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Europe, Le Corbusier and the Balkans

Mirjana Lozanovska

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Chronologischer Index :

20. Jahrhundert
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  • 1 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 161.
  • 2 Ibid., p. 4-20.

1The Balkans have been mythologized as the “non-European part of Europe,” their edge geography exploited as a barbaric outpost against Europe’s foundational myth as “civilization.” Balkanism as a synonym for backward, tribal, and uncivilized reappears in the tragedy of Yugoslavia, generalized by the West as a brutal Balkan War.1 Narratives of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization have defined twentieth-century Europe, but in Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova reminds us that modern Europe’s political model—the nation state—depends on processes of homogenization and practices of ethnic cleansing.2 Her point, and it is also the first ground-clearing premise of this essay: the Balkans do not have a monopoly on brutality.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 20.

2The second premise is the problematic of classification, and how the Balkans illustrate this. Eastern European states are differentiated according to two fault lines: their affinity with Russia (non-Europe); and their Christianity, divided between Catholicism (west) and Orthodox (east). The Balkans were recently neutralized as south-east Europe, but the ghost of “Ottoman” history is shown in the effort of Greece and Hungary to de-orientalize and be removed from the Balkan map. Furthermore, in another geopolitical shift, within the Balkans, Greece and Turkey are now aligned with the West. Nonetheless, Todorova proposes that Europe’s problem with the Balkans cannot be explained by its oriental connotation alone, because there are, she argues, significant differences between Balkanism and Orientalism.3

3The assumption behind this essay is that the Balkans are not at a distance from Europe but is in fact its close edge, and the history of this relation thus points to the heterogeneity and contradictory histories within Europe. The essay argues that modern European architecture is tied to the Balkans through the 1911 journey of Le Corbusier. Europe’s relation to the Mediterranean, Rome, and Athens has dominated interpretations but this essay suggests that the inland journey through the Balkans was a significant, if buried, foundation.

  • 4 Adolf Max Vogt, “Remarks on the ‘Reversed’ Grand Tour of Le Corbusier and Auguste Klipstein,” Assem (...)
  • 5 H. Allen Brooks, Le Corbusier’s Formative Years: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Ch (...)
  • 6 Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Voyage d’Orient, edited by Jean Petit, Paris: Éditions Fo (...)
  • 7 Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Journey to the East, edited and translated by Ivan Žaknić(...)

4In 1911 Charles-Édouard Jeanneret departed “Europe” for a journey eastward. Le Corbusier scholars term this “a reversed Grand Tour” because his journey east to Istanbul, prompted by intellectual friends William Ritter and August Klipstein and by German orientalism, interrupted the grand narrative of European origins (Athens and Rome).4 Was it a significant journey for Le Corbusier / Jeanneret and for modern European architecture? Scholars have argued that this five-month journey eastward was to become his formative education and a “rite of passage” for him and architecture.5 Many weeks of the journey were inland through the Balkans, via boat, train, mule, and on foot, to villages, towns, roadside inns, and the countryside in Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, all at that time in the last phase of Ottoman withdrawal from Europe. The problem of borders is revealed in the changes to place names—Kazanlük (Stara Zagora), Adrianople (Erdine), Rodosto (Tekirdağ). The word “Orient” in the title Voyage d’Orient of the first French publication6 makes the Balkans part of this larger, blurred category later altered by Ivan Žaknić (who is of Yugoslav origin) in the English edition, Journey to the East.7 Jeanneret’s drawings evoke the inland landscape of mountains and valleys. On his return, Jeanneret took the first step towards becoming Le Corbusier and moved to Paris. His substantial collection of photographs, sketches, letters and notes, postcards, objects, cloths, and carpets were to provide a catalogue of references for the production of modern European architecture.

  • 8 For a discussion about intertextuality and discourse see Sibel Bozdoğan, “Entre orientalisme et déc (...)

5Writing, its role for Le Corbusier, and its particular influence in the course of modern European architecture, were initiated in the Balkan journey. The charged language of his notebooks captured a raw but reflexive self and otherness, an intertextuality between the Balkans and Europe. Its publication in Voyage d’Orient fifty-five years after the 1911 journey (1966, six months after his death in the Mediterranean) produces a strange déjà vu perspective on the voyage and the five decades of modern European architecture.8

  • 9 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 16 and 14.
  • 10 The Slavic Balkan vases are functional water-drinking urns (would be taken in the field, water is k (...)
  • 11 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 18. Photographs have captured Le Corbusier (...)

6Jeanneret’s passion for Slavic peasant pottery—whose “forms are voluminous and swollen with vitality,” so much so that one could “feel the generous belly of a vase […] caress its slender neck”9—exemplifies the increasing importance of direct experience to modern European approaches in design and architecture. Jeanneret elevated the potter to artist, and aesthetic sensuality was the ingredient that elevated art above the sciences.10 How the object affects the physical and emotional being, sexualizing and feminizing the object, capturing its libidinal charge—all this helped make his work powerful and became a central tenet as his architecture matured.11 A much later photograph with a Balkan vase on his head reveals its hold on him as an architect in Paris.

