While Le Corbusier's famous “journey to the east” has been the subject of numerous investigations as an important chapter in the great modernist's formative years, his days in Romania while en route to Constantinople are thinly covered. Le Corbusier and the Romanian Cula helps to fill that gap by focusing on one important detail: discovery of the identity and location of a much-discussed building he sketched while there and its importance for both traditional Romanian architecture and Le Corbusier's emerging vision of modernity. Judith Bing's discussion of her long search and unexpected discovery draws on firsthand knowledge of vernacular architecture in the Balkans, including Romania, and a long-standing interest in the early travels and subsequent modern architecture of Le Corbusier.
Few modern architects have been investigated as thoroughly as Le Corbusier, and it seemed unlikely I would join the scrutiny until I found myself in the Balkans, studying the same types of vernacular architecture that had attracted his attention in the period of his early travels. His experiences, recorded in his travel accounts, captured my interest, and my continuing Balkan itineraries increasingly mirrored his. This essay, and the discovery it describes, is one outcome of our respective journeys to the east.
Le Corbusier's formation as an architect unfolded when he was still known as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret and living with his parents in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds. He flourished under the Arts and Crafts–oriented tutelage of Charles l'Eplattenier at the local école d'art and was incrementally drawn toward the field of architecture. Before completing the art school curriculum, he had designed and overseen construction of his first house (Villa Fallet, 1907); other commissions in La Chaux-de-Fonds followed. During these years he began to fill sketchbooks with studies of nature, landscape, people, and buildings, a habit he would keep throughout his life and a critical part of the process through which his architectural ideas would emerge.
Jeanneret's transformation into the modernist Le Corbusier began in earnest with the period of travels and apprenticeships he undertook between 1907 and 1911. While his trips north led to important internships in the offices of Peter Behrens and Auguste Perret, as well as exposure to emerging ideas and technologies, it was the sunny south and architecture of the past that stirred Jeanneret's passion. His interest in the pure geometries and primal shapes of ancient and folk arts inspired his adventurous itinerary of 1911, to Constantinople by way of the Balkans with a return through Greece. A German friend and art history student named Auguste Klipstein accompanied him on what he would call his voyage d'orient. Sketches from these travels constitute the lead images in the first volume of Le Corbusier's Oeuvre complète, while he omitted the early architectural projects in La Chaux-de-Fonds.1
Like many, I have examined this journey, the Balkan section in particular, as my research focus is Balkan vernacular architecture. After reading Le Corbusier's travel account, Voyage d'orient, I found that young Jeanneret's appreciation of what he encountered paralleled my own responses to vernacular buildings that I had studied during a year in former Yugoslavia (1987–88). So in 2000 I determined to follow his path through Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria into Turkey (minus the oxcarts) and grew all the more certain that Jeanneret's travel experiences were embedded in the building designs of his subsequent years, as the modern Paris-based architect Le Corbusier.
It is not the purpose of this essay to reprise what so many scholars have written of their examinations of the 1911 journey and its aftermath.2 Rather, my interest here lies in one small segment of that journey, and in just one building, which Jeanneret sketched during his stay in Romania, the least well described part of his journey. I included Romania in my 2000 itinerary expressly to track this building down, and it took me yet another fifteen years to complete the search.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret documented his journey in annotated sketchbooks, in photographs, and in articles he sent home to be published in a La Chaux-de-Fonds newspaper. Le Corbusier much later revised these articles as a book, Voyage d$orient, published in 1966, the year after his death, the book I later read in translation.3 The section he wrote about Romania, where he and Klipstein spent only a few days, takes the form of a letter in which he describes El Greco paintings seen at a salon and impressions of Bucharest—its handsome women and Paris-like architecture, and some disappointing artists—but discusses none of the sketches he made in Romania.4 As often as these sketches have been published, no scholar to my knowledge has explained precisely what building(s) they depict. Two of them (on the right in Figure 1) are easily recognized as views of the same structure.
