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Le Corbusier in an Unpublished Dossier and a Little-Known Novel

Published onApr 23, 2021
Le Corbusier in an Unpublished Dossier and a Little-Known Novel

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, La Chaux-de-Fonds, circa 1916. (Photograph courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

The judicial archives reveal that Le Corbusier, when he was known as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, was involved in some legal proceedings in La Chaux-de-Fonds, before he began a practice in Paris at the beginning of 1917.1

One of these lawsuits was against Monsieur A. S.,2 following the construction of the villa at 167 Rue du Doubs (Fig. 26). The lawsuit caused a stir locally, and some people still remember it.

Half a century later, after the child of La Chaux-de-Fonds has become famous all over the world and has won the hearts of his fellow citizens, who made him an honorary citizen of the town, it is tempting to examine objectively what happened.

From the very first words the dossier makes interesting reading. The documents produced as evidence, such as the letters and the plans, have unfortunately been returned to the parties involved, but the official records give a sufficient idea of their content. The writs were drawn up in a clear and careful style by Maître Alfred Aubert for Charles-Edouard Jeanneret and Maître Eugène Wille for Monsieur A. S., the owner. Those who were called to the bar as witnesses were the friends of the architect or his close collaborators; their testimony was transcribed in a concise style by Judge Eugène Piaget, who went on to become Attorney General. Finally, the two expert witnesses, the architects Eugène Colomb of Neuchâtel and Hans Bernoulli of Basel—after Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had objected to all his local colleagues, because he said his reputation had aroused their jealousy (113)3—gave their testimony most conscientiously and it is recorded with an elegance comparable to that of the writs. The reader is presented with an exemplary dossier, drawn up with the same care as if it were to be published. But before coming to the lawsuit, it is worthwhile putting it in its social context.

At the beginning of the century, the advantage that La Chaux-de-Fonds had over other localities in the Jura was largely due to the presence of a Jewish community, which had stimulated the life of the town in a manner all the more remarkable because it was not limited to the economic sphere. Artistic vocations were encouraged, and young artists could hope to find a local audience and clientele. They were most especially welcome in the salon of Monsieur R. S., whose wife had particularly discerning taste and enjoyed meeting talented young people.

Figure 26
View from the garden of the east elevation of the Villa Schwob, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 1916. (Photograph by Russell Walden.)

A description of this circle figures in the novel of Jean-Paul Zimmermann, Le Concert sans orchestre (Editions Victor Attinger, 1937). Four young artists form a friendship and occupy the forefront of the novel. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret can be recognized, under a pseudonym, as well as a painter, a sculptor, and a man of letters, all of them equally gifted. With the exception of the architect, whom the author has made a composer, the other characters practise the same profession in the novel as in real life. The description of the personalities and the account of their adventures are equally true to historical fact, even if some matters are covered up and certain dramatic episodes are invented. The state of mind of the small group is in any case faithfully described. The reader is confronted by a particularly cultivated circle passionately in love with beauty. Each member seeks his inspiration deep within himself, accepting only the example of the great masters and refusing that of the schools.

If we now return to the legal proceedings, we can see that certain characters of the novel reappear predictably during it. Two artists, the painter Charles Humbert and the sculptor Léon Perrin, are in the list of witnesses. Madame R. S. is also there, and during the proceedings she played a role that corresponds well with the impression the novel gives of her influence.

This role is worthy of our attention, because when we analyze it we are taken to the heart of the events.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret’s lawyer stated that the whole matter began when Madame R. S. visited the house which the young architect built for his parents, in 1913, at 30 b Rue de la Montagne (now 12 Chemin de Pouillerel) and which, according to him, had cost “much less than villas which were not so well laid out and not so comfortable” (5/11); Madame R. S., according to the architect’s lawyer, had appeared delighted with this house, even exclaiming: “Build one like it for my cousin A.”; then she had added that she would urge her cousin to build. The architect had then drawn up plans for a villa on a plot of land which he knew he could acquire, and his drawings, he said, had immediately delighted Monsieur A. S. (3/6).

To begin with, that such facts are recounted in the writs is surprising, for they could hardly influence the outcome of the case. We must therefore suppose that the architect had personal reasons for mentioning them. What could these be?

