Talking to the Radiator

Andrew Saint

  • Corbusier’s Formative Years by H. Allen Brooks
    Chicago, 506 pp, £51.95, June 1997, ISBN 0 226 07579 6

Did the fact that he came from Switzerland’s drabbest town have something to do with it? La Chaux-de-Fonds has little excuse. Lifted high in a bowl of the Jura, it is fringed by mountains and pines, in which Emeritus Professor Allen Brooks, musing from the tranquillity of retirement, revels at leisure. ‘Allow time to climb the road,’ he admonishes readers eager to tick off the Villa Fallet, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret’s first house, on the out-skirts of the community. ‘Walk, don’t drive, and if you have a generous hour this route will gradually lead you back into town; in the meantime you will learn more about Jeanneret than you would in twice the time spent on his buildings or this book.’

Jeanneret is the Swiss alter ego of Le Corbusier, French controversialist and adulated genius, to this day, of avant-garde architecture. This book is about Jeanneret alone: that is to say, it tracks his career to the point when, in 1920, at the age of 32, he took on his famous alias (derived from his mother’s forebears) to conceal how much of the manifestoid polemic of L’Esprit nouveau was his own. Where Le Corbusier is robust, path-breaking and brusque, Jeanneret is callow, insecure, changeable, finicky and often in a muddle. Less confident times in architecture seek less certain heroes. No wonder growing cohorts of Corbusians have beaten a path of late to La Chaux-de-Fonds, to behold where it all began.

Allen Brooks was among the first of them. From the serenity of this book he looks down now with fatherly condescension at those who arrived later and published sooner, gleaning what they wanted and moving on. From the first it was the Jeanneret story, half-suppressed and half-mythologised by Le Corbusier, which he wished to recover in its entirety. He had the luck of the persistent, finding not only local builder, architect and sculptor friends of young Jeanneret still hale and hearty in the Seventies, but a full set of journals kept by his father. The anonymity of boyhood once over, this is a life which turns out to be almost absurdly well documented; and Brooks profits from his own diligence to present an enthralling, if two-dimensional, narrative.

By virtue of his journals, the reflective, mountain-walking father turns out to be the cynosure of the early chapters. An enameller in the artisanised watch industry from which La Chaux-de-Fonds derived its Calvinist existence, in perpetual worry over work and money, living hugger-mugger with his family in poky fourth-floor flats, he never ceased to admire and stimulate the cultural ambitions of his two boys. Albert, a budding violinist, at first looked the surer prospect, but brother Edouard soon outshone him. Their mother, from a slightly better background, taught the piano and lived almost to a hundred. Though often considered to have been the greater influence on the architect, she passes here more or less in shadow. Women indeed are largely missing from Brooks’s pages and Jeanneret’s early life. The odd painted nude by him (often of lesbian love-making) hints at sublimated erotic curiosity; that is about all. Suffice it to say that Jeanneret was close to his family, indulged, but not well socialised. In 1912, initiating a first trend among 20th-century architects, he induced his fond parents to build a house to his design which they could not afford – the bourgeois Villa Jeanneret-Perret on the edge of the town. It was a selfish adventure, and the son was soon beating his breast over it; yet he did not scruple to charge fees. Even when the postwar slump caused his parents to sell the house ata great loss in 1919, not a squeak of reproach escaped them.

Shoots of early genius notwithstanding, the education of a great architect is a slow process. That is really what this book is about; for in Jeanneret’s case, the process was particularly involved and sometimes contradictory, while the shoots, although present, were not very pronounced. His outstanding natural quality was not genius but resolution; and as he grew up he sought out a sequence of the best mentors and colleagues from different cultures who could act as his stepping-stones. In one case only, the first, was this sheer luck. Without Charles L’Eplattenier, his teacher at the School of Art in La Chaux-de-Fonds, there would have been no Le Corbusier and probably no Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, architect, either. L’Eplattenier raised the boy’s sights; he dragged him out of technical draughtsmanship and towards architecture, set him reading, furnished him with an English Arts and Crafts vision tempered to the Suisse Romande, put him on the road to Italy and Vienna, and got him his first, collaborative commissions. After a decade of guidance and generosity came the inevitable quarrel and parting of the ways. One would have welcomed more on this blithe enthusiast, Paris-educated and well-travelled, who frittered away his career championing the cause of art in a small Jura town. He was a talented designer, to boot; Corbusians on pilgrimage to La Chaux-de-Fonds could fare worse than with the relics of L’Eplattenier’s civic interventions.

The weight of analysis which critics bring to bear on immature works of the architectural masters is often anomalous, and nowhere more so than with the first fumblings of Jeanneret. Among the handful of houses he completed in La Chaux-de-Fonds, only the last, the rebarbative Villa Schwob of 1916, is out of the common run (and even this contains half-digested chunks of Auguste Perret); others bespeak an eager provincial talent, breasting his way gamely through the eddies and cross-currents which washed over European architecture in the decade before the First World War. The earliest, including the Villa Fallet (for which Jeanneret was one of an Arts and Crafts posse assembled by L’Eplattenier), are rustic, ‘regionalist’ homes imbued with the sentimentality of the 19th century; the latest pursue the discipline, symmetry and Neoclassical cleanliness pervasive in the villa architecture of France, Germany and Austria after 1905. Their equals, emblems of a manner of life doomed by impending war, may be found in almost every bourgeois city-suburb of Europe.

