First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.
Villa Fallet in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Date completed: 1906
Getting the gig:
The French architect who gave us the idea of the house as a machine for living owes his beginnings to a much humbler device: the wristwatch. Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who would later rename himself Le Corbusier, was attracted to visual arts and studied at the School of Art at La Chaux-de-Fonds, at the time a center of the watchmaking universe well known for integrating ornamental and natural motifs such as pine trees into its timepieces. At first, Charles-Edouard would appear to be following the career path of his father, who enameled and engraved watch faces. While at school, one of the professors, Louis-Edouard Fallet, decided to construct an elegant home in the woods, based on that of another instructor, Charles L'Eplattenier. A high-minded Arts and Crafts-oriented thinker, L'Eplattenier advanced ideas of nature and handicraft above industrial monotony; he would takes pupils such as Jeanneret on nature hikes up the Swiss Alps, showcasing the panorama below and making declarations such as "we will build a monument dedicated to nature." He recommended his colleague ask his student Jeanneret, whom he felt had more to his future than engraving watch cases, to design the home, along with an assist from René Chapallaz, a young local architect who had recently moved to town and married the daughter of the owner of the Tavannes Watch Company. The Villa Fallet could technically be chalked up as a Chapallaz commission; the entire project was designed in his office, and the inexperienced Jeanneret wasn't even paid for his work. But the first-timer was given free rein, and is generally credited with the ideas and organization behind the home.
Description and Reception:
Built on a slope, the residence was meant to be a mirror to the surrounding Alpine scenery and Pouillerel forest, a reflection of the 'Folklore of the Fir Tree,' according to architectural historian and author William Curtis, an ideology and regional focus espoused by L'Eplattenier. Polychrome patterning on the facade referenced the grooves of a fir cone, the lines of the balcony were meant to refract the look of fir branches heavy with snow, and even the post-and-beam supports suggests trunks sunk in the sloping ground. Corbusier recruited classmates to help design ornaments and decorations for the home's interior, and a watercolor he completed during the planning phase of the project shows how he arranged the different motifs and ideas.
Impact on His Career:
The well-received home was a hit for the aspiring architect and designer, and even more important to his then-burgeoning career, made him the talk of the Fallet family. According to Curtis, author of Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, Jeanneret's next two commissions, both located a short walk from the Villa Fallet, were homes for Ulysses Jules Jaquemet (Fallet's brother-in-law) and Albert Stotzer (also married to a Fallet). These examples of regionalism may seem like outliers compared to Le Corbusier's more heady, modernist masterpieces; the architect himself wrote letters to L'Eplattenier just a few years later decrying the Art and Crafts movement and his "wasted youth," and would go on to try and downplay his more provincial beginnings. But according to Curtis, if you look past the pine cones, there's a lot that Corbu learned on his first job that would stick with him the rest of his career. "He never lost sight of his early interests in the geometrical abstraction of nature and in the spiritual mission of architecture," he says. "With the future Le Corbusier, it is best to look beyond the surface to the generating ideas of his projects and to the guiding principles. Certainly the Villa Fallet was a crucial starting point. The importance of the building lies in the approach more than the external appearance." The fundamental logic of the L'Eplattenier approach, the "method for transforming the underlying structures of nature into symbolic forms, would live on in the mind of the mature Le Corbusier until the end."
Along with many of Le Corbusier's early Swiss villas, the home is privately owned, though many tours in the area exploring his early architectural works make a stop at the Alpine residence.
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