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret stated that he first came into contact with Monsieur A. S. as early as 1913, when he was asked to redecorate the industrialist’s smoking room “in an elegant and comfortable fashion.” Monsieur A. S. was then living at 73 Rue Léopold-Robert (1/1). By redecoration, he said, “the two parties understood the wall hangings, the installation of electric lighting, the purchase of furniture, wallpaper, curtains, and light fittings, forming a harmonious whole” (1/2). Monsieur A. S., the architect added, “approved without reservation the sketches of furniture and pastel drawings of the décor which the plaintiff presented to him.” We also learn that the definitive bill of quantities, drawn up on 11 June 1914, amounted to 4,837.60 Sw.F. and that the architect’s fees were 10 percent—that is, 483.75 Sw.F. (1/3). Because of the war, which made difficult the delivery of furniture ordered from France, the work could not be completed before the end of 1916.

The architect then called several witnesses (91, 96, 107, and 109) to confirm that he had often been “called upon by rich clients in the town to transform their appartments.”

This allows us to understand more fully the originality of such work, because we see the architect then asking the witnesses whether it was not true that he used to begin “by demanding the demolition of decorated ceilings, of paintwork encrusted with gold, of imitation marble and imitation wood, the elimination of overornate wooden paneling, so that he could replace these superfluous elements by extreme simplicity.” Charles-Edouard Jeanneret further affirmed that he had always aimed for “a simplification of forms, a simplicity in the use of materials, and these were real innovations in that locality.” The witness Léon Perrin (96) added that as a rule “M. Jeanneret was not in favor of too many different forms of decoration spread over too wide a surface. He would prefer one rich element on a restrained background surface.”

This new way of working was not always appreciated. The architect himself pointed out that it had “at the beginning aroused in workers and contractors alike astonishment and a certain opposition” (91, 96, 107, and 109). Another witness, a masonry contractor, stated more precisely: “It was simple, but all the same it was expensive. I had problems with the client.” (96)

Such elements show that in spite of traditions, there prevailed in the local middle class an avant-garde outlook that allowed them to appreciate, even before the First World War, works that were to anticipate the style known as contemporary, which was to become popular only after the Second World War.

They also reveal that in the summer of 1916, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret’s clientele, even if they had confidence in his taste, nevertheless seldom entrusted him with important works. When it was a matter not simply of interior decoration, but of building construction, we know from other sources that one of his rivals was preferred, the architect Léon Boillot, who built most of the rich villas of this period and whose name figures in the dossier, with reference to certain criticisms about the villa in question (5/6). Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had in fact attempted to build a large house which could be rented out by a group of people who were to form a limited company, but this had fallen through because of the cost of the construction (5/9).

In this summer of 1916, Jeanneret was not therefore indifferent to the possibility of obtaining Monsieur A. S. as a client. For him it meant an introduction to the circle which was most likely to allow him to fulfill his ambitions, for, as he explained, “the members of the S. family are those who recently have had constructed the largest number of buildings in our region” (113).

Madame R. S.’s recommendation was thus the event that allowed him at last to hope for recognition of his talents and this must be why he attached such importance to it. No doubt not only was his pride flattered, but he also wished to take advantage of this opportunity to build a masterpiece. Did he not call the witnesses whom we have already mentioned to attest that he “wished to make a name for himself with a building in a new style, impeccably designed and that to it he devoted all his care for more than a year”?

For the moment, the architect’s luck appeared all the greater as he had found a particularly enthusiastic client. Monsieur A. S. came to a decision as soon as the plans were presented to him (3/6); he made a telephone call there and then to Madame R. S. to say that he was going to take her advice and build (5/11). On 7 August 1916, the two parties fixed the architect’s fees at a lump sum of 8,000 Sw.F., having arrived at this figure after a summary evaluation of the cost of the construction, in the region of 110,000 to 115,000 Sw.F. (1/6 and 3/8).

After the event, it is difficult to know the details of this estimate, but it is necessary to try nonetheless to gauge what they were, for this evaluation played a vital role in the lawsuit, the architect having called it “more than summary,” while Monsieur A. S. declared he had taken the estimate seriously.

It seems therefore that to proceed a comparison was made with the villa in the Rue de la Montagne, which was to serve as a cost model. This first villa had been valued at 40,300 Sw.F. for the building alone, that is 21.78 Sw.F. per cubic meter, by the experts of the Etablissement cantonal d’assurance, in 1913. As the cost of construction had risen by 44 percent (144/3), which would give in 1916 a price of 31.43 Sw. F. per cubic meter for the villa in the Rue de la Montagne, the architect had “thought he was being very far-sighted” (5/11) in allowing 36.71 Sw.F. for Monsieur A. S.’s villa (144/3), that is 76,500 Sw.F. for the building, to which was added 24,500 Sw.F. for the garden (3/6, 144/3). The total of 100,000 Sw.F. thus obtained had subsequently been increased to take into account improvements desired by the client, so that the price of the building alone had been raised to 89,000 Sw.F. (3/6), then to the region of 110,000 to 115,000 Sw.F., as mentioned above.

