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Chapter 3 An Encounter on the Acropolis (1910–1914, 1965) Yet why must I, like so many others, name the Parthenon the undeniable Master, as it looms up from its stone base, and yield, even with anger, to its supremacy? — L e C o r b u s i e r , 1914

The “Reversed” Grand Tour The aristocratic ritual of the Grand Tour, which by the end of the seventeenth century had become a must for young men of the educated elites of northern Europe, was a trip across the Alps and through upper and central Italy, ostensibly devoted to studying monuments and landscapes and culminating with a prolonged stay in Rome.1 The Grand Tour was an ascent to lofty regions both literal and figurative: the physical heights of the mountains and the cultural heights of Italy. It was also a journey of contrasts and comparison: lands of rainy weather and of sunny weather, wealth and poverty, past and present, progress and backwardness. And as the illustrated travel accounts, or Voyages Picturesques, of the eighteenth century advised, any trip to exotic climes was enhanced if some danger was also experienced. Although the Grand Tour was no longer mandatory by the early twentieth century, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret made a similar journey in 1911. His Grand Tour, however, has been called “reversed”: instead of going to Rome, he went to Constantinople and Athens. He experienced a series of contrasts paralleling those of the traditional Grand Tour, traveling through the plains of eastern Europe to the heights of Mount Athos and the Acropolis. In doing so, he also passed from being a painter to being an architect. [Figure 3.1] 109


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Photograph of CharlesÉdouard Jeanneret standing at the foot of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, Athens, 1911

Figure 3.1:

He published a number of travel articles from this trip as letters in the periodical La Feuille d’Avis de La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1911 and added a roughly equal number when he tried unsuccessfully to publish the articles as a book in 1914. All were eventually assembled into a small, square book entitled Voyage d’Orient ( Journey to the East), published posthumously in 1966. Six weeks before he drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean on August 27, 1965, Le Corbusier read the proofs for Voyage d’Orient and added the following note to the last chapter: “Completed at Naples on October 10, 1911, by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. Reread on July 17, 1965, 24 Nungesser et Coli, by Le Corbusier.”2 Thus he juxtaposed 1911 with 1965, the naive, young Charles-Éduoard Jeanneret with the wiser, self-constructed Le Corbusier.3 Vladimir Propp has suggested that in all stories, the central character starts by missing something, whether they know it or not. They set off in quest of what is missing, and in the tests of the resulting journey the hero is transformed. In keeping with this view, the hero in this story, Jeanneret, ends up in a different place from where he begins; 110


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he solves the enigma, achieves the quest. But the voyage is full of tension and surprises. In 1929, in the introduction to volume I of Oeuvre Complète, Le Corbusier said that Though I have to admit that my hands are soiled by the scourings of past centuries, I prefer washing them to having to cut them off. Besides, the centuries have not soiled our hands. Far from it they have filled them.4

Perhaps his 1965 encounter with his own past, in reviewing Voyage d’Orient, can be seen as a chronological reversed tour, backward across a lifetime, and as a recapitulation of his own youthful recourse to the mythological schemes and moods of the shared, historical past. As the youthful architect was enriched by the historical past, so the mature architect was enriched by his personal past—the emotional, poetical, and irrational instincts that had molded him as an architect. The scourings of past decades had not soiled his hands. Far from it; they had filled them.

Discovery and Invention In Le Corbusier’s Formative Years, H. Allen Brooks claims that the 1911 voyage of self-discovery remained a vivid experience in Jeanneret’s mind, a trope mentioned in every one of his future books, because during it his ideals received their final shape. He returned mature and whole from this rite of passage, Brooks argues, his past integrated with his present. But Jeanneret was only twenty-three at the time; he still had much to learn, invert, and invent. Even Brooks believes that Jeanneret was basically a provincial until after his famous encounter with Ozenfant in 1917–18.5 On this latter view, Jeanneret remained a naif throughout his trip, not clearly aware of the political tensions racking the Balkans. These tensions would erupt in the first Balkan War in 1912, which pitted Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Serbia against a weakened Ottoman Empire. In any case, care must thus be taken when deciding what Jeanneret really discovered on his tour. One school of thought views Jeanneret’s accounts of the tour as auto-fictional. According to this account, Jeanneret turns himself by main narrative force into a self-educated architect and a self-created man, one of the spiritual elite whom he so admired.6 For example, Brooks 111