  • 12 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 15.
  • 13 A sentiment reinforced in his 1925 publication. Le Corbusier, Decorative Art Today [First published (...)

7Folklore, culture, and industry were introduced in 1911 as categories that formalized Le Corbusier / Jeanneret’s observations and, importantly, initiated his meticulous documentation. They make reference to “the great popular tradition” as a “universal principle” which he claimed “survived” in the Balkans but was being destroyed by “Europeanisation”: “we others from the centre of civilization are savages.”12 His fascination with progress was shown in the early 1920s work, L’Esprit Nouveau and Vers une Architecture, and it soon dominated the parallel interest in the vernacular. By 1935, in Aircraft, manufacturing, ocean liners, automobiles, and aircraft had become a passion. Still, in his 1920s and later writings, he criticized the architecture academy for abandoning craft and craftsmanship.13 The relationship between tradition and modern European architecture remains unresolved.

  • 14 Ibid., p. 60.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 46 and 47.

8Jeanneret’s insight into Balkan vernacular architecture stirred the revolutionary ideals of a new modern European architecture. Le Corbusier’s and modern architecture’s obsession with whiteness was initiated as Jeanneret noted the power of the white Balkan rural houses, especially the practice of whitewashing — “that way the house is always bright.”14 This was not the abstract white of stylistic modernism, but the white against which the drama of life occurs. Jeanneret found himself in “the courtyard of an inn enclosed by white walls and covered with a trellis,” in Negotin, Serbia, where, intoxicated with local wine and the solemn gypsy music during a wedding ceremony, he stated, “I would like to see them seated in a white room with bare walls.”15

  • 16 The vernacular was revisited later in his 1935 flights through the M’zab in Algeria (Aircraft 122).
  • 17 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 60.
  • 18 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, op. cit. (note 1), p. 20.

9The annotated sketches of large strip windows in a small peasant room, altering its space, were formative observations that Le Corbusier dedicatedly recorded and continually revised.16 They further stir the beginnings of the five principles.17 How these great incompatibilities—modernization and vernacular architecture—are held in tension is crucial to the difference between the best and the mediocre in modern European architecture. Todorova argues that Balkanism evolved as a reaction to the disappointment of western Europe’s “classical” expectation.18 Jeanneret was also disgusted by what he saw in the Balkans. But through his eastward travel Le Corbusier recuperated “classicism” through his attention to rural vernacular architecture. Overlooking the importance of the Balkans in Le Corbusier’s work means that architectural discourse has missed the contradictions of the vernacular linked to the perceived “backwardness” of the Balkans as a key element in modern European architecture.

  • 19 Ivan Žaknić, “Le Corbusier’s Epiphany on Mount Athos,” Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 43, (...)
  • 20 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 173.
  • 21 Ivan Žaknić, “Le Corbusier’s Epiphany on Mount Athos,” op. cit. (note 18).
  • 22 Ibid., p. 35.

10Affected by illness and hallucination, Jeanneret’s pause at the monastic site of Mount Athos on the Aegean Sea exemplifies the role the consciousness of the division of the inner self from a functionalist agenda was to have on the modern European subject.19 The inner self was magnified in the monastery’s interior—“the silence, the almost superhuman struggle with oneself, to be able to embrace death with an ancient smile!20—and was informed by a Byzantine approach to spiritual practice and discipline. It informed the relation between the individual and the collective in his most important works, and in his cabanon and art studio.21 Le Corbusier practiced the solitary acts of writing, painting, and building with the dedication of a monk or an icon painter. 22

  • 23 The City was “Constantinople,” the center of the Byzantine empire and before this the eastern cente (...)

11Mount Athos is rarely interpreted in architectural discourse. The Balkans have been predominantly Christian, but a fault line between Latin and Orthodox lands ties the Balkans to Eastern Europe, for which Istanbul, Le Corbusier’s 1911 destination, was for a millennium simply “The City.” “The City” and the East appear as an alternative reference to Europe’s heritage.23 Orientalism is a discourse about imputed opposition, and Balkanism about imputed ambiguity, argues Todorova. Ambiguity is difficult to deal with because it draws attention to the uncertainty of Europe as a unitary narrative and how this depends on disavowing what it considers “dirt.”  The Balkans are not the Orient, they do not have a history as a European colony, nor a singular or dominant history of Islam; they also are not inscribed as feminine. In the interpretations of Le Corbusier’s voyage, scholars have highlighted the oriel principle (upper house projection associated with Turkishness/otherness) and the Acropolis (origin/ideal), but the Balkans are overlooked, if not elided, by architectural discourse and the imaginary boundaries of Europe.

