The secret son
ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A SACRED TREE. LE CORBUSIER BUILT A HOUSE AROUND IT. THEN THE TREE DIED. END OF STORY. OR MAYBE NOT?
Blame it on the rain. An unusually wet spring in Corseaux, on the righthand side of Lake Geneva. But maybe it was just fate. No buds on ffty Paulownia branches. Lost in that unexpected mud, drowned. Even the seeds seemed extinct. Patrick Moser, conservator of Villa Le Lac, had them planted in Paris, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Roquebrune- Cap-Martin, Brussels, four cardinal points, diferent latitudes, diferent skies. But nothing grew. You can try everything, sometimes, but nothing works. That tree is unique, no other tree will do. Le Corbusier was already forty when he designed the Villa. He hadn’t been Le Corbusier for long, though. Not just because he was starting, late, to design and build, to really be an architect, but also until recently he had called himself Charles-Edouard Jeanneret- Gris. He chose his alias, “the crow”, in 1920, using it for the frst time to sign articles in the magazine Esprit Nouveau. A game, to be more than one person. A necessity, because that publication of paupers had to pretend to have a bigger staf. Villa Le Lac was also a wager of sorts. It contains almost all of Le Corbusier, three of the fve elements of his modern architecture, as expressed in Vers une architecture in 1923: the roofgarden, the free plan, the ribbon window. Only the pillars and the free facade are missing. In the tradition of his villas, at Le Lac Le Corbusier invents not just the walls, but also what is above them, outside
them, making an outdoor room, the “salle de verdure”. The house never fnishes, it extends to the shore of the lake, into the water, the grass, the hills. White walls on a black base, dark doors, but then he leaves one side gaping, to descend to the water. On one wall that intentionally blocks the view, he opens a window looking towards the lake; not a conceptual drift, but art and nature, gaze and landscape are perhaps the same thing. In the middle, in the grass, he decides to plant a tree that is column and roof, but also a tablemate. Le Corbusier thinks about cherry, pine, acacia, poplar, willow. Then he opts for Paulownia, tall, majestic, spreading in all directions, clad in lichen. The tree is there through the 1900s, after 1965 when Le Corbusier passes away. A monument that continues to grow, to live, visited by architects and students. They are not only looking for Le Corbusier. They bring their desires, questions. That giant Paulownia becomes a place of pilgrimage. But things come to an end. At the start of the new millennium a fungus attacks the trunk. A slow, painful, human death, in spite of futile rescue attempts. Gardeners botch the job, cutting the foliage instead of working on the trunk. It’s hopeless. The tree is felled in 2013. Branches and seeds are conserved, in the hope of cloning or reproduction. Patrick Moser, with ECAL, the University of Art and Design Lausanne, decides the trunk must live on. Someone suggests making pencils, so the branches can become words, signs, colors. But the companies contacted refuse to do a production run of less than one million. Not the right choice. Cassina understands, and calls in Jaime Hayon to make objects, as long as the wood lasts. Though the wood is stubborn, hard. Hayon invents three objects; The Bird, for letters, The Bird House, for objects, and
The Ledge, in the form of a swing. They are useful in the home, but fy outside. A house doesn’t end inside its walls, and looking at those objects is a bit like returning to Le Lac, on the shore. Life goes on; another Paulownia is planted. A diferent family, but in the end it is a symbol. In the spring of 2014 Moser goes out on the villa’s terrace, on an ordinary day. Suddenly he notices something, on the wall towards the lake. A green tuft, a twig, there’s wood, almost invisible, but too big to be just a weed. Moser runs downstairs. And he sees it. Just a branch, a small branch, but like any branch it is already a tree, a giant. He gets it analyzed, though he is already certain; it is the Paulownia of Le Corbusier, the tree has been reborn. A seed nobody planted, nobody noticed, dropped there who knows how, a few meters away, protected by the stone. Who knows how it managed to put down roots, to gain nourishment? Life is marvelous, full of gifts. The twig grows, now 50 cm high, planted at Bourse aux Arbres, a nearby nursery. When it is big enough it will return to the lake.
THE TREE IS THERE THROUGH THE 1900S, AFTER 1965 WHEN LE CORBUSIER PASSES AWAY. A MONUMENT THAT CONTINUES TO GROW. THAT GIANT PAULOWNIA BECOMES A PLACE OF PILGRIMAGE.