THE CITY'S SOUL IN BLACK AND WHITE
My one regret of our recent weekend in Istanbul is that I did not buy a book I spent a rapturous ten minutes looking at: a book about the young Le Corbusier’s trip there, replete with his skeletal drawings of domes and minarets. Le Corbusier (then merely Charles-Edouard Jeannere) began his tour in 1911 when he was 24. “Tour” is the operative word here, for he was aware of a tradition in which he followed, of the Western European, bourgeois rite of passage in which one travelled to the east to perceive the Oriental other. The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs when he visited. It had lost Libya to Italy in 1911 and, a year later, was driven out of the Balkans. Le Corbusier is torn between an awe upon perceiving the great Islamic architecture of the city, and an anxiety towards the transitory places in which everyday people lived. Little could he know that these very tensions would be heightened in the coming decades.
“From our vantage point we could see the Golden Horn beyond the cascading cypresses,” he writes. “Below, Stamboul sits above a broad band of shadow, outlining the silhouettes of its great mosques against the darkened sky. When there is moonlight - we had it twice - the sea, visible beyond it, ties the minarets together with a shimmering thread along the gloomy ridge.”
Aside from the stunning Rustem Pasha mosque, one of almost 200 surviving buildings designed by the architect Sinan and set within a maze of market stalls beside the Spice Bazaar, every mosque we saw seemed to gain significance the further we were away from it. He sees, as we did in Rustem Pasha, a handful of men praying underneath a tower of concentric chandeliers (thankfully, he does not see the Blue Mosque as we did on a Sunday morning, filled to the rafters with tour parties, an unholy place stuffed with smell of sweaty feet). His sketches of Ottoman mosques are dispassionate and abstract, though one can see them as a direct influence on his Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.
But it is the vernacular houses and markets of the Muslim quarter over which Le Corbusier eulogises. In contrast to the solid stone mosques, these wooden machines for living were both the causes and the victims of Istanbul’s many fires. He sees a fire which destroys these wooden buildings, yet the cathedrals and mosques which have stood for centuries – the majestic Hagia Sophia, in which Byzantine subjects prayed for deliverance in 1453 when Mehmet’s Ottoman forces surrounded Constantinople – continue to top the skyline, unblemished by the flames.
There is something sadly speculative about Le Corbusier’s gaunt outlines, and Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of Istanbul draws on this melancholy. “Having always apprehended the city’s soul in black and white, I am captivated by the line drawings of more discerning Western travellers like Le Corbusier, and by any book set in Istanbul with black-and-white illustrations." Corbu is a flaneur in a city whose time will shortly pass. The Empire will fall; the government will be compromised; the city will be occupied; the Unionists will adopt Ankara as the new capital. The houses which Le Corbusier so admired will be pulled down to make way for the modern city of Kemal's dreams - and Le Corbusier's too.