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letter from la chaux-de-fonds

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The Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds takes pride in its most famous son, who is, of course, Le Corbusier. Visitors are encouraged to explore the town and its surroundings on a series of themed walks, one of which includes all his early buildings there - five houses and the Scala cinema. Happily, much the most significant of them is open, by appointment, to the public: the Villa Schwob of 1916-17, now known by what was once its local nickname, the Villa Turque.

This was the last commission for Le Corbusier at La Chaux-de-Fonds before Paris and Purism beckoned. The client, Anatole Schwob, executive of one of the town's watchmaking companies, sought a family home that would suit his local status. The design went through three distinct phases, in the last of which the building's volume increased by more than 45 per cent at Schwob's insistence. All ended in acrimony and an exchange of lawsuits, with Le Corbusier filing against his client for failure to meet his fees and Schwob seeking damages for inadequate estimates and technical oversights.

If the commission turned sour in this and other respects - the house certainly wasn't furnished in a fashion acceptable to Le Corbusier - he nonetheless thought it worthy of inclusion in Vers une architecture, 1923 (though it would never feature in the oeuvre complete). As a key transitional work in Le Corbusier's career, it has attracted much critical comment - notably, Colin Rowe's four-decade fascination with the big blank panel on its street facade.

Moreover, when the Hayward Gallery staged its centenary Le Corbusier retrospective in 1987, the Villa Turque was one of six houses given special prominence.

It is a particularly good moment to visit the building, now owned by Swiss watch manufacturer Ebel. The interior looks pristine after repainting and minor repairs, which have consolidated the restoration undertaken in 1986-87 when the house - until then still in domestic use - fell vacant and Ebel acquired it. The company is now planning to increase public access to the villa and is broadening the scope of the exhibitions it holds, which change each quarter. Meanwhile, recently published research by American academic H Allen Brookes (Le Corbusier's Formative Years, 1997) challenges Colin Rowe's interpretation and asks us to look again at the Villa Turque.

Restored integrity

The restoration of 1986-87 received considerable coverage in the Swiss and French press but seems to have been ignored in the uk. The local firm of Roland and Pierre Studer was responsible for structural and external work, while Paris-based Andree Putman and Thierry Conquet took charge of the interior. While keen to preserve (and recover) the work of Le Corbusier 'dans son integrite', Ebel wanted the villa to be 'a living centre' and 'graceful, animated meeting-place' for its public relations activities - 'not a museum'.

The Villa Turque was Le Corbusier's first complete reinforced-concrete structure. During recent years a number of restoration projects in Britain (and subsequent English Heritage conferences) have highlighted the problems that can arise over time with such construction: carbonated concrete, corroded reinforcement, etc. These failings have been conspicuous in Modern Movement buildings of the 1930s which, for instance, John Allan, John Winter and John McAslan have addressed. By comparison, the Villa Turque (built almost two decades before these British examples) had weathered well. There was some rusted reinforcement - and anti-carbonation treatment was duly undertaken - but the structure was essentially sound. The flat roof, an oddity amid the steep-pitched roofs and tiled mansards of La Chaux-de-Fonds, was resurfaced; the villa's yellow-buff brick walls were cleaned; skylights were rebuilt; and the distinctive glass-blocks in the kitchen wing (the Falconniers), lost soon after the Second World War, were remade.

A key purpose of interior restoration was to reveal original volumes and details which had been compromised over the years - in part through an earlier (late 1950s) restoration by Angelo Mangiarotti. In the main bedroom on the first floor, for example, one now sees again the ceiling's forceful concrete beams; the curious pedimental void over the first-floor gallery doorway has been unblocked, and the nearby bookcase, its internal subdivisions echoing the villa's plan, recreated from remnants. One significant internal feature, the living-room chandelier also in the form of the plan, was missing and - apparently after much discussion - not reinstated. But Putman's simple circular substitute, suspended above a round rug on the new blond oakwood floor, is harmonious enough. Evidence about Le Corbusier's preferred colour scheme for the villa was inconclusive; a near-white finish lets the architecture speak for itself.

In creating facilities which Ebel required for its daily activities, Putman and Conquet have naturally ensured that any intervention they make is reversible. The basement is equipped for conferences and audio-visual presentations; the guest bedrooms on first and second floors are comfortably appointed but not ostentatious (stained-oak furniture, mosaic-tiled bathrooms and showers, a muted palette).

Le Corbusier's intentions

The town of La Chaux-de-Fonds is set some 1000m up in the Jura and its weather can be severe. On my arrival, however, the late-afternoon sun is shining; it falls obliquely on the entrance facade of the Villa Turque and illuminates the rendered blank panel at its centre, recessed slightly inside a brick frame.

'The blank surface is both a disturbance and a delight,' wrote Colin Rowe in 'Mannerism and Modern Architecture', his essay for The Architectural Review in 1950. 'Since this motif was presumably intended to shock, its success is complete, for it imbues the facade with all the qualities of a manifesto.' Rowe sets off on Renaissance by-ways to find possible precursors, alighting on the Casa di Palladio, Vicenza, and Federicho Zuccheri's casino at Florence, as well as glancing at contemporary parallels - Perret's garage in the Rue Ponthieu, Paris, for instance.