If these houses resonate at all, it is not for any special virtue of their own, but because Brooks is adept at capturing the quixotic intensity of belief which Jeanneret brought to their creation. Was he unique in this, or is it just that for other architects treading the same evolutionary path between 1900 and 1914 we lack the rich dossier of mind-changes which Brooks has assembled for Jeanneret? Throughout the Europe of these years there was exceptional mobility and flux, not just in architectural ideas but also among personnel; and a Swiss was well placed to play the game of open cultural frontiers. At any rate, from the kick-start administered by L’Eplattenier, away careered his protégé on a high-speed course of study, travel and work-experience, returning to La Chaux-de-Fonds now and again for emotional reassurance and the supreme education and passion of building things. But he loathed the place and its people, so he said: it was only a matter of time before he left for good.

Italy was his first destination, in 1907. At this stage, scarcely knowing he was to be an architect, Jeanneret hankered after painting – as he did for the rest of his life. He was drawn chiefly to medieval buildings and ornament (the best parts of the Villa Fallet are its decorative details), and his bedtime reading was Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence – a distillation of the sage of Brantwood’s art-wisdom targeted at travelling gentlewomen. It has long been known that Le Corbusier imbibed Ruskin in youth; what Brooks conveys is the passion, credulity and thoroughness with which Jeanneret devoured his main writings (as indeed almost every tub-thumping book that he stumbled on: a cock-tail of dogmas is a common intellectual taste among artists). Ruskin had not long been rendered into French, as part of the tardy, Francophone effort to take the Arts and Crafts Movement on board (Proust being one of his translators). So Jeanneret was grappling with ideas that were up to the minute for him and L’Eplattenier, but old Victorian hat to English and German speakers.

No wonder, then, that he was unready for Vienna, where he followed on warily at his mentor’s insistence. There he did in lodgings, designing at long distance two of his picturesque villas for the folks back home. In addition, he took lessons from a sculptor, made friends with a painter, and went to concerts. At the end of his stay, he made a puny attempt to look about him and make architectural contacts. But the innovations of Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann unnerved him, and he could hardly yet have understood the sophisticated mockery of Adolf Loos. Still, Vienna lodged somewhere at the back of his mind, starting the trickle of thought that was to entice him away from ornament and towards classicism, internationalism and a more analytic and structural attitude to design. Brooks sees this development as sheer progress; which it was in the sense that Jeanneret’s ideas and designs improved inch by gradual inch and were the harbingers of his blazing originality after 1920. But was architecture as a whole actually getting better? That is the Whiggish, Modern Movement line of history, which Brooks is inclined still to underwrite. To apply this to Jeanneret, one must read his Wanderjahre as singularly purposeful: as though he went to Paris on his next journey after Vienna just to find out about concrete construction with Auguste Perret, or afterwards to Berlin to take lessons in the dignity of industrial design from Peter Behrens. The truth is messier. There were many crossed wires and confused messages. Jeanneret became an omnivore, hungry for the next dish of art, history or ideology. Nietzsche and sundry Nietzschelings, the Suisse-Romande regionalist and racist author Cingria-Vaneyre, Balkan art, the Greek temple, the English garden suburb-all were jostling one another in his disorderly head. The one constant was the will to absorb.

This jumble of influences is exemplified by the most catholic of Jeanneret’s mentors, William Riser, art critic, novelist, watercolourist, musicologist (he wrote perceptively on Mahler) and enthusiast for peasant art. Swiss-born but based in Munich, Ritter became Jeanneret’s personal confidant and opened his reluctant eyes to the range of German culture. Yet far from belonging to the avant garde, Ritter ‘gave salons’ and his taste in the visual arts was ‘exceptionally conservative’, Brooks tells us. Without Ritter, it is doubtful whether Jeanneret would have taken his well-known 1911 trip to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, in search of the roots of classicism. The temptation is to read this quest and its crop of sketchbooks in terms of stripping-down and structural architectonics. That interest was present, but so were many others, mystical, ornamental and folkloristic. And, halting at Vienna en route to the Balkans, what did Jeanneret visit this time? Schönbrunn, the Belvedere and the paintings of Peter Breughel – hardly the goals of a mould-breaker.

