"My spirit is engraved in every cranny of your home!" the young architect wrote breathlessly to his client in 1918. Indeed, the spirit of Le Corbusier, one of the most influential architects of the first half of the century, permeates La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, his birthplace and site of several of his early buildings. "The Picasso of architecture," art historian Nikolaus Pevsner called him.
The architectural works of Le Corbusier, who lived from 1887 to 1965, are often examined in two periods: those done after 1918 in his Purist phase, with primary geometrical forms, white facades, open floor plans, and strip windows, and those done after World War II, which incorporate less rigid forms, such as irregularly placed windows, curving walls, and the rolled-edge winglike roofs on his famous chapel at Ronchamp, France, and on the High Court of Chandigarh, India.
Both periods evolved from his years as a student in La Chaux-de-Fonds. In this small city in the Jura, north of Neuchatel, five of Le Corbusier's houses still stand and can easily be viewed. He himself omitted them from a historical survey of his work; only later did he include the Villa Turque, a pioneering example of Modernist architecture and one of the first residential buildings to exploit the potential of reinforced concrete.
My own spirit soared as I drove the 1 1/2 hours north from Lausanne to La Chaux-de-Fonds in a blur of golden trees and bronzed vineyards. It quickly plummeted when I saw the city itself, row upon row of dreary bourgeois houses reminiscent of an English factory town.
But as I climbed from the town center up a hillside to the north, the fantastical curlicues of Art Nouveau balconies began to sprout on expansive houses. I learned later that La Chaux-de-Fonds is one of the few cities considered a center of Art Nouveau design, with examples beginning about 1902. This was a key influence in the artistic development of Le Corbusier, whose early houses embody that style.
At the turn of the century, La Chaux-de-Fonds was the center of the Swiss watch industry, which accounted for 60 percent of all the country's exports. "This period saw a strong intellectual and artistic life here," said Francoise Frey, the librarian of the Le Corbusier archives at the Bibliotheque de la Ville. "Much was due to Charles l'Eplattenier, Le Corbusier's mentor, and much to the presence of Jewish industrialists, who commissioned houses and were connoisseurs of art and culture."
Besides a technical and business school for the watch industry, the city had an art school where students learned engraving and enameling to decorate watchcases. L'Eplattenier, a painter and sculptor, taught there around 1900, when Le Corbusier studied engraving under his birth name, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.
L'Eplattenier encouraged Le Corbusier to study architecture and helped obtain his first client, a local businessman named Louis Fallet. In 1904, at the age of 17, Le Corbusier designed the Villa Fallet, set on a hill north of La Chaux-de-Fonds. This chalet-style house, with a steep roof and balconies overlooking the city, takes its inspiration from the encircling pine forest. The flamboyant south facade has a frieze of stylized pine trees; pine motifs are carved into roof brackets; and window mullions angle heavenward like pine boughs.
In particular, the exterior decoration reveals the high degree of craftsmanship that existed in this watch-making city. All in all, the Villa Fallet is a youthful, exuberant house in excellent condition. Looking at it, you wonder how the architect progressed from this to the soaring individualistic buildings of his later years.
Le Corbusier's next two clients were typical of the affluent La Chaux-de-Fonds bourgeoisie. Ulysse-Jules Jaquemet, a watchcase finisher, and Albert Stotzer, a teacher of mechanics, were young in-laws of Fallet. In 1908 they had the villas Stotzer and Jaquemet built next to each other on the same hillside as the Villa Fallet. Though both are run-down today, they reflect the same chalet style, strengthened by Le Corbusier's dramatic rooflines and sweeping balconies.
By 1907, Le Corbusier had traveled to the great cities of Italy and to Vienna; later he visited Germany and finally went to the Middle East in 1911. His delight in the massive interiors of mosques, their unexpected curves and their subtle reluctance to admit light, is expressed in his last two houses in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
The Villa Jeanneret, known by locals as the White House, was built for Le Corbusier's parents in 1912. Again, it is the exterior that is important, reflecting his travels and his evolution from Art Nouveau. The entrance is mysterious and seductive, leading up a staircase that winds through a garden to an enclosed terrace. Although the retaining wall is faced with stone, the white stucco walls and expansive windows make the house look clearly Modernist. Now owned by an absentee businessman, the Villa Jeanneret is marred by neglect. But its semicircular roof-to-ground bay anticipates the curving sensuality of the next commission, the Villa Turque.
Built for the industrialist Anatole Schwob, this exhilarating house marks the culmination, and termination, of Le Corbusier's career in La Chaux-de-Fonds. In pristine condition, it was restored in 1987 by the Ebel watch company, which uses it as a community center and a place for exhibitions and concerts.
The Villa Turque (Turkish Villa) takes its form from the Greek, or Byzantine, cross. The side arms are rounded, illustrating Le Corbusier's growing fascination with curves and Turkish mosques. Unlike the earlier houses, the Villa Turque has little exterior decoration. From the street its golden brick facade, bland but for four oval portholes, gives away nothing about the interior.
Here light fills the two-story living space through large vertical windows facing a south garden. On the first story, balconies are lit by windows in the arms of the cross, permitting light to stream in diagonally and horizontally.
Andree Putman and her Paris design studio, Ecart, did the interior restoration of the Villa Turque. Beige lacquer, glowing woods, and ivory-colored walls predominate, with circular carpets and some Eileen Gray furniture scattered throughout, all complementing the play of light and shadow. Le Corbusier and Gray were friends; he built a cottage below hers in Roquebrune, France, where he drowned in 1965 while swimming in the Mediterranean.
In the spirit of understanding Le Corbusier's world, I duly passed by his birthplace, one of those grim gray row houses. Perhaps it partly explains why he turned his back on the local architecture. I did tour another creation of his, the Scala cinema, designed in 1916 and now mostly rebuilt. And I visited the Musee des Beaux-Arts, built by Chapallaz and l'Eplattenier, to see its furniture designed by Le Corbusier: a 1916 suite of chairs, tables, and a sofa, with simple curving legs and little adornment.
The museum also has a painting and an elaborate tapestry by Le Corbusier, both done in his bright post-Cubist style, which resembles the work of Leger. And there's another painting, a portrait of Lecorbesier, the architect's maternal grandfather, which may solve the puzzle surrounding his pseudonym. Adopted in 1920 by Jeanneret, Le Corbusier means "raven" in French. Somehow, English-speaking historians have translated this as "crow," a wily bird, which Le Corbusier was. French and Swiss historians say the pseudonym was taken from his grandfather's name. The portrait, with its strong resemblance to Le Corbusier, reminds us that some of the roots of the Modernist movement in architecture grew from a hillside in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
SUSAN HELLER ANDERSON, a former New York Times reporter, writes about the arts.