Jan Kenneth Birksted


On his book Le Corbusier and the Occult

Cover Interview of February 18, 2010

The wide angle

I have had some enraged responses from knee-jerk modernists. Their reaction relates to the actual ideas that this book is about, which is that in order to understand Jeanneret we have to step outside the Anglo-Saxon frame of mind and get under the skin of francophone Swiss and French culture.  So, Le Corbusier and the Occult is also about the importance of understanding other people, other ways of being, other cultures.

When Jeanneret was in shorts and until he definitively moved to Paris at the age of 30 in 1917, La Chaux-de-Fonds was the world’s leading watch-making town, selling watches to America, Russia, Latin America, etc. La Chaux-de-Fonds, for example, had the contract for supplying watches to the Russian army.  There were enormously wealthy watch-factory owners in La Chaux-de-Fonds. They were often Jewish. Not only were they rich, they were also intellectual, interested in art, architecture, literature and music.  They bought paintings from Jeanneret’s best friend, Charles Humbert.  They commissioned interior designs, furniture and architecture from the young Jeanneret.

The commercial, political and administrative ruling classes of La Chaux-de-Fonds also included Catholics and Protestants and Muslims. La Chaux-de-Fonds was an ethnic and cultural melting-pot. (As well as a socially explosive place with strikes, riots and military interventions; Lenin and Bakounin were there.)  At the same time, La Chaux-de-Fonds had hundreds of civic clubs and societies and circles, from skiing via knitting and Esperanto to politics. There was, however, one exclusive club which crossed religious and ethnic boundaries within the ruling and bourgeois classes: the Freemasonic lodge, La Loge L’Amitié. Across political, religious and ethnic divisions, businessmen and politicians and administrators could talk to each other inside the Masonic lodge.  The municipal City architects, whom Jeanneret tried to cozy up to, belonged to it, as did the municipal City engineers.  Everyone in La Chaux-de-Fonds knew about the lodge since it played a very important role as a source of charity (the first daycare centre for the children of poor working mothers; soup kitchens; funding for hospitals) and of funding for the arts (the art museum and the elegant Italianate theatre, both of which still exist today).

Jeanneret was friends with key lodge members such as Léon Gallet, whom he praises in his autobiography (Le Corbusier lui-même, ghostwritten by Jean Petit). The watch-enameling atelier of Jeanneret’s father was in the building next to the Masonic lodge.  His aunt, Tante Pauline, lived next to the lodge too. Jeanneret wrote to Charles L’Eplattenier about becoming a member. His father, who was President of the Club Alpin Suisse (loosely comparable to the National Rifle Association), was invited there to speak at banquets. Jeanneret’s uncle, Sully Guinand, who played a key role in the finances of the Jeanneret family, was a lodge member.

Now, there is something that Anglo-Saxons find really difficult, or impossible, to understand. French and Swiss lodges were not stuffy establishment institutions. They were often radical, socialist and atheist. A friend of Jeanneret, Edouard Quartier-la-Tente, who was an internationally respected Freemason, was known for his extreme, outspoken and revolutionary ideals about equality and education. Another local Freemason, Elie Ducommun, was in receipt of a Nobel Peace Prize (1902). Lodge members were often intellectuals and politically engaged.

So, which ideas and symbols did these Masonic lodges operate with?  They used the traditional Masonic symbols of the right-angle and the compass.  (Think of Jeanneret’s poem, The Poem of the Right Angle.  Can you see right-angles and compasses in it?)  They worked with the smooth versus the rough, which were symbols of how humans should work on their own personalities to become more tolerant and better people—in Masonic language, “to polish your stone.”  (Remember the importance of smooth and rough textural surfaces in Jeanneret’s architecture, from the smooth International Style to béton brut?)  Le Corbusier and the Occult documents many other such symbolic features too.

But—and this is fundamental—a central francophone Freemasonic tenet is that of eclecticism. Their symbolic rituals and images are deliberately and intentionally eclectic, which is part of a belief in the importance of encompassing other traditions, cultures and ways of being.  And eclecticism, of course, is part of the very structure of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret’s art and architecture.  Thus eclecticism is not what makes Jeanneret’s work inexplicable—it is precisely its basic structural feature. The eclecticism of Jeanneret’s art and architecture is isomorphic to a symbolic system that is also eclectic.

But how did I come across these ideas?  Why am I the first researcher to be granted access to the archives of the Masonic lodge in La Chaux-de-Fonds?  Or to discover the hitherto un-researched archives of his friend, Janko Cádra, in the Slovak National Library?

Factors related to my own multinational and multicultural upbringing and multidisciplinary education are probably relevant.  And I believe very strongly that art history, architectural history and cultural studies should all be linked together—as they are in the work of Jacob Burckhardt.  Perhaps Marc Bloch’s classic book, The Royal Touch, is my model for Le Corbusier and the Occult. As Marc Bloch wrote: “We have so far been following the age-long vicissitudes of the royal miracle as far as the documentary evidence permits.  In the course of our research, we have done our utmost to throw light upon the collective ideas and the individual ambitions which blended in a kind of psychological complex and led the kings of France and England to claim this wonderworking power, and their subjects to recognize it.”