With the publication of the Melissa Publishing House series on Balkan architecture in 1992, L'Architecture Traditionelle des Balkans, and its volume Roumanie, by Dr. Georgette Stoica, I came to understand the significance of the building these sketches portray, or, more aptly, its type: the cula (sometimes written as kula, or, in Stoica's French, koula).5 Further studies led me to a book on Romanian traditional architecture by Grigore Ionescu, yet the culas he describes do not match Jeanneret's sketches.6 Internet resources now include the Romanian site Kulas, Past and Perspective, which came to my attention more recently.7 However, as I reviewed this site's contents, trying to align locations with Jeanneret's plausible travel in Romania, it became apparent that the cula he drew must no longer exist. Quite possibly it has been lost, given the ravages and renewals of the twentieth century. My specific quest was stalled, but I did visit three extraordinary culas while in Romania and developed a strong appreciation for Jeanneret's attraction to this historic building type.
The Romanian Cula
Jeanneret's sketches depict a Romanian type of fortified manor house. The word kula means tower in Balkan languages (its roots are Turkish), and in Balkan countries kulas served as defensible dwellings.8 Those in Romania were built (and some can still be visited) in areas below the Carpathian Mountains in the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, once a borderland at the periphery of and controlled by the Ottoman Empire. As the empire weakened, starting in the seventeenth century, the local Romanian boyars (or nobles) who owned large estates in the rich lands between the mountains and the Danube found themselves under threat from rebellious peasants and from bands of brigands. They needed safe places for their families and valuables, and so they created their own form of fortified tower houses (Figure 2).9
The Romanian cula was sited in the open, where its master could survey his lands, his family's security ensured by heavy masonry construction. A single sturdy wooden door gave entry to a windowless ground floor used for storage of valuables and provisions to sustain the occupants in times of siege. Above, at intermediate levels, building openings were typically narrow slits for firing shotguns. An interior stair led to the upper floors, the topmost handsomely appointed for formal occasions. Only at this top floor were the outdoors welcome, by way of larger windows and a semienclosed veranda, called the cerdac (chardak).10 This open-air gallery was subtracted from the overall cubic building volume and articulated by a peripheral arcade, the building's primary decorative feature. In strong sunlight the contrast between brightly lit façade and shaded porch emphasized the elaborated shapes of the arcade openings, further embellished by relief in the white-rendered plasterwork.11
I knew these details would have caught Le Corbusier's eye. Earlier in his journey he had already praised white, cubic buildings and indoor–outdoor spaces, and in his three-point perspective sketch (Carnet 1:64) he stresses the cula's skyward reach and appealingly open top-floor gallery.12 He would have appreciated the special interior qualities of that top-floor aerie with its cooling shade, the sound of birdsong, and views of the lush surrounding landscape. In 2000, at the open-air Folk Architecture Museum of Gorj, in Curtişoara, I explored a Romanian cula quite similar to the one Jeanneret drew (see Figure 2). His cula sketches include tantalizing, distinguishing specifics: the three spaced slits above an offset arched doorway, the trefoil shapes of the arcade arches, and off to the left, the masonry cross (see Figure 1). I remained frustrated for several more years after my visit to Romania, worried that these telltale details would not match any known cula—until a serendipitous Internet foray led me to the answer.
In 2014, for another project, I was researching the national and international expositions that proliferated during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the pavilions representing southeastern European countries. Among other resources, I examined old postcard views of the various fairgrounds. Needless to add, Romanian culas remained on my mind, so in one random search I joined the terms “cula” and “Bucharest” and “exhibition” together, and website listings about the 1906 Romanian General Exhibition appeared on my screen. Certain sites showed the fair in period postcards, and amid views of various exposition spaces and structures were some showing the Cula Boereasca (boyar's cula) (Figure 3).13
The 1906 Romanian General Exhibition (Expositie Generala Romana) took place in Bucharest's then-new Carol Park and was a celebration of the fortunate forty-year rule of King Carol I. Many of the fair's buildings were designed in a “neo-Romanian” or nationalist style, for which the historic cula was a primary inspiration.14 The fair buildings must have remained in place after 1906, certainly through the spring of 1911 (King Carol's reign lasted to 1914). Carol Park was redeveloped later in the twentieth century and today retains only two of the exposition structures, not the cula. I assume that the fair's Cula Boereasca was a reconstruction, perhaps of no single precedent but incorporating essential cula elements, which Charles-Édouard Jeanneret observed and swiftly sketched.
