They pile the snow high on the roadsides and pavements in La Chaux-de-Fonds. In the half-light of a winter’s morning, men can be seen raking the previous night’s fall on to already tottering mounds. This small Swiss city, the highest in Europe, 1,000 metres up in the Jura mountains, is susceptible to heavy snowfall. That is why the town planners who laid out its streets in the 19th century made the roads and pavements so broad: to ease the snow clearers’ job.
Its elongated urban grid makes La Chaux-de-Fonds unique among Swiss cities. It has none of the higgledy-piggledy charm of Bern. It lacks the grandeur and beauty of Geneva, Zürich and Basel. But if you walk across the main boulevard to the north, you’ll find streets of tall bourgeois villas and fir-tree- covered hills. Every quarter of an hour the chimes of clocks fill the air.
You will see the synagogue, the art college and the little Scala cinema, without thinking that they represent anything particularly important. Yet, all these places are part of the remarkable story of a Swiss city, with a population of just 40,000 people, that became both the watchmaking centre of the world and the cradle of modern architecture.
On 6 October 1887, the city’s most famous son was born. A plaque on a tall, flat house at 38 rue de la Serre, one street back from the main boulevard, marks the birthplace of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, the architect who later became famous around the world as Le Corbusier. His face now adorns the Swiss 10-franc note. At this time, La Chaux-de-Fonds, where Le Corbusier lived for the first 30 years of his life, was in its golden age. His father, Georges, was an enameller of watch faces and the city’s wealth was a result of the watchmaking trade. Watches and clocks had been the main business here since 1656 when the town was promoted to a mairie in the small principality of Neuchâtel. Eventually, the technology of watchmaking – horlogerie – would become so advanced that La Chaux-de-Fonds would become the industrial heart of Neuchâtel.
After a fire devastated La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1794, the city took more than 60 years to rebuild itself. A significant contribution to the city’s rebirth was made by the engineer Charles Knab who, in the late 1850s, started to design the grid system of long straight roads where the wealthy watchmakers constructed their villas (Le Corbusier’s later ideas for his Radiant City no doubt owe something to this plan).
The railway arrived next, bringing more workers and trade in 1857. The increased wealth brought further advantages: telephones in 1884, running water in 1887, electricity in 1897. The first cars appeared on the streets in 1900. Even the American automobile industry has origins here in La Chaux-de-Fonds: Louis-Joseph Chevrolet was born in the city on Christmas Day 1878. Later, as an immigrant in the US, he started the company that still bears his name.
An ornate synagogue was built in 1896 on the street where Le Corbusier lived. The immigrant Jewish population, around 850 at that time, was growing as a result of persecution in other parts of Europe and was to play a key part in the watchmaking industry that would eventually make the city so affluent.
One of La Chaux-de-Fonds’ main boulevards – the one that bisects the city – was named Avenue Léopold-Robert in 1892 after Switzerland’s most famous Romantic painter.
Louis-Léopold Robert was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds a century earlier, in 1794, just a few days before the famous fire which devastated the town. There could hardly have been a less auspicious beginning for the baby – who grew up to be one of Europe’s most celebrated and troubled Romantic artists. Having trained under Jacques-Louis David in Paris and after travelling in Italy, he painted rich studies of brigands and beauties which now hang in the La Chaux-de-Fonds Musée des Beaux-Arts.
In a manner befitting a Romantic artist, Robert succumbed to melancholy. After the breakdown of a love affair with Napoleon’s niece, Princess Charlotte Bonaparte, he slit his throat and died in front of his easel in Venice. His smock, pipe and a handful of earth from his tomb are now displayed in his home town’s Musée d’Histoire.
Thirteen years after his death, in 1848, revolutionary fever began to spread across Europe and landed in La Chaux-de-Fonds during the midst of the city’s rebuilding and the start of its industrial revolution. One uprising, in particular, would cement La Chaux-de-Fonds’ reputation for radicalism and rival its reputation for watchmaking.
Although the principality of Neuchâtel had been a Swiss canton since 1814, the Prussian King Frederick William iii still, confusingly, remained its head of state. On 1 March 1848, in the Place de L’Hôtel de Ville, a crowd of revolutionaries led by Fritz Courvoisier declared a republic. From here the angry mob marched to occupy the castle of Neuchâtel itself. A monument to Courvoisier and his successful coup now stands in the city’s main square.
Following this uprising, La Chaux-de-Fonds’ radical reputation attracted the attention of several founding figures in the socialist movement. Karl Marx was so impressed by the collective organisation of the watchmakers that he quoted the city as an example in his book Das Kapital, published in 1867. In 1870 the city attracted further attention when, at the Congress of the Suisse Romande, 600 delegates managed to carry the vote in favour of the alternative communist manifesto of Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist who had been expelled by Marx. No wonder Lenin himself was drawn to the city to lecture the workers in 1911. He made another visit in 1917, during which he received the news from Moscow of the Tsar’s overthrow.
In the midst of all this, in 1900, the 13-year-old Le Corbusier enrolled at the city’s art college to train as a watch engraver. Four years later his teacher, the brilliant artist and designer Charles l’Eplattenier, the man who introduced Art Nouveau to La Chaux-de-Fonds, saw in him enough potential to encourage him to train as an architect on l’Eplattenier’s higher course in decorative arts. During his first year on this course Le Corbusier made his debut when he collaborated on the designs for the Villa Fallet, a house for the watch-engraver Louis Fallet which still stands on a hill above the city.
