The Monk of Modernism
By Tess Taylor
The story might begin something like this: In September 1907, armed with a Baedeker and the works of John Ruskin, the young architect Charles-Eduoard Jeanneret embarked on one of the middle class conventions of his day: the Grand tour of Europe. His four years of travel were intended to expose him to new cultures and finish his education. Beginning in Italy, he visited Lyon and Venice, and later Greece and Turkey.
His tour was successful in spurts. Jeanneret was a studious traveler. He followed the Baedeker-recommended route through Italy with care. In Greece, he enjoyed the Parthenon but got dysentery. Despite the fact that it was highly recommended, he found Venice dull. While his father and art teacher at home wanted him to observe architecture, Jeanneret, who had wanted to be a painter, spent much of his time writing home about colors, sculptures, and light. But in Italy, after sketching Giottos and Michealangelos, colonnades and rose windows, Jeanneret followed a side note in his guidebook to the hills of Galluzzo. There, three miles southwest of Florence, while touring humble, relatively unknown 14th century monastery, the young man had something of an architectural epiphany.
"I have found the solution to workers housing- a unique type," he wrote that night to his parents, before adding, "Only, the landscape will be difficult to recapture.... Oh those monks, what happy fellows." The place made an impression. Of the many places le Corbusier visited on his voyage, the monastery in Galluzzo was one of the only places he returned, to revisit at the tour's end.
Or so the story that goes. A little over a decade later, Jeanneret began calling himself Le Corbusier, and in 1922, when he was designing his first apartment building, the unbuilt Immeubles Villas, Le Corbusier recalled his visits to Galluzzo. It was a voyage he later would say had decided the rest of his life.
"I saw, in the harmonious countryside of Tuscany, a modern city crowning the top of a hill," he wrote. "The uninterrupted ring of monks' cells formed the noblest silhouette on the landscape. Each cell overlooks the plain and opens at a lower level into a small, enclosed garden. I thought I had never seen such happy living arrangements."
I first came across this passage while researching another project about the failure of certain modernist high rises. It was a detour in my research: Le Corbusier was not directly responsible for the high rises I was researching.
Nevertheless, the high rises had been built on what several essayists called "Corbusian principles." Something about le Corbusier's account of glimpsing this modernity piqued my interest. Seen at their far end, that type modernism looked strange, bulky, odd. Now from their conception, they seemed even odder. What could a 14th century monastery tell me about Le Corbusier's vision? It was an odd way to approach the making of an aesthetic. The chapter intrigued me.
It's a small chapter, to be sure. Only a handful of Le Corbusier scholars have written about his visit to Galluzzo. A few guidebooks pay it a little lip service. A recent art book called "Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier" does not mention it at all. As far as I could tell, the last full-length article treating the subject in English was written by Peter Serenyi, now professor emeritus of architecture at Northwestern University in1968. Another article about Le Corbusier's visit to Galluzzo was published in Italian and French by an Italian architecture scholar, Giuliano Gresleri in 1987, the centennial of le Corbusier's birth.
In a way, the scholars argue, the premise is not too strange at all. A monastery is an understandable analog for a city. Serenyi notes that in earlier ages, the monastery in medieval times was not so unlike what the cities were to become: a residence, a place of study, a center of economic activity, and a place of refuge. Monasteries contained places for privacy, for work, for recreation, for medication and most of all for a collective order.
Serenyi argues that it was this vision of order that Le Corbusier was after. He had been reading 19th century social philosophy about communal living. He read the 19th century philosopher and utopianist Charles Fourier, who had lived through the disruptions of the early 19th century, just as Le Corbusier would live through the disruptions of the 20th. Both were attempting to rectify the problems of their world by designing the form of an ideal communal life. In essence, Corbu was after a shape.
"In Galluzzo he found was this architectural expression of the tension between solitary and communal life that attracted him," says Serenyi. "He could see the shape of individual dwellings bound together around a common purpose."
