Le Corbusier's Istanbul sketches reveal an unexpected urban conservationist
Istanbul might have been very different had Corbusier landed the job he most prized, says Rory Olcayto
Corb loved Istanbul. During his so-called Voyage d’Orient in 1911, he spent 50 days there, far longer than anywhere else he visited on that fateful tour, and he filled countless sketchbooks with drawings and notes. ‘The Walls of Byzantium,’ he wrote, under sketches of the city’s unique skyline, ‘the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, Saint Sofia, the Grand Seraglio, Come, you town-builders, note it down in your files: Silhouettes!’
The ideas in The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, first published in 1929, particularly that townscapes should be formed amid green, open spaces, were largely drawn from his observations during that seven-week sojourn. In those end-of-empire days Istanbul was just one million strong, and characterised by a gentle ecology, unlike any city of comparable size in Europe. ‘Stamboul:’ Corb writes, ‘… a charming partnership between man and nature.’ He even noted a famous Turkish proverb in his sketchbooks: ‘Where one builds, one plants trees.’
We know Corb hated New York, was frightened by ‘the mad speculation of private enterprise’ he found there, and wondered why the towers didn’t rise from parkland, in the way the great monuments of Istanbul did. ‘If we compare New York with Stamboul,’ he mused, ‘we may say one is a cataclysm and the other a terrestrial paradise.’ But that was more than 100 years ago. If Le Corbusier were to travel to Istanbul today, he would more likely be horrified. Istanbul’s once casual synthesis of charming wooden houses, wild green cemeteries, shining stone monuments and the tremulous waters of the Bosphorus is long gone. In its place Corb would find a sprawl of poorly thought-through townscape for 14 million souls and counting, with those remaining pockets of green space, like Geze Park, which was at the centre of protests to save its trees this summer, under threat.
And, while the old city has, in the main, retained its world-famous silhouette, never before has it felt this fragile, nor so under threat, from the crowding mess of residential sprawl and looming, artless towers emerging around it. The ocean-liner elevation of Topkapi palace; the six minarets - stone-built rocket ships - of the Sultanahmet Mosque, the mighty bulk of Hagia Sophia; the sublime grace of Sinan’s Suleymaniye and the Galata Tower across the Golden Horn - these are unspoilt. Just.
It might have been very different had Corbusier landed the job he most prized: to reconfigure Istanbul in the early days of the Turkish Republic. We don’t tend to think of Le Corbusier as a conservationist, but that may well have been his legacy had this dream come true.
In 1933 Corb wrote a letter to Kemal Ataturk, founder of the new republic, asking permission to design Istanbul’s reconstruction plans - for free. In the letter, Corb suggested keeping its historical face, but at the same time providing it with contemporary needs. However, in 1936 Henri Prost, head of the city’s planning office, was appointed. He - and his interventionist ideas, more in tune with the new republic’s modernising agenda - held sway for 15 years, and gave birth to the sprawl of today.
Le Corbusier never quite forgave himself for losing out. In 1948 he wrote: ‘If it hadn’t been for the letter I wrote to Ataturk, which was the biggest mistake and blunder of my life, today I would have been the one and not my great rival Prost to work on the urban design of the beautiful city of Istanbul.
‘In this letter I was proposing to the great revolutionist of a nation who had just accomplished a revolution, to leave Istanbul as it is, in its present state even with the dust of the centuries on her buildings.
‘But, later on, I realised what a great mistake I had made.’