The rustic charm of the Villa Fallet, on Chemin de Pouillerel, remains a surprise to anyone who associates Le Corbusier only with the white concrete structures for which he became famous. Its steeply inclined roof and deep eaves seem the opposite of everything he stood for. But its design displays a search for an authentic Swissness, and it is this quest for honesty which is central to all Le Corbusier’s buildings.
Beyond the Villa Fallet, the road up the hill becomes steeper and the bird’s-eye view over the city reveals the criss-crossing lines of the grid and the point where the 19th-century streets give way to the 20th-century towers and apartment blocks – many built on a Corbusian model – which fan out in the distance. Here, at the northernmost point of the city, stands one of Le Corbusier’s most important early works, Villa Jeanneret, the house he built for his parents in 1912.
Le Corbusier designed the house after spending several years working in Paris and Berlin, and following a voyage to the Near East in 1911. By this time he had come to believe that the French-speaking Swiss were descended from Mediterranean peoples and should therefore have an architecture which reflected this culture, rather than the Germanic traditions expressed in Villa Fallet. Hence Villa Jeanneret, with its stripped-back classicism, can be seen as the first of Le Corbusier’s white villas. Luckily for the architect, his parents were open to his radical ideas. “A son who is an artist is not small beer,” wrote Le Corbusier to his old teacher, l’Eplattenier, hinting at the many fraught family discussions which must have taken place over the details.
Inside the house, recently restored as a museum and now seeking World Heritage status, the atmosphere is heavy with the presence of the man who built it. The breezy, open-plan ground floor is supported by just four columns. From the windows of his yellow-painted bedroom (there is a photograph of him sitting in the bay) and the office where he worked, there are views over the city to the trees and mountains which were such an inspiration in his work.
Even more significant in his oeuvre, however, is the final work Le Corbusier completed in his home town (after the Scala cinema, completed in 1916, which still stands on rue de la Serre). The Villa Schwob, which Le Corbusier proudly declared to be the first concrete villa in Europe, stands on the corner of rue du Doubs and rue de la Fusion, on the edge of the city grid. The architect designed the house in 1916 for the watchmaker Anatole Schwob who gave him carte blanche to build his radical vision. Watchmaking, money and modern architecture came together in a neat symmetry in this innovative, peculiarly Swiss home.
To the untrained eye Villa Schwob, with its honey-coloured bricks, Palladian symmetry and large apses, might seem too decorative to be by Le Corbusier; indeed it became known as the Villa Turque (or Turkish House) because of its exotic appearance. But beneath the surface are all the tenets that the architect later employed in his groundbreaking French villas. Sixteen columns support the concrete slab floors, freeing up the exterior walls for large glazed openings and the interior for unprecedented double-height, open-plan living-rooms. Warm air circulated through the house, and a roof garden provided Schwob with a view over what had by then become the watchmaking centre of the world. Graceful, modern living had arrived in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Unfortunately it came at a price. The final cost of the innovative structure was so great that Le Corbusier quarrelled with his client and, partly as a result, the architect left his home town for good in 1917.
In a neat twist, watchmaking and iconic architecture were once again united in this groundbreaking house. In 1986 Ebel, a watch company which was founded in the city in 1911 by the Jewish immigrant couple Eugène Blum and Alice Levy, came into possession of Villa Schwob. With their interest in design, it seems likely that the Blums would have noticed the villa as they walked the streets in 1916, and perhaps admired its new ideas and contemporary lines. Their own watches, still manufactured in the city today, also combined beauty with advanced technology (they were the official choice of the British Army in the Second World War). Like La Chaux-de-Fonds, however, Ebel has seen some difficult times. In the 1970s quartz watches manufactured in Japan and the US threatened to wipe out the Swiss industry altogether. It was a bad time for the mountain city, which saw 2,000 jobs lost and an exodus of 1,000 inhabitants.
The popularity of Swatches and the revival of the market in luxury goods have now reversed this trend. The price of a basic Ebel chronograph is CHF5,800 (around €3,600) and, according to its marketing director Marc-Michel Amadry, the company is the busiest it has ever been. What is more, the Swiss watch industry as a whole is booming, with sales for the last year totalling CHF13.5bn (just over €8bn). That’s good news for La Chaux-de-Fonds, where home-grown companies such as Breitling and Girard-Perregaux still have their headquarters, and to where, most significantly, tag Heuer chose to move its entire Swiss operation last December.
And so it is that at the start of the 21st century La Chaux-de-Fonds is slowly rising again. There are plans for new industrial spaces and a sports centre that should open this summer. They are also looking at a plan to team up with neighbouring Le Locle on economic projects. The city is hoping to be listed by UNESCO and says it won’t allow any development that damages the environment.
La Chaux-de-Fonds may no longer be a byword for radical politics or architecture, but on the snow-piled streets there is an air of confidence and prosperity. In the shop windows, alongside the glistening watches, the finest ski equipment and the best mountain bikes are displayed. Inside the warm, cosy brasserie of the Hotel de Ville, fresh perch from the lakes and bubbling cheese fondues are served.
In the little café across the square, a row of scruffy young people, many of them students from the city’s art school, line the bar. La Chaux-de-Fonds has a tradition of producing creative geniuses; perhaps the next one is sitting there at this very moment.