One of Jeanneret’s juvenile curiosities was urbanism, a topic fashionable in the first years of this century. No aspect of the Corbusian oeuvre better conveys the drawbacks of a career in design based on the art-instinct alone and impatient of sociology, than his disastrously influential town-planning theories. They were the subject of Jeanneret’s first book, unpublished in his lifetime; Brooks has gone to much trouble in reconstructing its genesis, evolution and text. The occasion for the study was a lecture to be given by L’Eplattenier. The grid of La Chaux-de-Fonds offered poor raw material, so Jeanneret made up for it by reading the Austrian theorist of picturesque planning, Camillo Sitte, and taking a look at garden suburbs such as Hellerau outside Dresden. But it was skimpy stuff, unsupplemented by technical investigation. Jeanneret lacked the social instinct or an intuition for the patterns of family and community life – a prerequisite for good planning. His idea of company, he once joked to Ritter, was to talk to his radiator, ‘parce qu’il garderait un silence utile et fécond pour moi’.

We all know what he meant; but the joke loses savour when you are playing around with people and resources on a large scale. A man who in 1910 can suggest that street-layouts should follow the pattern of donkey tracks and then, in his 1925 revision of the text (published as Urbanisme), substitute the automobile for the donkey, is more than a technological Vicar of Bray: he reveals himself as someone who has not thought about human beings’ lives deeply, someone ready to smash the urban grain of Paris in the Plan Voisin for the sake of an avant-garde diagram, or prescribe multiple levels of traffic for the poverty-stricken Punjabis of Chandigarh in his later plans for that city. Once or twice Brooks urges us to credit Jeanneret with a flicker of interest in socialism, but it is hardly skin-deep. Le Corbusier’s career, even in the politics-steeped Thirties and Forties, consistently endorses the Wildean dictum that an artist’s responsibility is to himself. This is tricky enough when applied to architecture; when it comes to planning, it will not wash.

The final pages of Le Corbusier’s Formative Years cover the First World War and its aftermath. Despite friendships in both France and Germany, the cataclysm affected Jeanneret only when it came to the destruction of buildings, whereas the father’s journals spill over with suffering. Surprisingly, it was the war that helped Jeanneret finally to escape La Chaux-de-Fonds for Paris, in 1917. He must have been the keener to do so following the shambles over the Villa Schwob, which came in way over price and led to law-suits. The intermediary for the move was Max Du Bois, an easy-going engineer and entrepreneur based in Paris. Du Bois took a shine to the young man and found him sundry wartime employments under his wing – managing a brickworks, building a water-tower and supervising construction at two power stations. There was also an abattoir design or two, which introduced Jeanneret to American principles of scientific management and had its effect later, or so Brooks believes, on the designs of the Unités d’Habitation which Le Corbusier developed in the Thirties.

This is the least-known period of Le Corbusier’s activity, Du Bois having been all but expunged from the autobiographical record. Brooks expertly teases out the details, but gives scant weight to the importance of industrial and collective experience – ‘project management’ in modern parlance – in refocusing Jeanneret’s ideas once again and nudging them towards the engineering-heavy vision of Vers une architecture. The most publicised project of these years, the ‘Domino’ patent for concrete prefabricated housing, fits snugly within that framework. For Du Bois and his assistant Juste Schneider, equal participants with Jeanneret in the concept, Domino was all about production techniques, about tinkering with recent advances in concrete construction (notably, ‘flat-slab’ floors) in the hope of getting contracts for prefabricated housing after the war. Jeanneret’s main role was to aestheticise the system and produce plan-types. Corbusians regard Domino otherwise, as a way of looking on buildings as simple, orthogonal combinations of slabs and point-supports. This retrospective and pedagogic analysis implies a degree of originality which the system, never used in practice, cannot sustain.

At the end of Brooks’s story, Jeanneret is still inexhaustibly educating himself, lapping up the contrasted arts of propaganda and of proto-purist painting from the last of his mentors, Amédée Ozenfant. With the founding of L’Esprit nouveau in 1920 and the first of his chilly villas, Le Corbusier will not need any more teachers: he has found a name and a voice. Pierre Jeanneret, the competent cousin who was to help make Le Corbusier’s buildings work, turns up fleetingly in the closing pages; henceforward the name Jeanneret will be linked chiefly with him.

The argument may be made that even the revolutionary Le Corbusier of the Twenties had yet to reach maturity, that he was a continually improving architect, and that only after the Swiss Pavilion at the Cité Universitaire of 1930-2 did he learn how to touch the heart as well as to shock and show off. The process of self-education went right on up to the great chapel at Ronchamp. That would be consonant with the picture which Brooks draws. What is clear from this Bildungsroman is that Le Corbusier’s point of departure in 1920 owes everything to a very slow and often pedestrian warm-up, coupled with formidable concentration and ambition, and a conscious, continual process of sifting. The education of the designer tends to be a hit and miss affair; there must be accumulation, it must be intense, prolonged and deliberate, yet also captious, choosy and intuitive. Le Corbusier struck the right mixture for this bewildering century – in reality so much more eclectic than its predecessor, despite all the Modernist talk about 19th-century eclecticism. A little learning, a lot of well-husbanded artistry, a superficial interest in techniques, a streak of ruthlessness, a good sense of timing, readiness for adventure, growing regard for publicity and an all-important sense of destiny even in the midst of bafflement, were the keys to his spectacular career. Its flaw, as the psychology embedded in the heart of Brooks’s fine study betrays, was that he never cared much about people.