La Chaux-de-Fonds/Le Locle: town planning for clock-making

Le Locle
Le Locle
© Aline Henchoz

The World Heritage Committee has inscribed 'La Chaux-de-Fonds/Le Locle: town planning for clock-making' on the World Heritage List on 27th of June 2009.

La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle are an outstanding, singular testament to the development, throughout the entire industrial period, of town planning that combines clock-making businesses and residential facilities in planned intimacy. From what were two villages perched at an altitude of 1,000 m, in the space of a few decades they became two industrial cities – two world watch and clock-making centres – forged and fashioned by and for those professions. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, this activity, which requires very special knowledge and skills, has modelled a city layout and architecture that are perfectly suited to the evolving needs of clock-making and clock-makers. Both ravaged by fires, these villages developed as veritable 'urban factories', based on a flexible, well-thought out, controlled orthogonal system, addressing the social and hygiene issues of their time, while at the same time ensuring the rationality, efficiency, and economy necessary for horological production. Today’s visitors can still read the incessant activity and innovative spirit of these two industrious hives in the very heart of their urban fabric – a unique testament to the history of clock and watch-making around the world.

La Chaux-de-Fonds
La Chaux-de-Fonds
© Ville de La Chaux-de-Fonds, Benoit à la Guillaume

It is not by chance that La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle became propitious to the development of clock-making. Very similar political, economic, social, and environmental conditions, as well as geographical proximity, have made La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle into twin cities. Already by the 18th century, a significant level of cottage industry was complementing the primarily agricultural activity of the inhabitants of these Neuchâtel Jura Mountains. The absence of corporations, a progressive and entrepreneurial spirit, and a concern for social justice are just some of the many factors that favoured the emergence of a proto-industrial clock-making activity that with remarkable vigour quickly turned into an industry on a worldwide scale.

Table d'un graveur, Atelier AGS
Table d'un graveur, Atelier AGS
© Aline Henchoz

Thanks to this surviving cultural tradition, in the 19th century the two cities became the world capitals of clock and watch-making. Even today, the regional economy enjoys a very high added value based on this clock-making tradition and spin-off developments such as microengineering. In this way, the two cities can bear witness to the whole history of industrialization, turning peasants into craftsmen, then workmen, merchants, small industrial entrepreneurs, and factory owners.

Over and above the extraordinary economic and technological vitality made possible by the rapid development in the Neuchâtel Jura Mountains above, one must also highlight the social awareness that has accompanied it. This came about thanks to the very widespread idea of respect for the individual and the absence of any class tradition.

Hence the emergence, expansion, and success of horological industrialization in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle are not solely the result of an explicit and expressed will of a handful of people, but very much the outcome of a cultural tradition that did, and still does, strongly drive the population of that mountain region as a whole.

Le Locle
Le Locle
© Aline Henchoz

The harshness of the climate, the distance from major communication routes, the absence of raw materials or indispensable resources – nothing could shake the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. After the blazes that destroyed La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1794, Le Locle in 1833 and again in 1844, they even grasped the opportunity to turn disaster into one of the founding acts of their future cities.

Showing proof of a vernacular vision of the morphology of their cities, the people of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle incorporated a systemic approach into their rebuilding and development plans, thus responding in a perfectly appropriate manner to the issues of the clock-making industry with rationality, economy, adaptability, order, light, and social harmony. Favouring pragmatism, the systematics of the plans – the lines of which ran off into the surrounding grazing land – linked up with the interests of clock-making in a perfect synergy. Thanks to its pragmatic adaptability, right up to the 1930s this encouraged a strong interweaving of production units, homes, and public facilities, shaping the two cities into proper industrious hives.

So from the earliest beginnings to the present day, these two industrial cities have developed alongside and experienced first-hand the incredible transformation of the clock-making business – one of the pioneers of industrialization – and its production methods. The solutions adopted also made it possible for the types of industry – strongly marked by the evolution in production methods, from the converted bedroom in an apartment to the factory lit by natural daylight – to develop and transform, while preserving integration within the urban fabric that is both harmonious and efficient. Growing to meet new needs by building on the surrounding pastures and by taking advantage of the gentle, sunny slopes of their valley, along the decades the two cities scarcely felt the need to question the logic of their pre-defined urban grids. Today, the quality, integrity, and authenticity of this conserved town planning – in total symbiosis with the technical, economic, and social demands generated by intense clock-making activity – attest outstandingly to an essential facet of industrial history.

La Chaux-de-Fonds
La Chaux-de-Fonds
© Aline Henchoz

From the 18th century, throughout the 19th century, and into the early part of the 20th century, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle managed to take into account not only the needs associated with clock-making – fast, easy movement between the various production units, factories bathed with natural daylight, optimum air circulation – but also the social concerns of the period in terms of hygiene and comfort in the residential environment. The two cities managed to incorporate these challenges when they came up with their architectural and town-planning solutions, thereby giving the workers’ comfort and quality of life an important place. The buildings, very often with small, private, south-facing gardens, are sober, rational, economical, and of recurring types easily adaptable to new production methods or means of comfort.

The city layouts are based on a network of roads at right-angles, adapted to the realities of the terrain, lined with blocks – like beads on an abacus – constructed as the need arose. In this way, the absence of initial constraints on the cities (like surrounding walls) has allowed residential buildings, factories, workshops, and grander houses to be developed harmoniously, with a logic that confers an amazing homogeneity on the whole.

As the streets advance, new building styles are adopted, naturally incorporating the new requirements, thus testifying to the development of the clock-making industry and to the evolution in building methods and means of comfort, without ever challenging the pre-defined grids. In this way, the two cities of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle form two unique urban-industrial locations, clear testaments to both the desire to integrate horological production into urban development within a reasonable, mastered vision, and a symbiotic planning and industrial development devoted to clock-making. Furthermore, the urban development runs parallel with the emergence and development of the industrial era over the whole of its duration. In this sense, La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle are unique examples of universal value.

La Chaux-de-Fonds
La Chaux-de-Fonds
© Aline Henchoz

But this symbiosis goes further than a mere industrial installation. The planning and architecture of these two cities have been thought out and realized with the intention of encouraging the industrial development of clock-making. This setting, therefore, has also been favourable to technological and social competition.

La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle were not merely cities intended for production. Technical and social innovation were always central to their concerns, and this synergy has never let up for over two centuries. Still today, these two cities in the Neuchâtel Jura Mountains play a predominant role throughout the world in terms of luxury watch-making, while also extending their activities, with a constant eye for innovation, to associated fields such as microengineering and micromechanics. La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle have thus grown up between tradition and economic vitality, between industrial culture and risk-taking, all within a framework of a social consensus that makes a tradition of peaceful working – a strong movement that has lasted right up to the present day.

In conclusion, by forming a couple that in a unique way illustrates, on the one hand, rigorousness, reason, rationalism, and equally hygiene and social equilibrium – the very concerns of the nascent industrial period – and on the other, the perfect symbiosis between town-planning and the horological industry, the cities of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle constitute an outstanding example of planning. The preservation of the integrity and authenticity of their old urban fabric, together with the continuity in the tradition and innovation of their industry are remarkable. In this, the horological town planning of these twin cities constitutes an outstanding heritage of universal value.

Last modification 01.12.2013

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