Le Corbusier became one of the world’s most renowned architects of the twentieth century. The importance of his visit to the Holy Mountain is not very common knowledge. He visited Mount Athos only once. But it made a lasting impression on the young man and the trip had a definite influence on his architecture.
Charles-Édouard made his grand tour in 1911 when he was 24 years old. The tour lasted for five months. It would not bring him to the classical destinations, but instead he first headed east; to the Balkans with as the final destination: Constantinople with its architectural miracle the Hagia Sophia (in that era a mosque). On the way to Constantinople he took a detour to Mount Athos as well. He was very much interested in eastern and Byzantine architecture. Charles-Édouard gave the following impression of the peninsula:
The Virgin has her altar on the great mountain consecrated entirely in her praise. Her altar has its monastery at the foot of the mountain, on a sandy bank by the edge of the sea. The monastery is a big quadrangle pierced by a door at the end of a former drawbridge; washed by the moat, the enclosing walls are bare almost all the way to the top, where balconies cling and where loggias open at the fourth and fifth floors. In the middle of the large courtyard is the main church, Byzantine to its roots, in its form and its eternal principles. A Byzantine spirit still pervades the whole of this monastery, even down to its smallest stones. But many other monasteries, eighteen I think, sit like eagles’ eyries at the top of steep, inaccessible rocks. Others, similar to this one, are near the sea. Everywhere there is an aura of another age and, because of the multitude of monks, a feeling of disturbing anachronism.
He gives this description in a book that was published shortly after his death. It is part of a separate chapter in his last book, published in 1966, Le Voyage d’Orient (Journey to the East), which is based on the eighteen days he spent on the Holy Mountain in 1911. The draft was delivered to the publisher just before he died.
In the quote above he gives a description of the monastery of Iviron. Le Corbusier thought there were eighteen monasteries. In fact there are twenty, as we know. In those years 7.000 monks were still living on the Holy Mountain. The year 1911 was just a year before the Turkish rule would be replaced by protection under the Greek government.
The front view from the sea. Picture from 2009.
A view on the central courtyard. Picture from 2013.
Another quote from his book:
[T]his orthodox presence of a monastic life, this Byzantinism emptied like an echoless chasm, moves me.
I made a reconstruction of Le Corbusiers voyage of eighteen days on the Holy Mountain. I have put the names of the sketes and Monasteries he visited in a logical order: after arriving by boat at the harbour of Dafni he first went to Xeropotamou, then via Karyes to Iveron. From there: Philotheou, Karakallou, Great Lavra, the skete Prodromos, skete of St. Anna , St. Paul, Dionysiou, Simopetra, Panteleimonon. In fact he made a complete tour of the southern part of the peninsula and visited all the monasteries. I understand that he even went to the top of the mountain, probably before “the debilitating illness which sapped our energies” got hold of him. Something had made him seriously ill at the last part of his voyage.
The pyramid of Mount Athos (Foundation Le Corbusier)
During his stay he made quick sketches. As an architect he saw even natural phenomena such as the Holy Mountain as a piece of architecture, or as a sculpture. One of his famous quotes is “everything is architecture” meaning that one can create new artifacts from every existing object (Tzonis, 2001). So he called the Mount Athos a pyramid, as if the Holy Mountain is a human achievement as the pyramids in Egypt. Everything is architecture. It reminds me of the ideas to make a giant sculpture of the marble mountain.
He also made drawings of the ground plans of monasteries. Here we see his impression of Philoteou.
That he found inspiration and direction for his work becomes clear when reading this quote:
The hours spent in those silent sanctuaries inspired in me a youthful courage and true desire to become an honorable builder.
It is said that the structures of the buildings in Panteleimonos inspired him as well. Here we see how it looked, restored in 2019. In 1911 there were 2.999 cells in Panteleimonos.
Ten years earlier, in 2009, the restauration works had just started. Only the façade was upright.
The cell structure in the Chandigarh Legislative Assembly building in India.
The influence of the Athonian architecture can clearly be seen in his 1960 work in the Catholic monastery Tourette in Lyon, France. structure can be compared with Dionysiou for instance.
Dionysiou, winter 2014
On his first sketch of the monastery he referred explicit to Athos; he even drew a silhouette of the Holy Mountain.
Here we see the architect surrounded by monks.
An nice sketch from the arsanas of Simonas Petras looking up to the amazing structure.
In the last phase of his life Le Corbusier looked back on his traveling and evaluated his only visit to the Holy Mountain melancholically:
So many things made us leave Athos in too much of a hurry: the libraries in total disorder, the librarians not even knowing what they had at their disposal (marvellous documents), the impossibility of making ourselves understood, the debilitating illness which sapped our energies. Yet I know I shall never return there. You have to be sitting alone in your room on a desperate, rainy Sunday in a sad provincial town to feel anguish at having let so much happiness go by!
In 1914 he described the hours he spend on the Mountain were the happiest he had ever experienced and that overwhelming memories had been with him for three years since his visit.
He liked being alone and withdrawn from the world. He was looking for solitude and silence. He worked like a hermit. He designed and erected a wood log cabin, a tiny house as we would put it nowadays, were he could work with a view from Roquebrune-Cap Martin on the Mediterranean Sea. It resembled a monks cell. It measured only 3,6 meter by 3,6 meter. That was the place where he spent his working summers. That was the cell where he was happy. The only place where he was happy. He loved swimming in the Mediterranean. On the unfortunate day of August 28 1965 he was found dead 100 meters from his cabanon. He was later buried in the little cemetery above his cabin.
I gratefully used much information from Jelena Bogdanovićs instructive paper: “Le Corbusier’s testimonial to Byzantine architecture on mt. Athos” (2015), from Ivan Zaknic’s study, Le Corbusier’s Epiphany on Mount Athos (1990) and from Alexander Tzonis’ Le Corbusier, The poetics of machine and metaphor (2001) and several newspaper articles .