Friday, October 6, 2017

The soul of this café

‘To give you the soul of this café, I must say that the immense porch of a mosque rests its six polygonal pillars in the very midst of the benches. The capitals are carved in a very strange Spanish baroque style. Five small domes lead to an adjoining high wall, which is pierced by a high narrow door in black wood where ivory and mother-of-pearl inlays shine in a complicated linear design.’ This is from a diary kept by Le Corbusier, born 130 years ago today, when still a young man, travelling through Europe, not yet an architect, but thirsty for knowledge, observing everything, and particularly interested in buildings.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was born on 6 October 1887, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, son of a watch engraver and a piano teacher. He studied at the local art school which taught applied arts connected with watchmaking, but was encouraged by one teacher towards architecture, and he set about teaching himself. With two friends, he designed and built his first house in 1905. In the next few years, he travelled frequently in Europe meeting artists and architects, and working for some of them (including a Paris studio which was pioneering the use of reinforced concrete for domestic residences). In 1912, he built an ambitious house for his parents. This impressed a wealthy watch manufacturer who then commissioned Jeanneret to design an imposing villa.

During the war, Jeanneret taught at his old art school, and began to theorise on the use of prefabricated housing. In 1917, he moved to Paris to work as an architect on concrete structures, but was soon devoting his time to painting. With Amédée Ozenfant, he published an anti-Cubism manifesto, and established a new artistic movement - purism. It was in the first issue of the movement’s journal - L’Esprit Nouveau - that Jeanneret took on the pseudonym Le Corbusier. In 1923, he published a collection of his essays for the journal in Vers une Architecture (Toward a New Architecture), and by the mid-1920s he was actively involved in seeing his new ideas turn to reality. With his cousin Pierre and with Ozenfant, he built the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion for the 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts (from which the name Art Deco originated); and in 1927 he was commissioned by a Bordeaux industrialist to build a complex of worker houses, which he realised using his ideas for modular units.

In 1928, Le Corbusier helped found the International Congresses of Modern Architecture. In 1930 he took French citizenship, and he married Yvonne Gallis. As his international reputation grew, so he travelled widely, lecturing and winning contracts not only in France, but in Brazil and Russia. During the Second World War and the German occupation of France, Le Corbusier did his best to promote architectural projects, without any success, but his first public commission in ten years came after the war with Cité radieuse, a rehabilitation project in Marseilles. This was finished in 1952, the same year he was made a Commander of the Legion d’Honneur.

Among his most famous works are Ozenfant House (1922), Villa Jeanneret (1925), Villa Savoye (1928) and the Swiss Dormitory at the Cité Universitaire (1931-32) all in Paris; the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro (1936), Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (1950-54), various buildings in Chandigarh, India (1952-59), the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (1954-59), and the Carpenter Visual Art Centre, Harvard (1964). Le Corbusier died in 1965. Further information can be found at The Corbusier Foundation, The Art Story, Wikipedia, and

Although an inveterate keeper of notebooks with ideas and sketches, there is no obvious evidence that Le Corbusier was a diarist as such. However, as a young man, on one of his journeys through Europe, he did keep a journal, which subsequently has been referred to as a diary. On route, he sent each diary entry back to his home town to be published in a local newspaper. On his return, he considered preparing the diary for publication but the war intervened, and it was to be more than half a century before he revisited and edited the manuscript - just before his death in fact. This was published in its original French language, and not published in English until 1987, when The MIT Press brought out Journey to the East as translated by Ivan Žaknić with Nicole Pertuiset and edited by Žaknić. In 2007, MIT Press re-issued the book. The following extracts come from the original 1987 edition.

The introduction to the French edition (as translated) is worth reproducing.

