Art: Corbu

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"Be a Genius." The recipient of these accolades was born to the name of Charles Edouard Jeanneret in the dour Jura mountain village of La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, a few miles from the French border. His parents were Protestants, descendants of the heretical Albigenses who took refuge in the town in the 13th and 14th centuries. His father, a stolid leader of the local Alpine Club, was an enameler of watch faces. His mother, who died last year at 100, trained her oldest son, Albert, to be a musician, and told Charles Edouard: "You will be a genius."

He was a studious, awkward boy whose glasses were forever fogging up, so that on skis he was a menace to everyone around him. But his talent for sketching was obvious, and at 14 he was admitted to the local Ecole d'Art. There he fell under the spell of a "delightful teacher" named Charles L'Eplattenier, who was the idol of his pupils. L'Eplattenier would take them into the woods to draw, and say: "This is classic beauty. Learn every possible form of classic art—and forget it as quickly as possible in order to create something new."

Washbasin Roof. By the age of 30, when Jeanneret was ready to leave La Chaux-de-Fonds for good ("The Swiss are cleanly and industrious and to hell with them"), he had put up a couple of chalets, an exotic dwelling of screaming yellows called the Turkish Villa, and a movie house with a bare concrete facade trimmed with blue mosaics. When the municipal authorities complained that his Turkish Villa did not go with its site, young Jeanneret retorted: "It is the setting that does not go with my house." In his chalets he scornfully abandoned the traditional Swiss peaked roof ("All you achieve is that the snow comes crashing down in huge packs on unsuspecting pedestrians"), boldly invented a practical, washbasin roof of concrete warmed by the central heating of the building just enough to melt snow and let it run off.

Earlier, with knapsack on his back and a sketching pad in his pocket, he had traveled to Prague, through Serbia and Rumania, to Istanbul and Athens. He spent six weeks examining the Acropolis, and in his autobiography, in which he grandly refers to himself in the third person, he told what those six weeks meant. "The columns are still lying on the ground. Touching them with his fingers, caressing them, he grasps the proportions of the design. Amazement! Reality has nothing to do with books of instructions. Here everything was a shout of inspiration, a dance in the sunlight. Such was L-C's school of architecture."

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