12Reconsidering the Balkans exposes the buried role of folklore, vernacular, and ritual within modern European architecture, rather than merely the Balkans as a folk site. Aligned with Orthodox Christianity, the Balkans illustrate the central influence and interweaving of eastern and western Europe through figures such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Konstantin Melnikov, and through avant-garde ties with socialism rather than the semi-otherness of one half of Europe. Like the Arabs in Spain and the Normans and Byzantines in Sicily, it reveals not the proximity of the Ottoman Empire, but the entangled role of these cultures in the making of modernity and Europe. With the overlapping history of state socialism of the Eastern Bloc, the Balkans became a site of extreme modernization, but also full-scale experimentation as in the modern architecture of Yugoslavia. Extracting the Balkans from their significant but buried role in Le Corbusier’s 1911 journey exposes not Europe’s otherness, but the ambiguity and multiplicity within European modernity.

Figure 1: Jeanneret’s drawing of “Stomne,” Balkan Slavic vase, June 9-14, 1911.

Figure 1: Jeanneret’s drawing of “Stomne,” Balkan Slavic vase, June 9-14, 1911.

The Slavic Balkan vases are functional water-drinking urns—would be taken in the field, water is kept cool, separate drinking/pouring parts; and slender neck prevents bugs entering.

Source: Paris (France), Fondation Le Corbusier, Drawings, “Orient,” 134/5881 ©FLC.

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Anmerkungen

1 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 161.

2 Ibid., p. 4-20.

3 Ibid., p. 20.

4 Adolf Max Vogt, “Remarks on the ‘Reversed’ Grand Tour of Le Corbusier and Auguste Klipstein,” Assemblage, no. 4, October 1987, p. 38-51.

5 H. Allen Brooks, Le Corbusier’s Formative Years: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 255-303.

6 Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Voyage d’Orient, edited by Jean Petit, Paris: Éditions Forces Vives, 1966.

7 Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Journey to the East, edited and translated by Ivan Žaknić, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987.

8 For a discussion about intertextuality and discourse see Sibel Bozdoğan, “Entre orientalisme et découverte de la modernité,” in Roberta Amirante, Burcu Kütükçüoğlu, Panayotis Tournikiotis and Yannis Tsiomis, L’Invention d’un architecte. Le voyage en Orient de Le Corbusier, Paris: Éditions de La Villette, 2013.

9 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 16 and 14.

10 The Slavic Balkan vases are functional water-drinking urns (would be taken in the field, water is kept cool, separate drinking/pouring parts; and slender neck prevents bugs entering).

11 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 18. Photographs have captured Le Corbusier’s enduring interest in Slavic peasant ceramics that he purchased in villages between Belgrade and Tarnovo.

12 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 15.

13 A sentiment reinforced in his 1925 publication. Le Corbusier, Decorative Art Today [First published as Le Corbusier, L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui, Paris: G. Crès, 1925], Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

14 Ibid., p. 60.

15 Ibid., p. 46 and 47.

16 The vernacular was revisited later in his 1935 flights through the M’zab in Algeria (Aircraft 122).

17 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 60.

18 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, op. cit. (note 1), p. 20.

19 Ivan Žaknić, “Le Corbusier’s Epiphany on Mount Athos,” Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 43, no. 4, Summer 1990, p. 29. Yannis Tsiomis, “Athos to Athens: Greece in the Voyage d’Orient,” in Jean-Louis Cohen (ed.), Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscape, New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2013, p. 104-108.

20 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, op. cit. (note 6), p. 173.

21 Ivan Žaknić, “Le Corbusier’s Epiphany on Mount Athos,” op. cit. (note 18).

22 Ibid., p. 35.

23 The City was “Constantinople,” the center of the Byzantine empire and before this the eastern center of the Roman empire. Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, op. cit. (note 1), p. 11, 18, 149-153.

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Abbildungsverzeichnis

Titel Figure 1: Jeanneret’s drawing of “Stomne,” Balkan Slavic vase, June 9-14, 1911.
Beschriftung The Slavic Balkan vases are functional water-drinking urns—would be taken in the field, water is kept cool, separate drinking/pouring parts; and slender neck prevents bugs entering.
Abbildungsnachweis Source: Paris (France), Fondation Le Corbusier, Drawings, “Orient,” 134/5881 ©FLC.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/3509/img-1.jpg
Datei image/jpeg, 1,8M
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Zitierempfehlung

Online-Version

Mirjana Lozanovska, « Europe, Le Corbusier and the Balkans », ABE Journal [Online], 11 | 2017, Online erschienen am: 27 September 2017, abgerufen am 15 Dezember 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/3509 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.3509

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Autor

Mirjana Lozanovska

Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture and the Built Environment, Deakin University, Australia

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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