This facade is an arresting sight - even though such blankness has, via Minimalism, become a late-Modernist cliche, exhausted in the bland formulae of John Pawson and the like. But was the 'shock' really intentional? H Allen Brooks, a persistent enquirer into Le Corbusier's early years, thinks not. In his 1997 book he recounts conversations with three people present in 1916: Marcel Montandon, chief draughtsman for the Schwob commission; sculptor Leon Perrin, two of whose bas-reliefs are on the garden elevation of the house; and a close friend of Le Corbusier, the artist Lucien Schwob. All were unanimous that a mosaic or a painting was envisaged but never executed. Brooks argues also that an 'unfinished' quality to the surface of the panel, evident in early photographs, suggests it was awaiting decoration.

Not that this necessarily invalidates Rowe's argument, which he went on to develop in the Hayward retrospective catalogue, citing Villa Turque as the first of Le Corbusier's 'highly provocative' facades. The crux for Rowe is a distinction between 'the frontal picture plane' and 'the convoluted and serpentine territory which lies behind' - a condition more elegantly expressed in, say, the Villa Stein de Monzie and persisting as late as La Tourette. The separation between picture plane and the spatial complexity it conceals is made by a 'vertical slot or degagement'. At Villa Turque, whether the panel is blank or decorated, that degagement is clearly signalled, most obviously by the heavy sculptural cornice that wraps around three sides of the house but ends abruptly some distance from the front facade.

Internally, the slot is experienced in the relatively narrow vestibule reached through identical doors on either side of the facade. Whichever you arrive by, you are steered sideways towards the entrance to the living room, with the staircase relegated to the area between this vestibule and the front wall. Only inside the living room does the Villa Turque begin to reveal itself - and dramatically, as the double-height space seems especially light and voluminous after the constricted approach.

Though the axis towards the great window on to the garden is strong, it is counterbalanced by the lateral 'pull' of the apsidal games and dining rooms which open out on either side. Glazed screen doors can be folded back to unite them with the central space. Though the house's 'Turque' sobriquet was probably the result of its general exoticism, it is here that more specific features, attributable to Le Corbusier's eastern travels, can be discerned: the Greek Cross-plan of Byzantine origin, for instance, and the mashrabiyya-like oval openings from which occupants of the first- floor bedroom suites could overlook the living-room unseen.

A living centre

Someone well-placed to judge whether Ebel has succeeded in its intent to make the Villa Turque 'a living centre, not a museum' is Thierry Conquet. He now runs his own practice, ca & co, in Paris, with clients as far afield as New York and Los Angeles, but has returned to the house often since his role in its restoration. While he and I sift through archive photographs in the former games room, a table is being laid in the dining room opposite for Ebel's lunch guests; elsewhere, 20 or so students roam at liberty around the house. 'This is absolutely typical,' says Conquet. 'Every day someone is working here, staying here, visiting here. It's a pleasure to see.'

The way in which the quarterly exhibitions are mounted encourages exploration: instead of being concentrated in one principal space, the works are dispersed around the house and reinforce its domestic, rather than institutional, character. Swiss artists have mostly featured so far but curator Janine Perret-Sgualdo is now looking further afield, and also considering collaborative architect-artist publications on the villa. Occasional Saturday opening of the property is soon likely in addition to access by appointment.

No one would argue that the Villa Turque has the invention and conviction of Le Corbusier's Parisian houses of the 1920s or the resonance of the Maisons Jaoul (1952-56), nor that it synthesises all the influences - Palladio, Perret, Behrens, etc - it reveals. But for its overall conception (especially the double-height living room), its detail (such as the stonework of the chamfered door-frames and stark stripped-Classical capitals), its evidence of Le Corbusier's first attempt to apply a regulating system of proportions - not to mention that contentious blank panel - it is engrossing to visit.

Just a ten-minute walk up the slopes behind the Villa Turque are, in quite close proximity, Le Corbusier's four other houses at La Chaux-de- Fonds. First comes the Villa Fallet (1906-7) with its decoration of abstracted forest motifs; next, two further variants of vernacular precedent, the Villas Stotzer and Jaquemet (1908). Across the road from the latter is one of the town's more interesting modern works - a neatly-executed housing scheme in board-marked concrete by Georges-Jacques Haefli (1966). And then, around a corner and almost concealed by trees, is the sober Classicism of the Villa Jeanneret-Perret (1912), which Le Corbusier built for his parents. The house stands empty at present, its future undetermined.

On a late summer morning this Jura hillside is drenched with overnight rain and, beyond La Chaux-de-Fonds in its valley, the horizon is hazy. For Le Corbusier that horizon was an insistent lure. It called him to Paris, Marseilles, Ronchamp and Chandigarh - and to a tomb by the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap Martin.

Andrew Mead

The Villa Turque, 167, rue du Doubs, ch-2301 La Chaux-de-Fonds can be visited by appointment (tel: 0041 32 9123147).

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