Young Le Corbusier in Istanbul
In 1911, the last decade of the Ottoman Empire, a young Swiss-French architect visited Istanbul. He sketched as much as he took notes there, in “Stamboul,” capital of the fading Islamic power. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, went on to become the contentious, formative architect and urbanist of the 20th century, credited with ideas like the house as “a machine for living in,” and the primacy of “space and light and order.” Le Corbusier’s travel diary was the first book he wrote and, according to Ivan Zaknic, the translator and editor of the MIT Press edition, “the last he submitted for publication, only a few weeks before his death on August 27, 1975.”
Journey to the East is a catalogue of a pioneering modernist’s first encounter with so-called vernacular architecture, which shaped many of his future buildings – none more than his curving, concrete cathedral at Ronchamp. Which isn’t to say that it reflects the mosques of Istanbul but rather the spiritual power that the young Le Corbusier felt “upon the hilltops of Stamboul [where] the shining white ‘Great Mosques’ swell up and spread themselves out amid spacious courtyards surrounded by neat tombs in lively cemeteries.”
Famous writer are often cast as travel companions – say, Henry James – but architects are rarely the authors of old novels or diaries that can function as modern guidebooks. Le Corbusier wrote with authority (in modern architectural tomes like Toward an Architecture), which is why the musing of this uncertain, astonished twenty-four year old are so compelling.
“From our vantage point we could see the Golden Horn beyond the cascading cypresses,” Le Corbusier wrote from the balcony of his hotel overlooking the city that is split by Europe and Asia. “Below, Stamboul sits above a broad band of shadow, outlining the silhouettes of its great mosques against the darkened sky. When there is moonlight – we had it twice – the sea, visible beyond it, ties the minarets together with a shimmering thread along the gloomy ridge.”
He loved the abundance of trees in the city – “tier upon close tier of endless wooden houses submerged in greenery.” And he learned the local histories of its mosques, including the monumental Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque, designed by a pupil of the architect Sinan, preeminent builder and engineer of the Ottoman era and a contemporary of Michelangelo.
“The Sultan Ahmet, by building six minarets for his mosque, aroused the religious wrath of the people, for only the Kaaba at Mecca has that number,” Le Corbusier explained. “He cleverly evaded this difficulty by erecting, at his own expense, a seventh minaret at Kaaba.”
The young Swiss-Frenchman sketched minimal black and white perspective of the Bosporus with the low skyline pierced by minarets. His notebook includes cloudy views of the city in the fog where only domes and towers are visible, as well as precise details of the major public buildings of the Ottoman seat of power – along with the Parthenon. Le Corbusier traveled through Greece and eastern and central Europe on his journey to and from Istanbul.
His trip wasn’t the Grand Tour made famous by wealthy literati like Lord Byron, who traveled with trunks, servants, valets and, as Zaknic notes, “several beds, camping equipment, and English saddles and brides.” Le Corbusier, “with his backpack and one companion, rides second class on ships and packed trains, on top of mules and donkeys, and most often on foot,” he wrote. “His companions are bedbugs,” not countesses.
In other ways, though, Le Corbusier wrote of an “Oriental” city like other European travelers of his day – with crass, cultural generalizations.
“The Bazaar!” he wrote of the city’s sprawling, covered market. “The worst horrors are to be found in there… The most disconcerting ingeniousness is to be found there. Everything, of course, is antique, very old, or prehistoric.”
Some of his descriptions, usefully, also include architectural details: “The life of the Turk passes from the mosque to the cemetery by way of the cafe where he smokes in silence,” he wrote. “It is a stroke of good fortune for these proper cafes… to enclose within their own courtyards, on a mound surrounded by an iron grill, the sepulcher of some saint.”
There is wonder in Le Corbusier’s Istanbul diary, especially when contrasted with his future work. Here is the architect behind the (hardly) utopian idea of concrete public housing projects describing Istanbul’s architectural poles:
“Stamboul is a closely knit agglomeration; every mortal’s dwelling is of wood, every dwelling of Allah is of stone… it hangs against the side of this great hill like a suspended carpet of violet wool blended with tints of emeralds; the mosques on the crests are its prestigious fasteners. Here are the only two types of architecture: the big flattened roofs covered with worn tiles and the bulbs of the mosques with minarets shooting up. They are linked to each other by cemeteries.”
Le Corbusier witnessed a fire that devastated part of the city – which wasn’t, apparently, unusual in crowded Istanbul in the early 20th century. It caused him to predict of the demise of the city – “The reason is that she is always burning and being rebuilt.”
In fact the Ottoman Empire was over by the end of the First World War. It had allied with Germany, and its Middle Eastern domains were carved up and taken by the victors, Britain and France. Le Corbusier writes rudely, if presciently, about the prospects for Istanbul three years before that war began. A neighborhood that had been ravaged by a separate fire a few years prior was being by a Germany company. “Weigh the significance of these words for Stamboul!” he wrote, with emphasis on German company. “After what I’ve tried to tell you about the streets of Stamboul, shaded by the foliage between the salmon-colored walls, you should tremble at the association of these two words!”
And yet Istanbul survived, even if the capital of modern Turkey that emerged in 1923 relocated east to Ankara. Istanbul has now expanded well beyond “its tremendous Byzantine walls,” and so no longer “crams itself into spaces that are too confined,” in Le Corbusier’s words. Whether he would approve or not, “Stamboul” is now one of the world’s most populated cities.
Photos via Flickr Creative Commons. Top: Ronchamp by Flickr user senhormario; Middle: Photo print “Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I” (1890-1900) from the Library of Congress; Bottom: Photo print “View from the bridge, Constantinople” (1890-1900) from the Library of Congress.
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