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.

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