A safety margin would thus seem to have been assured, but the insurance experts were to declare that serious errors would be incurred in such estimates, based on the price per cubic meter, when the specifications of the two buildings were not identical, even if their design had remained the same. In these experts’ opinion, a price of 60 Sw.F. per cubic meter ought to have been allowed from the very start for Monsieur A. S.’s villa (139/3). As a matter of fact, a framework of reinforced concrete replaced the traditional masonry; the central heating was concealed in the walls and floors; the exterior walls were faced in brick—every treatise on the use of reinforced concrete, the architect declared, “points out that a veneer of brick, stone, ceramics, marble, and so on is the characteristic of this method of construction” (5/7); a large bay with windows and two rotundas adorned the ground floor area; at roof level a promenade had been added, with a cornice in reinforced concrete; and finally the garden was laid out on a single level, with two summer houses, a green arbor, a fountain, two garden lamps, a paved walk, a covered sitting area, a private entrance to the south, and a garage at a lower level, below the garden. The insurance experts said that this was an entirely different concept from that “of the modest but picturesque villa in the Rue de la Montagne” (139/18).

In August 1916, however, neither the architect nor his client seem to have been aware of the cost of the venture. They were so unaware in fact, that before drawing up the plans for building approval, which date from September 1916 (76), they agreed at the request of the client to increase the height of the ground floor as well as the radius of the rotundas, to enlarge the main side of the building and the stairwell, and they added the kitchen as an annex on the ground floor. The kitchen had not been forgotten (contrary to the claims of local gossip) but had been provided for in the basement, as was the custom of the period. The increase in volume was 949 cubic meters—that is 46.7 percent. Neither Jeanneret nor Monsieur A. S. thought of drawing up or asking for a new estimate. Monsieur A. S. apparently did expect some overstepping of the estimate but thought this should not involve him in an expenditure greater than 175,000 Sw.F. (3/15).

At this point, then, everything seemed to be going well, and the building went ahead as planned until the alarm was sounded by the contractor Hans Biéri, who announced, toward the end of the work, that the villa would cost “nearer 300,000 Sw.F. than 100,000 Sw.F.” (3/4 and 100/1)! Fearful of the consequences, the builder called for a detailed bill of quantities to be drawn up at once, and a collaborator of the architect gave this document to him on 23 January 1917. It came to 303,400 Sw.F. (139/6)! In today’s money that is more than 3 million Sw.F., which would be a dreadful shock for somebody who was not expecting to spend more than 1.75 million Sw.F.

Two facts further increased the client’s concern. On the one hand, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had just begun a practice in Paris and could have given the impression that he had lost interest in the project. On the other hand, the client learned through certain tradesmen that the architect had asked for discounts to his own personal profit (3/16 and 17).

Consequently, Monsieur A. S. withdrew overall responsibility for the construction from the architect, retaining him only as aesthetic advisor, and he himself took on the task of dealing with the contractors. He also tried to carry out measures of economy and was helped in this work by M., a collaborator of the architect, whom he ended in engaging on his own account, much to the annoyance of his former employer (1/18).

Finally, the definitive cost of the villa rose to 276,000 Sw.F., including 38,000 Sw.F. for the garden and 8,000 Sw.F. for the architect. As Monsieur A. S. had already paid the architect 5,000 Sw.F. on account, he refused to settle the balance, reproaching him with the inadequacy of the estimates, the absence of any warning as to the consequences of the increase in volume, and various errors in the building’s conception, of which the most important was the use of a framework in reinforced concrete, which had occasioned an additional expenditure of 20,000 Sw.F.

The architect was the first to take legal action. On 31 May 1918, he instructed his lawyer to claim on his behalf:

fees agreed for the decoration of the smoking room


     483.75 Sw.F.

fees for the villa calculated no longer as a lump sum but according to the real cost of the construction

18,792.10 Sw.F.

 


from which is to be deducted the payment on account

  5,000.00 Sw.F.

13,792.10 Sw.F.

compensation for having been accused of “actions prejudicial to his reputation”

 


  5,000.00 Sw.F.

total payable

 

19,275.85 Sw.F.

