Swiss entrepreneur and feminist Heidi Weber achieved recognition in the sixties for having personally financed the construction of the Heidi Weber Museum − Centre Le Corbusier. This would turn out to be the last building ever designed by the legendary Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, who died two years before the museum opened its doors in 1967.
Today, however, the spry and feisty 91-year-old Weber is locked in a bitter legal battle to have the City of Zurich restore her name to the iconic structure.
In May, 2014, after the expiration of her 50-year lease on the land on which the museum sits, the city unceremoniously booted Weber out of her own building by means of a controversial forced buyout that paid her the artificially low sum of 1.06 million Swiss francs ($1.4-million).
This valuation was not only far below that of current Zurich real estate property values for similar properties, but also a fraction of its $23.5-million current value as estimated by an independent Swiss architectural firm. It further fails to take into account the added value of the building as a historical landmark designed by Le Corbusier, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest architects of the modern era.
Though Weber could have challenged the forced buyout in court by contesting the legality of a Swiss law regarding heritage sites, she would have had to put up a $7-million bond in order to proceed with the lawsuit, a sum she could not afford.
After the sale of her museum, Weber then signed an agreement with the city stipulating that her name would remain part of the official designation of the museum. However, the city then reneged on the deal and decided last year that the building would henceforth be renamed simply as the Pavillon Le Corbusier.
In one fell swoop, Weber has seen her life legacy erased by administrative edict. She is now suing the City of Zurich in Swiss Federal Court in order to have her name restored to the museum she owned and operated for more than 50 years. A decision in the case, which has alarmed the international architectural community, is expected within the month.
“I am not giving up,” Weber insists, speaking from her lakeside home in Zurich where she has lived for the past 60 years. “I will fight the city with every ounce of strength I have left. Le Corbusier entrusted me to help carry on his legacy. I considered it a sacred trust, which I have never abandoned to this very day. … I never expected to be given the key to the city for my work, but I never expected that the City of Zurich would betray me, either.”
For its part, the city has maintained strict silence over its controversial decision while Weber’s lawsuit is pending. Many suspect that the seemingly callous treatment of Weber is the result of long-standing resentment over her liberal political views and reputation as an ardent feminist. She was active in her country’s suffragette movement that put pressure on Switzerland to give women the right to vote in 1971 − the last Western country to do so. This may also have been the underlying reason behind the fact that Weber never received any funding − either local or federal − for her operation of the museum, which has been a national landmark since it opened its doors in 1967.
Having lived through the grudging process by which women in Swiss society have been admitted in a very limited way into corporate boardrooms and state offices, Weber regards her current battle against the city as a personal crusade on “behalf of women everywhere who are still fighting for the right to assume their legitimate place in society.”
“And do not think that I am unaware of the fact that because I am a woman, and because of the fact that I have fought for women’s rights for 60 years in Switzerland, that there are many people in the government who have long wanted to punish me for my activism.”
Tilla Theus, a highly respected Swiss architect and a pioneering woman in her field, shares the sense of bewilderment felt in Zurich and elsewhere in the country that Weber has been treated so shabbily.
“In my eyes, [Weber] deserves the highest respect. She deserved the respect of the City of Zurich. It would have been better if the city had tried to make amends for this unfortunate and incomprehensible lack of consideration.”
Having previously been responsible for reviving the production of Le Corbusier furniture in the late fifties, Weber persuaded Le Corbusier in 1964 to set aside his decades-long bitterness toward Switzerland (he moved to Paris in the early twenties and took French citizenship in 1930) and ultimately agree to let her proceed with the construction of the building.
The esoteric steel and glass building represented a distinct new evolution in Le Corbusier’s thinking and a radical departure from his visionary concrete and stone structures. It also unified his various artistic identities as architect, painter and sculptor. It stands out as a glorious Gesamtkunstwerk hailed by the Swiss art historian Sigfried Giedion as a “synthesis of the arts that was expressed so strongly in everything he created.”
Her achievement in bringing Le Corbusier’s last building to fruition is all the more remarkable in that Weber, a self-employed single mother at the time of construction, payed for the project entirely from her own funds. Because of the unique nature of the design, many components had to be specifically engineered to accommodate Le Corbusier’s specifications. This resulted in severe cost overruns that Weber only managed to cover by selling off most of her assets to complete work on the distinctive structure.
And for 50 years thereafter, Weber dedicated her life to the museum and the art and architecture of her late friend and mentor, Le Corbusier. The museum would go on to play host to many of the world’s leading architects, ranging from Frank Gehry to Sir Norman Foster to Philip Johnson, not to mention thousands of architectural scholars and students whom Weber would often greet personally at the entrance and give impromptu guided tours.
The city’s stubborn and murky decision to remove Weber’s name from the museum has exposed Switzerland as a whole to considerable international embarrassment. But rather than honouring Weber for having devoted her life to enshrining the work of Le Corbusier, Zurich remains determined to erase her legacy instead.