Journey to the East
Le Corbusier
Ivan Zaknic,
Editor and Translator

Le Corbusier's favorite job was modernizing things. The first thing he fixed was his name. He started out as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret but shortened it to Le Corbusier.

Jeanneret might be said to be one of the originators of modern architecture, urbanisme and the management of food. "We have the American grain elevators and factories," he said, "the magnificent First Fruits of the new age."

In 1935 he suggested that the city center of Paris be replaced by eighteen sixty-story buildings. He wanted all urban centers to be New York City, which he called "une belle catastrophe."

His plan for urban clear-cutting was adopted by most American cities in the early 1950s. It was called urban renewal, or, more recently, "racial removal." The Pruitt-Iago project was built in 1956 in St. Louis, Missouri, and blown up thirty years after it was built. Le Corbu's style has been formalized into a school of architecture known as the "international style" which includes a sub-culture known as "New Brutalism." It is a way of constructing buildings that makes everyone want to leave town.

Until he saw the light in the 1950s and started making light with buildings like his rangy and funny Chapelle de Ronchamp [see below], Corbu wanted to get people off the streets and into cars and elevators where they belonged, leaving the surroundings to automobiles, asphalt and Astroturf.

For housing people, he designed a machine a habiter, roughly, a "habitation machine." In these, people live clean lives, don't go out much, stay home and watch television and keep their children at home so they won't get robbed and beaten on the well-ordered streets.

Journey to the East took place in 1911 and is not exactly a trip to what you and I would call "the East" since Le Corbu went no further east than Istanbul and not much further south than Delphi.

It is a fairly romantic jaunt, and the author finds himself getting hot over the ladies of the Balkans:

    the women move with a swinging of hips which unfurls, like the skirt of a dancing girl, the thousand folds in the short dresses where the silk flowers ignite under a sun of golden fire.

He falls morbidly in love not only with women, but the moon, Mediterranean sunsets, pottery and classical buildings in Greece. He traveled simply, noting, in Rodosto, Turkey, for example: "On the bedsheets at the hotel the black of the bedbugs was easily equal to the white of unwashed linen."

He was but twenty-four when he made this journey with a friend. "For how much have I been already led by an absolute enthusiasm for the works of other peoples, other times, other places!"

    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?

Besides bedbugs, skirts, the Parthenon and the Acropolis, Corbu finds himself entranced by donkeys: "They know how to trot with poise and thoughtfulness."

    Their lower lips hang full of gentleness, clean and neat, with a few sparse hairs strewn as on glove leather, and they carry out these difficult tasks with drawing room manners.

Corbu is masterful at invoking the feel of a Greek village of a hundred years ago. For instance, Daphni, where "I thought we had landed on some island of long ago, since every vestige evoked a poetry shaped by an adoration for the past. The moment was not simply bucolic. It was also sacred, filled with silence and peace." Coming down the hill into the village of Karies,

    A few kerosene lamps were burning inside street lanterns hanging here and there. A radiant silence gave us the feeling of truly arriving in a promised land. An open door at the end of the street projected a bright light onto the pavement, illuminating a wall of vines on which we saw hanging grapes.

Despite the fact, that, as some claim, this was the trip that decided him to become an architect, his writing about animals is better than his writing about buildings, villages, or even women. Here are the docks of Salonika, where they are loading cows onto a boat, "Quick, a running noose around the horns, a brief command, the hook is taken up against carrying away that enormous mass of meat hung by its horns."

    A large arc was inscribed; the mechanism released the chain; like a pot, the bull arrived at the end of the hold and fell on its back, rolling its bewildered eyes.

"It hardly had time to recover when, seized by the ring in its muzzle, it was firmly fastened."

This lively (and lovely) volume of Journey to the East is packed with Corbu's quick and delicate drawings ... almost a hundred of them. All date from the time of the trip.

--- Carlos Amantea
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