Even from a distance, one can see the odd serrated walls of the monks' cells of the Certosa Val d'Ema, now a short bus ride through the hilly suburbs of Florence. Above hills are dotted with artichokes, poppies and olive trees, it looms on the skyline. It is hard to miss its dark silhouette. "That was probably attractive to Corbusier," Serenyi says. "like at the Acropolis. He was drawn to those large masses."
In Florence, in the British Institute Library, I found a yellowing copy of a turn of the century guidebook much like the one Corbusier must have followed. The book points out that the road leading to the monastery passes the tower where Galileo perhaps inadvertently set the modern world in motion 300 years earlier by discovering modern physics. It also points out that the beyond the village of Galluzzo, is the way to the monastery, "a gate through which no female can enter."
This has changed. I took two tours of the monastery on a hot May day, the first with two elderly birdlike Italian women and the second with a handful of much larger American bankers. A monk gave the same tour in Italian and English. The monastery was built by Nicolas Acciaioli, a prosperous Florentine merchant in 1348. It is said to have been designed by the Florentine artisan Andrea Orcagna.
If monumental, it is also somehow folksy- vernacular, like the art Corbu would later collect. There is a trace of the Gothic in its arches. It holds faded frescos by Jacopo Pantormo. Its narrow chapel has a classically proportioned Renaissance fašade. Inside, the chapel walls are layered, like so many Italian churches with later baroque ornaments. There are colonnades in pink and black marble, fluffy Madonnas, and an intricately carved choir loft, which seems like the diametric opposite of the stripped down aesthetic modernists would later champion. There are elaborate doors carved by one unnamed monk over 34 years of total silence.
In the back, the outdoor porticos of a Renaissance courtyard frame the certosa, the 18 private quarters that once held the monks. While the walls turn their back to the collective life of the medieval courtyard, they open into two rooms, interlocked in L shapes.
In a strange anachronism, the units resemble split-level bungalows. Inside, they open into silence and light and the view of one's own garden and a fig tree. At the back of each room is a garden. Above each quarter is a loft like room that the monks used for meditation.
The units are designed for complete solitude. There's a hole in the wall of each cell where a monk can receive his daily ration. There's a hallway where a pent up monk can pace for exercise. It far window looks over the sun-dappled vineyards of Tuscany.
"Not so bad to be a monk," shrugs one banker from Texas. "I mean, if you're going to give up the world."
"There was an interplay between these solitary cells and the communal nature of the monastery which expressed a complete social order," says Serenyi. "It was a community of men joined in a common purpose: prayer. I think this is what attracted Corbusier. But Carthusians were an order devoted to silence. They were the most non-communal order. Their vision was of joining people together physically, and yet insuring that they were essentially private, that they had as little contact as possible with the outside world."
Later, I sat with Father Geoffredo Viti, a plump good-natured scholar of medieval religious architecture, in his high ceilinged library. He is not Carthusian, he is Cistercian, a difference he stressed repeatedly. "The Carthusians are essentially hermits," he said in jolly, raspy Italian. "They would not have met with you at all."
Father Viti says he knows that Le Corbusier once visited the monastery. "Academics come visit us about it sometimes" he says. "The last were about 10 years ago."
He led me to a book explaining Carthusian history. According to it, the Carthusians, whose order had so inspired Corbu, formed in the10th century from a sect that wandered in the wild in extremely ascetic conditions. An early problem with their movement was that its monks all too often died off. They found they needed some institution to sustain them.
They found this in the monastery. "The architecture," says the guidebook, of the Carthusians, " is explicitly called to underline the fact that the members of the order are isolated, but belong to a community of the isolated... the monks turn their gaze towards the depths of the soul." The monastery, then, is supposed to offer the "minimal communal framework possible" in order to sustain a hermit's life.
When the monks came, they went into isolation for the duration of their lives. They met once a day for morning and evening prayers, and other than this kept vows of silence. Once a week they took a communal meal. Even then, they didn't speak, but only listened to scriptures. "Their goal" said the guidebook," was to exhaust themselves into the delirium of prayer."
"It was," Father Viti said, "a rather rigorous lifestyle."
Seen this way, it also seems like a lonely template for modern life. Father Viti added that he does not know what Le Corbusier's visit to the monastery could have been like. " I don't imagine he would have gotten to talk to anyone," Father Viti said. " I was in a Carthusian monastery once, and no one talked to me at all."