While acknowledging that he owed the architect fees for the smoking room and the balance of fees agreed as a lump sum, that is 3,483.75 Sw.F., Monsieur A. S. entered a counterclaim for damages of 20,000 Sw.F., so that after compensation he sought in his turn 16,516.25 Sw.F.

The account of the proceedings brings in little that is new. According to the architect, the villa in the Rue du Doubs was to have been conceived in as simple a fashion as that in the Rue de la Montagne (139/17 and 18); thus the summary estimates would not have been exceeded if the client had not required extravagant extensions and improvements. Monsieur A. S., however, had no difficulty in demonstrating that he had requested all the modifications before the drawing up of the plans (3/3), and before that, he had rejected the use of costly materials that the architect was proposing, such as marble trimmings, iron window frames, plateglass windows, wooden paneling, sandstone sheathing, colored paving stones, and so on (98/2). The architect was scarcely more successful when he accused his client of having refused the economies he had proposed after the bill of quantities for 303,400 Sw.F. was drawn up, during the course of construction. These economies, such as the use of concrete for the construction of the interior staircases and for the framework of the bays or the suppression of the ceramic tiles, were not compatible with the character of the construction, as the expert witnesses agreed (144/9). Likewise, Jeanneret failed in his attempt to prove that the rise in the price of materials had been, for the most part, responsible for the estimates being exceeded; most of these rises had in fact been borne by the main contractor (95/1).

For his part, Monsieur A. S. was unsuccessful when he reproached the architect for having used reinforced concrete. The expert witnesses admitted that this method of building was costly by its very nature, and could have occasioned an additional expenditure of 20,000 Sw.F., but, they added, it could not be said “that it was without technical or aesthetic advantages. For a building conceived in such a manner, there was no alternative. If the client had not wanted a reinforced-concrete construction, he would have had quite a different house, and this proposal ought to have been made when the preliminary plans were presented to him” (139/9).

Quite clearly, the overstepping of the estimates, which surprised the architect as much as the client, was due to the inadequacy of the summary estimates that had served as a basis for the agreement between the two parties. What was lacking was an accurate bill of quantities. The expert witnesses emphasized this time and again but yet avoided placing the onus of responsibility on the architect alone. The client, they said, should have understood the approximate nature of the first estimate and realized the expense involved through the increase in volume (144/4).

Thus neither party was successful in his suit. The expert witnesses declared, for example, that in adding a most expensive annex, such as the kitchen, the client ought to have known that the cost would be considerably increased. But they went on to add directly that, with regard to the nature of the materials used and their choice by the owner, the architect had a moral duty to warn his client, and he should have made certain provisions in case he found Monsieur A. S.’s pretensions and choices went beyond what was expected (139/22).

The question of the architect receiving secret discounts from building suppliers also ended inconclusively. The architect complained that his honor had been discredited by public accusations. His friend Auguste Lalive, who was to become headmaster of the high school, testified that he had heard such accusations on the lips of Monsieur A. S. himself. “It was a matter,” he stated precisely, “of bills allegedly paid twice and they were talked about in the town” (93/6). For his part, Monsieur A. S. admitted that he had accused the architect of incorrect conduct, but not publicly (1/37). He harbored resentment against him on account of his having “requested the contractors to give him discounts for his own personal profit, without the knowledge of the client” (3/16). Charles-Edouard Jeanneret vehemently denied such conduct, but his lawyer nonetheless asked both witnesses and expert witnesses “whether it was the first time they had ever heard of commissions being received in the building industry, whether it was not common practice (105 and 131) and whether certain architects did not reassign the commission to their clients, whereas others used it to absorb the costs exceeding the bill of quantities” (139/28)!

Witnesses and architects contested whether such a practice was current or not, but certain of them did admit the survival of some bad customs (105, 131, 135). All the witnesses disputed having received commissions. One of them acknowledged that he had granted a reduction of 5 percent, thinking that it was in favor of the client (112). Another admitted that the architect had asked for a personal discount, but added that he had not paid it (104). Finally a third witness, a commercial traveler for the firm of Sulzer and a friend of Monsieur A. S., stated that he had heard the architect say to him that if the business were allocated to that same firm, he would lose a commission of 1,000 Sw.F. (131).

Monsieur A. S. was thus able to substantiate his suspicions but not to justify his accusations, and the architect appears to have withdrawn his claim that his honor was discredited.

Finally the legal proceedings ended on 25 June 1920 in a settlement (147), by which each party agreed to withdraw his suit. In other words, Monsieur A. S. paid the 3,483.75 Sw.F. that he acknowledged owing and dropped his claim for damages, while the architect gave up his claim for the fees calculated against the increase in the cost of the construction as well as his claim for compensation for alleged moral injury.