As the postcard views show, the exhibition cula's distinguishing features—the arched portal, slit openings, and decorative arcade—plus its clear overall form match Jeanneret's sketches. One postcard even includes the nearby cross. From one of these views we can see that the cula was sited amid other fair structures, all more ornate and some much larger. Other postcards reveal that the imposing Palatul Artelori (Arts Palace) was directly adjacent, yet Jeanneret's sketch presents the cula in isolation, its pristine volume easily imagined in a rural setting. It interests me that this was the one building in bustling Bucharest that he selected to draw, and I believe that Jeanneret recognized in it the elemental qualities of vernacular buildings. He was consistently attracted to ordinary dwellings on this journey, and later he would identify “folklore” as the primary subject of his Balkan passage, marking key sites on his travel map with the letter F.15
Close observation reveals that all four of Jeanneret's sketches on pages 62 through 65 of Carnet 1 depict this boyar's cula.16 Specifically, I see that the roof detail on page 62 relates to the building with similar eaves on page 64, while the plan and interior stair views on page 63 describe the interior of the building on pages 64 and 65 (see Figure 1). The question of four rather than five arched bays posed by the stair plan, which shows just four, is resolved in these postcard views of the cula, the upper card showing five bays on the front versus four on the side, as seen in the card at lower left (see Figure 3). Thus I conclude that Jeanneret made all four of these sketches at the fairgrounds in Bucharest, not elsewhere in Romania. By contrast, Giulano Gresleri, who transcribed and annotated the Carnets, notes that the cross on page 64 suggests a location near Cimpina, outside Bucharest.17
My quest was finally completed.
The Romanian Cula and Modernity
The cula Jeanneret recorded in Bucharest bore immediate fruit in the design for his parents’ house in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Villa Jeanneret-Perret (or Maison Blanche) of 1912, built in the year after his return home (Figure 4). Architectural historians, including Romanian Carmen Popescu, have observed its cula similarities: white, cubic form, hipped roof, and especially the arcaded expression of the top floor.18 As others argue, there are many likely influences behind this design, as the emerging architect's concepts were already synthesizing multiple references.19 I agree that the Romanian cula and the Villa Jeanneret-Perret show notable similarities in external appearance, but on the interior of the latter the band of upstairs windows belongs to the parents’ private bedroom quarters rather than to an open, more communal gallery. I prefer, if speculatively, to explore the Bucharest cula's longer influence in Le Corbusier's purist residential designs of the 1920s, from the Maison Citrohan to the Maison Cook, and ultimately the Villa Savoye. Absorbed and greatly transformed, lightened by reinforced concrete Dom-ino construction and reconceived within the five points of a new architecture, the open-air cerdac evolves into a sun-seeking toit-jardin, part of the pristine volume but outdoors and open to nature. The internal cula stair, observed with care on page 63 of Carnet 1, becomes part of a dynamic architectural journey, the promenade architecturale, leading upward to elevated living spaces and an outdoor roof garden, a core experiential feature of Le Corbusier's great houses of the 1920s. (Perhaps to further enrich this concept, the outdoor pergola on the plinth at the Villa Jeanneret-Perret is reimagined atop the flat rooftops of purist dwellings.) To my eye, the Maison Cook realizes the transformation most clearly, with an upward journey and welcoming toit-jardin, fronted by a covered gallery articulated by four slender columns (Figure 5).20
The Romanian culas, as I experienced in Curtişoara and Le Corbusier in Bucharest, carry an early germ of these mature concepts. They are one source among many, of course; it is simplistic to credit the Romanian cula as a direct inspiration of Le Corbusier's purist architectural principles, for his journey to the east (among other travels) provided him a multitude of compelling architectural encounters. My own journeys to the Balkans have focused on a vernacular space and structure called the chardak (a “place between heaven and earth” according to one famous Serbian folktale), an always-elevated and outward-viewing gathering space built by many of the diverse peoples of southeastern Europe. The Romanian cula's open gallery is a chardak, one of many such spaces Jeanneret visited and documented during his trip; collectively these spaces constitute a vital aspect of his journey's historic import.21
Culas are treasured in Romania. They have offered inspiration to Romanian architects, both national revivalists and modernists, irrespective of Le Corbusier's interest.22 Yet interested he was, and so I offer this small contribution to scholarship on the life and work of this famous architect.