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THEORIA: TRAVEL AS PARAPHOR; Part 4 - Le Corbusier and the ecstatic moment at Val d’Ema

The young Le Corbusier, whose given name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, left his home in the Jura region of Switzerland on September 1, 1906, carrying in his baggage (both mentally and physically) John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence and Hippolyte Taine's Voyage en Italie (Weber 2008, 40; Petit 1970, 28; Baker 1996, 67). Ruskin’s travel guide to Florence was part of Édouard’s professional discourse, the book having been recommended to him by his teacher and mentor L’Eplattenier (Jencks 2000, 38).

He boarded a train that took him to Milan, where the cathedral overwhelmed him, as did the liveliness of the commercial square in front of the building (Weber 2008, 40-1). He then passed through Genoa to Pisa, where again he was held rapt by the city’s cathedral. In Nicholas Fox Weber’s words: “[t]he heightened sensitivity with which the young traveler felt color and saw design details drove him to a frenzy of excitement. … Architecture induced unparalleled ecstasy” (ibid, 43). Édouard went on to Florence, where he met his friend Perrin and they pooled their meager resources to rent a room in a pensione to serve as a home-base for their forays around the city (ibid). He wrote copious notes to L’Eplattenier about his fondness of the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, and Orsanmichele (ibid, 44). In a letter to his teacher, we see an early emergence of Le Corbusier’s later search for an adequate framework with which to analyze and understand architecture, indicated through frustration at his inability to study the Palazzo Vecchio adequately to understand the abstract power that it had over him, over and above the fine churches he had encountered. This lack of an adequate analytical framework nagged him to the point of asking his teacher if he should not rather be drawing the city’s palaces instead of its churches (ibid, 44-5).

During this trip, Jeanneret was testing and elaborating his professional discourse, which had initially been guided by L’Eplattenier and Ruskin, through critique and judgment based on the power and quality of his personal affect. The most momentous event by far came September 13, 1907, when Édouard followed the walking guide detailed by Ruskin to a Carthusian monastery on a hill outside Florence, the Charterhouse of the Val d’Ema (ibid, 46-7; 775 n. 31). This building would induce resonance across the discourses of Jeanneret’s popcycle, having powerful concurrent significance in his professional discourse as an architect, but also his family, entertainment, and community discourses. The particular blend of privacy and collectivity offered by the cloistered life of the charterhouse became a heuristic for the future of architecture in Le Corbusier’s inventive desire. The psychological efficiency of the cloister would become a model for modernity: “’I have seen, in the musical landscape of Tuscany, a modern city crowning the hill. … This ‘modern city’ dates from the fifteenth century. The radiant vision of it is always with me” (ibid, 47-48; Le Corbusier 1930, 91-2). At this point, the young Jeanneret began to step out of his position as a Regionalist architect searching for a new architecture for the Swiss Jura and began a movement toward what he would later call the “Second Machine Age.” It is at Ema in 1907 that Charles-Edouard Jeanneret first became definitively ecstatic.

Jeanneret found in the chartreuse a potent object that produced a cascade of adjacencies across the discourses of his popcycle. The idea to visit the monastery was taken from Ruskin, an instance of Jeanneret’s budding professional discourse. But the young designer immediately realized that the lessons he could learn from the chartreuse could be applied to multiple aspects of human life; the building’s legibility across different discourses indicates adjacencies of peoples’ social, economic, and emotional existence and architecture as the deployment of program and space that organizes our lives. Indeed, this building struck a chord deep in the soul of Le Corbusier, one that would only cease to resonate with his death (even then, its echoes follow us in the form of extensive ink spilled recounting and analyzing its significance to the history of Modernism).

