HUMBOLDT BOOKS – Peninsula imprinted. A traveler through Le Corbusier’s Italy
Text by Ana Maria CRIȘAN, photographs by Alexandru CRIȘAN.
special guests to the HUMBOLDT BOOKS – with the occasion of the Peninsula Hotel Project.
With every book I open, I travel closer to or farther from myself, within the past or towards the future. But one book in particular actually changed my perception of the present and, thus, started an Odyssey. It was a collection of drawings, notes, thoughts – all put together more than one hundred years ago by the architect Le Corbusier, under the title Journey to the East. It all started in 2011 with the browsing of five volumes of his journals.
Following the time-honoured Italian artistic formation, the nineteenth century romantic travelling fashion and especially the canonical tradition of L’Ecole d’Art de la Chaux-de-Fonds, in 1911, at the age of 24, Le Corbusier undertook what he mentioned to be the journey of his life. This was quite a common practice as his name stands next to the one of Adolf Loos and well known travellers like Montesquieu, de Vandeliers, Soufflot, the draftsman Cochin, the Marquis de Sade, or Giovanni Battista Piranesi. As he stated: ‘I embarked on a great journey, which has to be decisive, through the countryside and cities still considered unspoiled. From Prague I went down the Danube, I saw the Serbian Balkans, then Romania, then the Bulgarian Balkans, Adrianople, the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul, (and Byzantium), Bursa in Asia. Then Athos. Then Greece. Then the south of Italy and Pompeii. Rome. I saw the grand and eternal monuments, the glories of the human spirit’ (Le Corbusier, 1925).
The trip remained an experience of reference throughout his life, a confluence of professional formative wellsprings, consequentialy presented in his diaries, later to be published after the architect’s death as Voyages d’Orient. Carnets (Journey to the East). From all his notes, this collection in particular draws attention to the Italian Peninsula. In this second journey to Italy, he suffered a change in perception, describing the architecture he observed not in the pictorial manner of the previous 1907 voyage – Voyage d’Italie –, but based on basic cognition and imprinted memory.
Starting from these five volumes I began my exploration, a thematic reconstructive route based on travelling notes, observations, measurements, sketches, and reflections – a journey in search of Le Corbusier’s Italy. Paradoxically, what I found was not the Peninsula I knew, but a memory-imprinted place, a library of collected elements, so lively in the pages of the journals.
My path began by linking the collected cruxes with the glorious entrance under the Mediterranean sun. As Alvaro Siza remarked, the final outcome of the trip was ‘[…] the restoration of the white immaculate plasticity of the Mediterranean in Switzerland, the country of confluences and indecision’. So I made my way to Bari, slightly diverted from the original route. I waited to see the growing built horizon in-between water and sky, as L.C. described the Brindisi harbour. Unfortunately, all I felt was alienation, as the scale of things went ahead the aforementioned diaries: a sensation of overturning that, after fourteen days, I was to battle once again, confronted with the abnormal cruise scale in Venice. Even the horizon seemed small. This was the first warning signal, underlining that my pre-viewed architectural Italy was in fact a vicarious construct, perhaps impossible to pinpoint.
So I turned to the most present and well known of places, at least from the journals: Pompeii. At last, there was a place so familiar, a place of the past, the present and Le Corbusier’s future time. Actually, Pompeii was our first meeting place in Confessions, in Vers une Architecture and in Ronchamp, under the skin of brutalism. As I stood in the Casa del Fauno, all the tourists passed by me, galloping to see the famous mosaic depicting Alexander the Great, or the bronze statue of a dancing faun placed in the impluvium, passing unknowingly along the obscure painted cubiculi. These perspective reproductions will become, in fact, the architect’s signature in the built shell of the Notre Dame du Haut Chapel in Ronchamp in 1955. The inner spatiality of the Pompeian houses, the atrium, stands as a clear testimony of future spatial perimeter borrowed organisation, depicted with similar mosaic colours in the journal pages. In this spot of tormented memories paradoxically lies the origin of modern language. The portal of Eumachia’s, present open window to the Pompeii ruins, was photographically captured, later on theorised in Aujourd’hui, and finally translated into the famous landscape window frame in Villa Savoye and Weissenhof housing. In front of the original frame that anticipates by two thousand years the modern discourse, I wondered: what prevails, the marking between private space and sky, or the materialisation of the controlled view, the landscape window? Pompeii is full of original “modern” details: ground joints, cubiculi, full/empty ratio, functional organisation, all booked and all treated as inventory items, immortalised in journals by drawings or mathematical calculations. The volume T70 attests for the first time the transition from the strict observation to the synthetic depiction, reducing the pictorial elements to their essence.
With this exclamation mark imprinted in my mind I moved towards Tivoli, in search of Villa Adriana, just to find a huge site. It’s a site of glorious remains, and of controversial interpretation, as every attraction was preceded and introduced by carefuly selected Piranesi engravings, blurring my crisp journals recollections. (like almost every “attraction” I found exposed in Piranesi engravings, blurring my crisp journals recollections.) Here it was hard to find Le Corbusier, when every stone eaten by vegetation screamed Romanticism. After the stroll through Pompeii I knew what to expect, as the walls seemed to hold a particular fascination for every pensive observer. Above all, the double wall of the Poikile was by far the most impressive. It could be a monument of contemporary architecture, the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, a manifest for brick masonry and technological performance. Again, lost tourists have ignore it, lingering along it, and hurrying to the famous guide indicated point: Teatro Marittimo. An indisputably unique point but, for me, the wall stands as my favourite surrealistic image – an insurmountable limit between the forest and the field, a materialisation of the barrier between two worlds. And from the looks of it, this was remarked and captured in photographs by Le Corbusier himself, and already reproduced in the famous horizontality of the modern language.