Whatever the case, Le Corbusier's vision of the monastery struck him "It was the first time that I had experienced such silence and solitude, but also daily contact with men," he wrote. "I would like to spend my whole life in what they call their cells."
And in some way, he did. Many scholars agree that one of the main authors of modern architecture set out to create a series of not machines, but of monastic cells for modern living. In the Immeubles Villas of 1922, a crucially and essential piece of Corbusier's first, modern efforts, are essentially Carthusian units stacked on top of one another. They are L-shaped, double height, and each has its own courtyard. The unbuilt proposal for Bloc a Salut, 1922, contains double height L shaped apartements framing hanging gardens.
In the years after World War II, funded by the Parisian government, Le Corbusier began what would become one of the most celebrated forms of its era for mass housing. The Unite d'Habitaton of mA1952 is accessed through a processional hallway, not unlike the rennaisasance portico. Each floor holds an internal street.
It is also rather like a monastery, a city within a city, set apart from the world.
It contains a kind of world within a world: It has a hotel, a gymnasium, and rooftop. Its
Parts are made of the L shaped spilt level, repeated together 322 times. It pays attention to the qualities of light, and soundproofing. "You can live there in silence on the big monastic ship" Serenyi says.
In the end, each of these Corbusier's buildings valued, a kind of silence, a kind of absolute retreat within a communal space. '"He never stopped thinking of himself as a painter," said Serenyi. "He valued the psychological space for privacy."
"It is also safe to say," said Serenyi, "that his vision of communal life contains a very great need for privacy. He must have understood the modern world, or the coming of the modern world as something that assaulted the senses, from which one would need to retreat."
"What I think is remarkable about the idea still today, is that if it would be possible, to bring people to live together in this sort of place instead of in stupid little developed houses, one would actually bring about less devastation of the landscape" Frampton says. "It was a remarkably utopian vision. The fact was, it was imitated widely, but never repeated with the same generosity. While he did build other blocs like this bit, none that were as generous. The type will not be repeated, the idea was not the same full scale, full dimensions. And many of them had disastrous consequences." ( I could flesh this out more.)
Much later, Le Corbusier would inform his students, "Devoting yourself to architecture is like entering a religious order. You must consecrate yourself, have faith, and give. As a just reward, architecture will bring a special happiness to those who have given her their whole being. This happiness is a sort of trance that comes with radiant birth after the agonies of labor. It is a power of invention, of creation which allows man to give the best that is in him to bring joy to others, the everyday joy found only in the home."
Serenyi, who quoted this in his article on Le Corbusier notes that for Le Corbusier the cell and the home and the monastic cell are one in the same. He notes the slippage between the cell and the home.
"The family," Serenyi writes, "has no place in Le Corbusier's mind."
Instead he says "Le Corbusier was a great, solitary mind. He needed a great deal of silence."
" He was really attracted by this vision of the artist monk," Frampton says. "He worked slavishly. He had very little personal life to speak of."
In 1958, towards the end of his career, Le Corbusier, finished his own monastery, its cells built around one rectangular courtyard, in a site sloping down a high hill. The Couvent Sainte Marie de la Tourette is a quiet, block like building.
In a strange coincidence, 1958 the same year that the Carthusians left the solitude Certosa of Ema. They had some financial problems, and their numbers were dwindling. They were replaced by the Cistercians, perhaps more worldly, and by all accounts more sociable monks. When I visited, they sold me some very good jars of sambuca and of honey. Father Viti says that the Carthusian decision to leave the Galluzzo was partly financial.
"Their numbers were shrinking," he said, before adding dryly," It was perhaps too difficult an order for to maintain."
Endings are funny things. The Dominican monks at La Tourette have also left the monastery built for them by Corbu.
This was a problem not of architectural failure, but of success. According to Peter Serenyi, "It was an architectural destination, for fans of Le Corbusier. It was too great a draw and the tourists kept coming. And so, in the end, the monks had to leave. Le Corbusier was too popular. They had no solitude at all."