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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.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Interesting article, however Corb goes on about the Parthenon so much in 'Vers Une' that it's difficult to accept this revisionist hypothesis. Corb clearly admired the 'Sphinx-like' mosques of 'Stamboul' and his sketches showed his analytical appreciation of them. Fundamentally Corb was the opposite of architect like Hadid and Zumthor (much as I love them) who say they are inspired only by themselves. Corb was more like Siza who said 'to know architecture, is to know the work of other architects. Therein lies his greatness. This could apply to Palladio and Sinan too, who knew each other's work. Sometimes as architects we lack the ability to say 'this is not in line with my philosophy, but it's really good; therefore my philosophy is wrong!'

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  • thanks Michael. However you may want to think of the wider reasons why corb 'goes on' about the parthenon so much in Vers.

    By the time of its publication, geopolitics had shifted considerably, interest in Ottoman culture was dead, as was the role of Islam in the succssor state of Turkey. There was a firm belief in Turkey, and Western Europe, that there was nothing to learn from Islam anymore and the Turks themselves, under Ataturk, embraced European modernism wholeheartedly. Furthermore, Corb knew that making a link between ancient greece and european modernism was simply a more shrewd - and on message - PR skew.

    None of this however changes the fact that it was in Istanbul that Corb's theories first began to crystallise. HIs own quote regarding his observations ofmosques as essentially geometric machines ordering space and human movement is the proof. This should be part of what every first year student lears (if indeed we are to continue to shape young architects' minds by introducing them to the subject via Corb and co)

    Sadly, Euro-centric historians, like Curtis, brilliant though he is, refuse to fully engage with this, as evidenced by his lack of knowledge regarding Sinan (which he cheerfully confesses to) and his descriptions of Corb's tour in reverse, and you could argue, even referring to Turkey as Asia Minor.

    These may seem like minor (ahem) points, but if we're going to turn away from the overly simplistic architectural histories the trickle into books and lectures from Curtis's more thorough (although still euro-biased) texts, we have to begin to acknowledge them.

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