‘In 1911 Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, a draftsman in the office of Peter Behrens in Berlin, decided with his friend, Auguste Klipstein, to undertake a journey whose destination was Constantinople. From May to October, with very little money, the two friends toured Bohemia, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

It was then that Charles-Édouard Jeanneret discovered architecture: a magnificent play of forms in light, a coherent system of the mind. During this journey from Dresden to Constantinople, and from Athens to Pompeii, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret kept a travel diary. In it he noted his impressions, and he also executed a great number of drawings which taught him to observe and to see. From these notes he extracted articles, some of which were to be published by La Feuille d’Avis of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Later he would reassemble and complete these manuscripts to form a book. The book, Le Voyage d’Orient, was to be published by Gaspard Valette of Mercure de France in 1914. However, the war prevented that publication, and the manuscript was stored among the archives of Le Corbusier. Fifty-four years after his journey, he decided at long last to publish the book that is a testimony to his wonderment and discoveries as a young man. In July 1965 he edited the manuscript and annotated it meticulously, relying on nothing more than his memory. Here then is Journey to the East, considered by Le Corbusier to be an important and revealing document on the most decisive year of his growth as an artist and as an architect.’

In fact, although there are passages which read like a diary, the whole seems to have been worked on, making it more of a memoir than a diary. Here is one extract (with a typical illustration by Corbusier).

‘A Café
I entered it by chance: I was fleeing anywhere to escape the Bazaar. Everything is cool and quiet, for age-old trees mask the sky. Huge gray, red, or white striped linens are suspended from their four corners to tree trunks, and their bellies sag to within a few meters of the ground. The foliage diffuses circles of white light that dance upon the grayish patterns of irregularly shaped paving stones. Luxurious little wicker cages in which two divans face each other and, where the coffee is prepared, form on one side an uninterrupted boundary. Turkish houses block the view threading its way into the narrowness of a winding street. To get there, I climbed an odd stone stairway and went through a pretty gate in a high wall. Numerous benches are strewn about, creating enclosures; carpets of red, black, and yellow stripes cover them. They are deep and have a back and armrests. Yet they are not used for sitting down. After taking off one’s shoes, one sits on one’s heels. In this way one assumes a very dignified position, very neat, and this does away with our own casual habit of slouching like young revelers. The coffee is served, as you know, in tiny cups, and the tea in pear-shaped glasses. Either one costs a sou, which permits refills.

A hundred Turks converse in low voices. The water gurgles in the narghiles, and the air turns blue from the smoke. We are in the land of exquisite tobaccos, and we make extravagant use of it. Only when it is out of control do we moderate it, but Auguste practically kills himself with it. Fezzes are mixed with turbans, and the long black robes with grays and blues. Here comes an old man dressed entirely in pink, which makes him look like a small child. The old people are always personable, gay, sharp-eyed, yet never helpless; prayer provides them with such health because of the exercise it requires. So these old men always smile and slip by like ferrets with some inseparable corpous under their arms.

Over my table bloom copious blue hydrangeas; elsewhere there are roses and carnations; only two steps away I can hear the singing of a little marble fountain in Turkish rococo. Cats strut about in quest of balls of yarn, and to give you the soul of this café, I must say that the immense porch of a mosque rests its six polygonal pillars in the very midst of the benches. The capitals are carved in a very strange Spanish baroque style. Five small domes lead to an adjoining high wall, which is pierced by a high narrow door in black wood where ivory and mother-of-pearl inlays shine in a complicated linear design. Bright-colored carpets spread to the rush mats beneath the domes. The muezzin has just climbed the minaret which can be seen through the foliage, and his strident call to prayer pours out, while the mats are covered by the faithful who prostrate themselves, rise, and worship Allah.

But here is a touching note characteristic of the lofty, poetic Turkish soul: among the tables are three mounds, each a few meters high and bordered by a stone wall with a fine iron railing; a lantern hung to some tree which had sprouted there burns every night to illuminate the tombstones whose worn inscriptions no doubt recall the virtues of brave men now resting between the roots of the great sycamore which rises like their soul to heaven. They must rest here among the living, so as to familiarize them with Sweet Death. All these good old men, so nice in their childlike robes of pink, blue, or white, will come every morning to greet them and to whisper in their beards: Yes, yes, soon, we are coming, we are coming. I rejoice! . . .

This place, the café of Mahmud Pasha and the little mosque with a minaret and one single large dome that rests on four bare walls, is not far from the feverish Bazaar. Auguste and I spent many evenings there.’

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