The chartreuse as an instance of Jeanneret’s professional discourse is obvious, as Ruskin’s travel guide to the region was recommended by the young architect’s mentor, L’Eplatennier, but the building’s adjacencies in other discourses of the popcycle will need further explanation. The Family Discourse begins at birth and is developed at home as one enters orality through learning to speak (Ulmer 2003, 25). Its contents form an individual’s ethnicity, gender, and other features of identity based on the values of and interactions with one’s parents, and it takes the form of anecdotes, jokes, proverbs, etc embedded in conversation (ibid). The discourse of the Community begins when one enters school and formally enters literacy. Its contents are the concepts of nationality and history, as well as fundamental scientific methods, as administered by the local political community, and it takes the form and style of the textbook (ibid). The Entertainment Discourse starts at birth, when the individual begins learning mythologies, anxieties, dreams, and the emotional economy of social values conveyed through any legible media, in the form of all manner of narrative genres (ibid). Each discourse has its own native logic appropriate to its content and forms: the logic of the Family discourse is “common sense”, truth established through self-evidence; Community Discourse works with a general logic of scientific method and nationality, and cultural literacy “aimed at providing a common body of references or symbolic capital”; the Entertainment discourse is built upon “mytho-logic” and “dream-work”, “based on the same associative operations of condensation and displacement of terms used in aesthetic practice”, where validity and truth are determined by fashion (ibid).

Le Corbusier, writing in 1930, begins to explain the course of adjacency through his discourses supplied by the chartreuse, determining the width of the image:

The conditions of life are falsified by outmoded conceptions, we attribute false surfaces to our homes; we raise rents by two times or by five. To this cost we add that of servants and the frightful cares they cause. In our home do we have a baker to make our bread and a pastry cook to make our cakes? … We haven’t thought, we aren’t adapted; we have remained in the academic thoughts and the customs of the preindustrial age.

Here we arrive at the heart of the question of public services. It is on their precise organization that both modern planning and the modern dwelling must be founded. …

…the dwelling, the office, the workshop, the factory (architectural events that can be generalized under the simple heading of lighted floor space) will use new forms of standardization, of industrialization, of efficiency.

Let me show you by what ways, through twenty years of attentive curiosity, certitudes have come to us.

The beginning of these studies, for me, goes back to my visit to the Carthusian monastery of Ema near Florence, in 1907. In the musical landscape of Tuscany I saw a modern city crowning a hill. The noblest silhouette in the landscape, an uninterrupted crown of monks’ cells, each cell has a view on the plain, and opens on a lower level on an entirely closed garden. I thought I had never seen such a happy interpretation of a dwelling. The back of each cell opens by a door and a wicket on a circular street. This street is covered by an arcade: the cloister. Through this way the monastery services operate- prayer, visits, food, funerals.

This ‘modern city’ dates from the fifteenth century.

Its radiant vision has always stayed with me. (Le Corbusier 1991, 90-1)

In this long quote we find evidence of the chartreuse’s work on each of Le Corbusier’s basic popcycle discourses: Professional through the multitude of architectural material and inspiration supplied by the building; Family through mention of the organization of the household and the presence or absence of servants in the home, each of which have a profound impact on the functioning and daily life of the family at home, organizing the content and format of many conversations that will take place there; Community through implications in reorganizing the city, its traditional development, and its economy through mention of construction costs, profits, and the Chambers of Commerce, and also allusions to science and logic as a tool to reorganize the city and the home; Entertainment through the traditional aesthetic values attached to architecture, the inculcation through our environment of the values of the pre-industrial age.

Over the course of his life, Le Corbusier continued to use his travels to extend, test and challenge his assumptions about architecture, the city, and culture, using his inner discourses to set his itineraries, and applying the results of one paraphoric travel session to the next itinerary, and his subsequent works. It is the critical symmetry of this kind of reflexive movement that turns the traveler into a theorist, and connects each of us, to the mystical foundations of knowledge in movement through space.


  • Baker, Geoffrey. 1996. Le Corbusier - The Creative Search: The Formative Years ofCharles-Edouard Jeanneret. NY: E & FN Spon.

  • Jencks, Charles. 2000. Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture. NY: The Monacelli Press.

  • Le Corbusier. 1930. Précisions sur un etat present de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. Paris: Crès et Cie.

  • Le Corbusier. 1991. Precisions. Trans. E. Schreiber Aujame. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Petit, Jean. 1970. Le Corbusier: lui-même. Geneva: Editions Rousseau.

  • Ulmer, Gregory. 2003. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

  • Weber, Nicholas. 2008. Le Corbusier: A Life. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

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