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The Classical ideals of Le Corbusier

How three weeks in Athens left a lasting impression on the father of Modernism

It is almost exactly a century ago that 24-year-old Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the future Le Corbusier, saw the Acropolis in Athens for the first time. This was an essential step in his ‘Voyage d’Orient’, his legendary journey through the Balkans to the Bosporus and the ancient Mediterranean world in search of the fundamentals of architecture. Overwhelmed by the Parthenon, he revisited the site every day for three weeks, sketching and photographing, even comparing the temple to a machine.

Refusing to trap the building in the dry categories of structural Rationalists, he rather saw it as the sculptural embodiment of an idea: a sublime expression transcending all simplified notions of the Classical. Beyond the object was the space of the site and Jeanneret was struck by the way that the Parthenon was approached on the diagonal then entered from the far end, and by the dynamic interaction of the entasis of columns and the curves of stylobates with the distant horizon.

The Athenian Acropolis was lodged in his memory as an architectural paragon to which he would aspire all his life. Little wonder that in Vers une Architecture (1923), he referred to it in terms of ‘Architecture pure création de l’esprit’.

In 1929, the same year that the Villa Savoye was in construction, Le Corbusier, the pope of Modernism let it be known that ‘the past is my only real master’. His architecture was radical in a double sense: both revolutionary and returning to roots. The Villa Savoye itself is about many things − a utopian vision of modern existence, a ‘machine à habiter’, a Purist language of form, a post-Cubist sense of space, a grammar for reinforced concrete − but it is also a distillation and abstraction of Classical Order and in some ways may be thought of as a machine age temple.

There is the ceremonial approach by car, the entrance from the far end, the processional ramp guiding the promenade architecturale to the upper levels, and the engagement with the far horizon. In line with his concept of ‘standards’ the cylindrical pilotis holding up the Villa are instruments of urbanism lifting up the superstructure of buildings and cities to permit the free flow of circulation, but they are also surely distillations of classical columns. As usual,
Le Corbusier aspired to the type and the Platonic idea.

Some of Le Corbusier’s early works explored the classical language and its resonances with the vernacular in a more overt way, guided in this endeavour by the likes of Schinkel and Palladio, but beneath the surface were the deeply embedded archetypes of the houses that he had sketched in Pompeii, the monastic cells he had admired in the Monastery at Ema, and the distilled memories of Greek and Roman ruins.

It is these deeper ‘mental structures’ that persist and return in different forms throughout the architect’s life, in the ‘heroic period’ of the 1920s, and the primitivism in rough concrete of the late works. On the hill top at Ronchamp, we rediscover some of the themes of Jeanneret’s Acropolis but in a dynamic sculptural form: the processional route up the slope and around the building, the curved profiles of ‘acoustic forms’ responding to the distant horizons.

However, the apotheosis of the theme is surely the roof terrace in the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles: the abstraction of an Antique ruin in ‘béton brut’ with its gymnasium, crèche and collage of sculptural stacks drawing in the surrounding rocky hills and celebrating the architect’s Mediterranean myth. It is when you climb the steps of the open air theatre that the view suddenly expands to the infinity of the sea.

The Unité embodied a collective ideal and the image of an ocean liner as a floating city but its roof terrace was the architect’s homage to the Acropolis, experienced, drawn and internalised during the Voyage d’Orient 40 years earlier. With Le Corbusier all was metamorphosis: he was like a magician who stole things from the world and transformed them in his own creative universe.

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