoche’s parents died, the auctioneer invited Bouchez to see what he’d done with the place.
“I hope you won’t be furious, because I’ve changed a few things,” Binoche told the architect. Binoche had finally made good on Bouchez’s promise of an endlessly variable house. Among other modifications, he replaced most of the outer walls with floor-to-ceiling glass, flooding the house with light and opening up views to the woods all around.
Such unspoiled greenery is rare around Paris. The site, near the village of Mortefontaine, was once part of a vast domain owned by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother, who was, for a short while, the king of Spain. It eventually came into the hands of the Duc de Gramont, whose descendants sold a 25-acre swath of it to Binoche’s parents—golf buddies of theirs—in the late 1960s.
Binoche is inspired by the land’s connection to history. “Napoleon probably sat on these rocks,” he says, pointing to a rugged patch of granite by the terrace. When I met him, Binoche, 77, wore elegant owlish glasses, a navy suit, and bright red socks. A thin red thread looped through the buttonhole of his lapel, indicating that he is a recipient of the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit (established by Napoleon, as it happens). The refinement of his clothing and demeanor contrasted with a stocky build and rough-hewn face that have made for memorable cameos in a number of movies, bit parts for filmmaker friends. (The more impressive cinematic career, he conceded, belongs to his Oscar-winning cousin, Juliette Binoche.)
When he inherited the house, which he uses mostly on weekends, Binoche redesigned the interiors himself. He scoffs at the idea of hiring someone else to make such personal choices for him. “To me, true interior design consists of getting the most out of objects one loves, rather than bringing in objects to complete a design concept,” he said. “I’m a bit of an anti-decorator.”
It helped that he has one of the most practiced eyes in the art business, having been an auctioneer for more than half a century. In that time, he’s overseen a number of marquee sales, including that of Picasso’s Les Noces de Pierrette, which he hammered in at a record price of $51 million in 1989. Today, with his firm Binoche et Giquello, a subdivision of the Parisian auction house Hôtel Drouot, he focuses primarily on African and pre-Columbian art.
Over the years, he’s amassed his own sizable collection. He displays his most prestigious possessions—ranging from 17th-century Bruges tapestries to canvases by Francis Picabia—at his primary residence on Paris’s tony Place des Vosges. For the Mortefontaine house, Binoche chose mostly work by two lesser-known prewar artists of whom he’s particularly fond: the naïve painter Ferdinand Desnos and the transgender sculptor and Picasso contemporary Anton Prinner. Their relative obscurity is part of why he chose them: “If the house is robbed,” he said, offhandedly, “there’s nothing to take.”
Binoche replaced his parents’ musty, mismatched furniture with a mid-century scheme. The centerpiece of the airy common area is a set of oak-and-iron bookshelves by the modernist French architect Pierre Patout. Binoche purchased them, as well as an array of chairs and tables, from the municipal library of Tours, which Patout designed in the ’50s. He then accented the space with iconic pieces by de Sede, Eames, and others.
When Bouchez visited the house for the first time since he’d built it 50 years before, he felt the pride of a parent who sees his child flourish in a way he’d never expected. “The life of a house is not written,” he said. “It’s like a human being. It will grow, it will change, its face will change, and maybe in a few centuries it will become ruins. And I hope this one will make beautiful ruins.”