From here, all the roads lead to Rome – the eternal city. And here the rapture was complete, as the Rome lingering in my thoughts was torn between the modern volumetric depiction from Vers une Architecture and the romantic Piranesi approach. Paradoxically Rome is not an essential part of the Journey to the East journals. Moreover, it belongs to the 1907 voyage, depicted in pictorial fragments. In this context, my re-collected journey seemed to have a particular purpose – to discover that unique Italy that lingers after years of practice both in modern and contemporary language, that is hidden in the 1911 journals observation, and it is absent in the conventional historical textbooks. What I found was that in 1911 a young architect entered the Italian Peninsula as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris and, after a few months, he left armed with the theories that will define him as Le Corbusier. I went on the same path a hundred years after him, in search of the particular points that triggered the shift in perception and understanding.
In this respect, I left towards Tuscany. Convexity or concavity, must have wondered L.C. contemplating Siena, Lucca, San Gimignano, and Pisa, analysing the composition of intrinsic architectural relations and their spatiality control instruments. The perception ability to envision the unseen physical relationships in this fascinating history saturated place is clearly a professional deformation, an awareness of the role of aesthetic cognition… Leaving San Gimignano, I took a short glimpse at one of the journals watercolours in indigo autumn tones: an almost continuous pulsing line illustrates the famous fourteen towers, once seventy-two, and their particular relation with the landscape. And my thoughts travelled nearby, in Val d’Ema, to the Certosa di Firenze. Here, on the walls of the Certosa, still hangs an old engraving depicting the Carthusian monastery inner organisation, an engraving that wasn’t left unnoticed by Le Corbusier. The a priori Dominican monastery version of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette enriched Italy since 1342, near Florence, hosting and inspiring the architect. It was no surprise to recognise the reproduction of the medieval vegetable garden in the geometry of the French later version. The same central atrium found in Pompeii displays here a special refinement in the perimeter distribution. In this corner of Italy, modestly located on a distribution corridor, lies the famous modern cell. It is the monk’s living quarters with all its peculiarities: the feeling of confinement transfigured in privacy, the adaptation to comfortable human scale. This minimal space became in subsequent interpretation the minimalistic resolved cell, betraying the original concept for the modern ideal living of Immeubles-Villas (1922), Weissenhof (1927) and Unités d’Habitation (Marseille, 1948-1952). I leave behind the secret enclosure, just to envision again the secluded life: the Sainte-Marie de La Tourette lives within in Val d’Ema grey walls.
read more in HUMBOLDT BOOKS
At the base of the article stands an oriented research – international conferences, seminars and workshops – complemented by a series of articles in extenso which theorize the travel artistic formation in Italy with a focus on Le Corbusier youth travels. The research project and workshop developed in-between 2011-2014 – VOR (Voyage d’Orient resumee) – was awarded by nomination in the Bucharest Annual of Architecture 2014, 12 edition, in the studies and research projects section.
Guillermo Jullian De la Fuente, Anthony Eardley, 35 rue de Sèvres: disegni inediti di Le Corbusier, Milano, Magma, 1978.
Benedetto Gravagnuolo, Le Corbusier e l’Antico – Viaggi nel Mediterraneo, Napoli, Electa, 1977.
Le Corbusier, Carnet T70. Apud Carlo Palazzolo, C. & Vio. R., 1989. Sulle tracce di Le Corbusier (pp. 269), Venezia, Ed. Arsenale, 1963.
Le Corbusier, Confessions. The Decorative Art of Today (pp. 206-207), Cambridge, the MIT Press, 1987. In French: L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (pp. 220-211), Paris, Édition Cres, 1925.
Le Corbusier, Voyage d’Orient, Paris, Éditions Forces Vives, 1966.
Le Corbusier, My Work, London, The Architectural Press, 1966.
Le Corbusier, Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme, Paris, Cres, 1930.
Le Corbusier, Introduction à la première edition. In Oskar Stonorov & Willy Boesiger, Le Corbusier et Pierre Jeanneret: Oeuvre Complete, Zurich, Girsberger, 1929.
Le Corbusier, J. Goodman (tr.), Toward an Architecture, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2007.
Le Corbusier & G. Gresleri, Voyage D’Orient. Carnets, English Edition, New York, Phaidon Press, 2002
Jean-François Le Jeune, & Michelangelo Sabatino, Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean: Vernacular Dialogues and Contested Identities, London, Routledge, 2009.
Andrè Wogenscky, Le Corbusier: viaggio attraverso il pensiero, Roma, Commissione cultura, 1997.
Andrè Wogenscky, Le mani di Le Corbusier, Roma, Mancosu, 2004.
Bruno Reichlin, Le Corbusier. L’Atelier Intérieur, Paris, Editions du Patrimoine, 2008.
Alvaro Siza Vieira, El Croquis. Spania, El Croquis, 2007.
Marida Talamona, Le Corbusier’s Italy, Exhibition organised in partnership with the Fondation Le Corbusier Paris, Maxxi Museum, Rome, 18 October 2012 – 17 February 2013.
all images are under Crisan Architecture and Humboldt Books copyright.
1 Peninsula maps. Paths of 1911 and 2013 journeys: Voyage d’Orient versus Voyage d’Orient resumee. Graphics & editing: Ana Maria Crisan
2,3 The portal of Eumachia’s – model for Le Corbusier the landscape window. Pompeii. Photography: Alexandru Crisan, 2014
4,5 The double Wall of the Poikile. Vila Adriana. Tivoli. Photography: Alexandru Crisan, 2014
intro, 6,7 Sainte Marie de La Tourette. Eveux. Le Corbusier. Photography: Alexandru Crisan, 2012