It's time to question the classic Corb backstory
Yes it’s another Ottoman history lesson - but this one’s about Le Corbusier, says Rory Olcayto
What might a new architectural history be? Where do we start? The list of topics is long. Think of the role of PR in the making of the modern profession, for example. It might mean drawing a line between the Smithsons and Kevin McCloud rather than the Smithsons and Sergison Bates, acknowledging the role of self-promotion ahead of aesthetics and form. But what about the bigger stories we’ve been telling each other? How about messing with Corb? The Acropolis? And maybe Palladio too?
Take Corb’s Voyage d’Orient in 1911, which William Curtis, in his influential, highly readable Modern Architecture Since 1900, describes as ‘a long journey through Italy, Greece and Asia Minor’, that ‘was very much in the tradition of the Northern Romantic who goes to the Mediterranean in search of western cultural roots’. According to Curtis, ‘the greatest impression was made by the Acropolis at Athens’, which he visited ‘daily for nearly a month, sometimes for hours at a time’.
We should question both of these points, and two writers have already done so. The first is Ivan Žaknić, the editor of the MIT Press edition of the famous travel diaries, who notes that, ‘with his backpack’, Corb, ‘rides second class on ships and packed trains, on top of mules and donkeys, and most often on foot’. There are no countess companions here. The second is Turkish author Bülent Tanju, whose 1999 paper ‘Charles Edouard Jeanneret’s Journey to the East’, states the ‘object of his journey is not the Mediterranean world’, and ‘is not in accordance with the Classical Grand Tour. It doesn’t extend to the east via Rome.’ Curtis, for convenience, has spun the trip in reverse. In truth, Corb leaves for Istanbul, travels to Athens and ends up in Rome. A minor point? But the repercussions are huge.
Tanju says Corb’s first interest is the vernacular rural buildings of the Balkans, not classical ruins. Furthermore, his notes and drawings of construction, material, colour and detail are more analytical and figurative, and therefore more free of the ‘othering’ that informs the Orientalist tradition Curtis places Corb in.
Most significant however, is Tanju’s suggestion that it is Istanbul, not the Acropolis, that ignites Corb’s unique outlook. Its open spaces, trees and mix of vernacular building with monumental temples puzzle Corb, yet he comes to see a symphonic whole composed of three townscapes: a sacred realm, presented in the form of monumental stone mosques - ‘Such unity! Such timelessness! Such wisdom!’ - the densely settled old city built of wood and peopled by mortals, and the numerous cemeteries, whose trees and tombstones bind these townscapes together. It is in the context of the mosque, the centre of this totality, that Corb expresses the fundamental principles of his architectural discourse for the first time. In his diary he writes: ‘The principles of elementary geometry disciplines the masses: the square, the cube and the sphere. And the plan is a right-angled whole with a single axis.’
This contradicts the classic Corb backstory. It suggests a central role for Palladio’s contemporary Mimar Sinan in the development of European Modernism (partly acknowledged by Corb by his inclusion of the Süleymaniye Mosque (pictured) in Vers Une Architecture). It suggests urban design (Istanbul’s coded townscape) played a greater role than one-off set pieces (the Acropolis) in shaping Corb’s philosophies. And it suggests Corb’s journey was quite different from the typical grand tour. And while Corb was clearly impressed with the Acropolis, his core philosophy had, when he came across it, already taken root. What’s more, he spent 50 days in Istanbul, a third of his entire trip, and 20 more than he spent sketching the Parthenon.