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believes that Jeanneret’s account of a “sudden conversion to classicism” at the foot of the Acropolis in 1911 was invented to suppress the great debt he owed to Peter Behrens and other German influences during his painful evolution. Perhaps Brooks’s use of “sudden conversion” refers to Jeanneret’s obsession with the Acropolis and all things Greek, expressed in his many letters written to William Ritter during the time he felt confined to La Chaux-de-Fonds after his return from the East. Before then, Jeanneret openly admitted that it was Germany rather than France that had led him to the Parthenon, although, he said, he was influenced by Cingria-Valneyre rather than Behrens to accept white cubic architecture as his ideal, since Behrens’s classicism amounted to copying Schinkel’s drawings or the Parthenon’s ornaments.7 And during his travels to the East he would admit to L’Eplattenier that his time in Germany had direct repercussions on his architectural and urban conceptions.8 The lines of influence, intention, and invention in Jeanneret’s self-representations can sometimes be difficult to untangle. The German issue is particularly complex. After his reversed Grand Tour, Jeanneret continued work on two writing projects that examined the German and French struggle for supremacy in architecture and the decorative arts (as described in the previous chapter). Although he was secure in his belief that the dominant aesthetic influence radiated from France, there was much he continued to admire about the Germans up to the outbreak of World War I. Furthermore, he still placed his hope on his Étude sur le mouvement d’art décoratf en Allemagne (1912) as a key that might open for him a career in France; he was not above using it to gain appointment to certain French governmental commissions as late as 1918. Certainly, he did not look fondly on the time he spent in Germany: he was extremely isolated there, experiencing the pain of rejection from his companions in La Chaux-de-Fonds, convinced he had evolved beyond their immature stage, stung by their indifference. Yet there is no question of outright suppression or denial by Jeanneret of all German influences at this point in his development. Under the tutelage of Ritter he began to try his hand at novelistic prose and genrewriting, to capture in words and drawings the sense of time and space he received from Constantinople, Athens, and Rome. And he longed to transcend the narrow confines of bourgeois existence, to rebel against his duty to write descriptive prose and factual accounts concerning the art of constructing cities, to immerse himself in the sense of an elsewhere beyond the normal. 112


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In 1914, he sought to make a book out of his notes for Voyage d’Orient, which, in spite of all attempts, had been only half-published in La Feuille d’Avis. The articles and manuscripts that comprise Jeanneret’s “Voyage to the East” can be divided into three parts.9 The first part is a series of letters written about his impressions as he traveled from Germany down the Danube to Turkey and his stay in Constantinople. These are the twenty articles published in the daily La Feuille d’Avis de La Chaux-de-Fonds between the twentieth of July and the twenty-fifth of November, 1911.10 The second part consists of observations about everyday life in Constantinople. Jeanneret writes lyrically about donkeys and women, cafés and bazaars, the picturesque qualities of the city, the sea, the boats, and a disastrous fire in Constantinople, before he is forced to tear himself away from a place that he has come to love. These essays conclude with a piece on “The West” written in Pompeii and Naples the eighth and the tenth of October. None of these articles that constitute the second part were previously published.11 The third part of the book consists of two chapters written in 1914 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a chapter on Mount Athos and a chapter on the Parthenon.12 These latter two chapters are written from a retrospective viewpoint. No doubt aware of wartime propaganda stressing France’s Mediterranean roots and of the fact that Turkey was allied with Germany, Jeanneret’s stress on the influence of Greece may have been as much a marketing gesture as an act of auto-fictional revisionism. Nevertheless, we must still ask what place Constantinople and Athens take in Jeanneret’s narrative development. What desires and fears, what ideals of purity and romance underwrite his defense of folklore and primitive man? And why does he eventually elevate the Parthenon to such lofty heights over his beloved Constantinople?

Where Is the Orient on the Map of Europe? As already noted, the primary goal of Jeanneret’s reversed tour was Constantinople, not Rome. He stayed there fifty-one days, and most of his 1911 articles concern his journey through the Balkans and his experiences in the city. From the unpublished accounts of his travel companion August Klipstein, it appears the two wanted to see Constantinople, the city of Islam, because they hoped to find there an art devoid of narrative content, an abstract art without figuration.13 [Figure 3.2] Not that Jeanneret had anything against Rome per se. During his difficult time in Berlin and Munich in 1910–11, Jeanneret longed to take a soothing voyage of escape to Rome, where he could study both 113


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No longer a requirement for the educated elite of northern Europe, the Grand Tour still left its impression on the map Charles-Édouard Jeanneret drew of his voyage to the East. He labeled all of the European sites with “I” for Industry; most of the Balkan places and Constantinople were marked with “F” for Folklore; and Greece and Italy were labeled with “C” for culture.

Figure 3.2:

folk art and the origins of classical art. Influenced by Alexandre CingriaVaneyre’s Les Entretiens de la villa du Rouet: essais dialogues sur les arts plastiques en Suisse romande (1908), Jeanneret believed that the people of the Suisse-Romande—as Cingria-Vaneyre described them—were a unique people who had preserved their Greco-Latin roots. In valleys cut off from the rest of the world by mountain ranges, traces of a classical heritage could still be found in their popular arts. The Suisse-Romande lineage of geometric design, with its regular and calm features, Cingria-Vaneyre suggested, must be re-inserted into the region’s architectural language if the latter was to attain new vigor. This book heightened Jeanneret’s resolve to learn the lessons of Rome, even though Cingria-Vaneyre was actually recommending Greece and the area around Constantinople as the landscapes to study. In a January 1911 letter to L’Eplattenier (already cited in Chapter 2) and again in a May 8 letter, Jeanneret writes about his “evolution.” Not only has he rid himself of his morbid taste for the Gothic, but he is full of enthusiasm for the arts of Italy and Greece. He remembers lessons he absorbed from his study of Versailles, Fontainebleau, and a splendid book filled with images of the Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian orders and the colossal vaults and large plain walls of Rome.14 In May 114