What are we to make of these legal wrangles? From beginning to end of the proceedings, the architect insisted on the care that he had devoted to the construction. Numerous witnesses testified that he had “himself made, studied, and definitively drawn all the plans, that he had attended to the smallest details of the interior and the exterior, even the specifications, the moldings, the color of the paintwork, the choice of floor tiles, paving stones, etc.” (90/5, 92/5, and so on). But the architect on the other hand made a significant admission in a letter that is no longer in the dossier, but from which the expert witnesses quoted: “It is unfortunate that the haste with which circumstances have forced the work to proceed has not left the architect a moment free to make a financial comparison and to submit it to Monsieur S. I sincerely regret this and acknowledge that it would have been proper to do so” (144/6).

It is obvious that the cause of the lawsuit lies in this omission. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret neglected the financial aspect of his commission. He probably did not have an administrative sense equal to his ambitions as architect. He paid dearly for it. On one hand, he lost that part of the fees corresponding to the exceeding of the initial estimate, at a time when, as he stated (but without proof), he had an office to maintain whose general expenses amounted to 2,000 Sw.F. per month (97/6). On the other hand, and this is more serious, he compromised his chances of making a career for himself in the town where he was born. After such legal proceedings, it was of course useless to expect new commissions from members of the S. family or their friends.

But we must not regret this too much. The architect’s place was not really in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Even if he had been able to build for Monsieur A. S. the villa whose cost did not exceed what the client was willing to pay, and if the execution of this work had established his name locally, it is difficult to see how far his genius could have flourished in a region that was to be seriously affected by two crises, then a second war. In 1944, the heirs of Monsieur A. S. were to sell for only 80,000 Sw.F. the villa their father had lived in until his death. Shortly afterward, the architect Boillot, the rival whom Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had not succeeded in supplanting, died an unhappy man. Other horizons were needed by the man who was to become Le Corbusier.

Although it lost the genius himself, La Chaux-de-Fonds nevertheless retained some of his works, among them the villa that had caused such a stir because of its cost. It has become an historic monument and is a very fine dwelling, as the expert witnesses previously acknowledged during the legal proceedings, when they paid homage to its layout and to its conception (139/24).The same experts did have certain reservations about the building, maintaining that the construction was not suited to the climate, with regard to the roof, the shape of the cornice molding, the large bay on the south and the rotundas to the east and to the west; but history was to prove them wrong, since flat roofs and large bays are now found as frequently in the Jura as on the Swiss Plateau. The architect’s boldness was technically justified.

In regard to aesthetics, the dwelling continues to strike the visitor through its subtle air of distinction, which had delighted Monsieur A. S. and members of his family when the architect presented the plans. The villa draws us into a new realm, where beauty resides no longer in the decoration of surfaces, but in the harmony of spaces (Fig. 27).

It is a building of the Cubist period. Jean-Paul Zimmermann has very astutely caught the spirit of the villa in the description that he gives of it in his novel, and it is worthwhile quoting this by way of conclusion. So as to avoid changing anything in the text, I shall leave the names of the characters as they stand, and this will perhaps inspire the reader to become acquainted with the novel.

Figure 27
Interior of the living room of the Villa Schwob, looking toward the large bay that opens onto the garden. (Photograph by M. Fernand Perret, La Chaux-de-Fonds.)

The Courvoisier family had just moved into one of the first truly original and unusual houses that Le Corbusier had built, and the musician was receiving his friends in the vast living room: encompassed by glass on three sides, the living room rose to the full height of the building. Yet the first floor bedrooms protruded into this space like false doorways, forming, to the right and to the left of the entrance, two suspended prisms. The vertical planes made a sort of T with the ceiling and were to surprise and amuse momentarily the naive visitor when he was ushered for the first time into this novel dwelling. The glass doors on each side, one of which was open, looked through into a dining room and a smoking room which were both semicircular recesses. A chandelier of frosted glass leaves spread a bright, white, even light, which Ravens was praising, because it illuminated clearly the two or three drawings and paintings on the far wall. The modern furniture, with its metal tubular frames, looked as though it had come from a dentist’s surgery. In the end Wild was probably uncertain whether such a house was really lived in, whether people slept and worked there, or whether it offered only a passing, puerile, and refined diversion for people who had a house and home elsewhere, whether in fact it was built only to amuse momentarily overgrown child explorers.4

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