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he announces “scandalous news”: he will depart in three weeks for the Orient, Constantinople, and probably Greece, returning through Rome.15 The past four years of student life are finally over, with all their troubles; to climax this experience he has before him eight months of freedom, enthusiasm, and youthfulness, which he will put to good use.16 While he admits that he has kept this decision a secret since January, he only did so, he says, until he was certain of his new direction. He asks L’Eplattenier’s advice on several points. First, he wants to write and publish an account of his trip, but wonders which journal would be receptive. Not Le National, too politically conservative; La Sentinelle is better, but L’Eplattenier might think that this would compromise his own reviews there. Last he mentions La Feuille d’Avis, which is politically neutral but does not pay. The second item on which he wants advice is more alarming. His studies in Germany have completely impoverished him, and of the nine hundred to one thousand francs he should have received via his father only three hundred have been sent. He assumes that seven hundred francs are still owed him; these ought to be sent right away, for he will need them on the trip. He asks l’Eplattenier to reply (and presumably send the money) by the next mail.17 In Berlin, he receives a letter from L’Eplattenier, who is indeed alarmed at his proposed trip to the Orient and assumes that it will cause Jeanneret to postpone writing his study on German cities.18 Jeanneret responds that he cannot remain rooted to the ground in Germany under the pretext that he must write. Anyway, the trip to Germany has proved to him that the key is to know Berlin and Munich in depth, which he already does. Meanwhile, he says, his parents have lent him money for the trip, so L’Eplattenier need not worry about his request for funds. As for sending L’Eplattenier the Étude right away, that seems too complex a matter to explain. “To write is very difficult for me if I am to do it with care.”19 He was not given a deadline for the Étude, but judges that everything can be completed when he returns from his voyage. He is thankful that l’Eplattenier will sound out Georges Dubois about writing for La Feuille d’Avis, perhaps even about getting paid. If Dubois prefers, Jeanneret can write him immediately to give him a feeling of how he will work. Meanwhile, he has visited the villa Osthaus, Van de Velde’s latest work, and is even more convinced that his ideas concerning the “radiating” influence of the Parisian spirit on German art are correct. He will detail this influence in the Étude. 115


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By this time, Jeanneret had met his second mentor, Ritter, also a friend of Cingria-Vaneyre. An enthusiastic adventurer who traveled throughout the Balkans, Ritter published a romantic novel of peasant life in Slovakia, L’Entêtement Slovaque (Slavic Infatuation, 1910). His account of simple Slavic houses that seemed to spring naturally from the soil apparently spoke to Jeanneret’s interest in the “exotic” East.20 This interest was not an unusual one; in 1910 the East, or Orient, was still an essentially empty place on the European mental map, one of the last refuges of the exotic elsewhere. Whatever the West was, the East, in the Western imagination, was its reverse. The West was an enlightened land of rationality, democracy, industry, and high culture; the East was a quasi-mythological region of marvels and mysteries, despots, economic stagnation, and, as Jeanneret marked on his map in 1914, folklore.21 It was this vision of a world beyond the realm of European progress that Jeanneret longed to experience. He had also met his lifelong friend Klipstein, who was interested in studying the influence of Byzantine icons on El Greco, on whom he was writing a doctoral dissertation.22 The two young men decide to travel together to the East by the Balkan route. Jeanneret writes to Ritter on March 1, 1911, that after five months of gray, penitential hours working nonstop in Behrens’s office, the arrival of spring bring him new joy. Ritter has taught him the attraction of classical, “Latin” light in which the sky is blue, the sea beneath one’s feet is blue, and the rocks are gold, evoking the image of a classical monument crowned by nude women in full clarity (the word for light, lumière, is crossed out and the word for clarity, clarté, substituted). His mind is open to the classical spirit, he says; his dreams obstinately carry him to those lands. He discloses that an opportunity will soon present itself: he prepares a splendid voyage. It was Ritter who made dear to him the land of Slovakia, the plains of Hungary, the countries of Bulgaria and Romania. Now Jeanneret wants to cross by foot a corner of Bohemia, to see Vienna again, and this time to admire it, to go down the Danube by boat, and to arrive at the Golden Horn, at the foot of the minarets of St. Sophia—and there to achieve absolute ecstasy, if he is not an imbecile, and allow his soul to “quiver ineffably” (tressaillir ineffablement) before the immortal marbles. Yet, he writes to Ritter, L’Eplattenier will think he is not prepared for such a momentous trip and his father will think it is time to work. He plans to travel with his friend Klipstein, whom he notes is the antipode to himself: a studious art historian who is writing 116

Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres  

On his French identity card, legendary architect Le Corbusier listed his profession as "Homme de Lettres" (Man of Letters). Celebrated for h...

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