PRINT April 1987


the Acropolis

The following are prepublication extracts from three forthcoming books. The first is Le Corbusier’s The Journey to the East, the travel diary that he kept during his first journey through Central and Eastern Europe, at the age of 24. Edited and annotated by Ivan Zaknic, and translated by Zaknic in collaboration with Nicole Pertuiset, it was in May 1987 by the MIT Press, in Cambridge, Mass., and London, England, at 272 pages, with 84 black-and-white illustrations. ($19.95)

TO SEE THE ACROPOLIS is a dream one treasures without ever expecting to realize it. I don’t really know why this hill harbors the essence of artistic thought. I can appreciate the perfection of these temples and realize that nowhere else are they so extraordinary; and a long time ago I accepted the fact that this place should be the repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art. Why this architecture and no other? I can well accept that according to logic,everything here is resolved along an unsurpassable formula; but why is it that taste—or rather the heart that guides people and dictates their beliefs despite their tendency to ignore it at times—why is it still drawn to the Acropolis at the foot of temples? This is for me an inexplicable problem. For how much have I also been enraptured by the works of other cultures, other ages, other places! Yet why must I, like so many others, name the Parthenon the undeniable Master as it looms up from its stone base, and yield, even with anger, to its supremacy? . . .

The enclosing wall at the top of the hill binds the steps of the temples from which their diversely spaced columns are thrust into the sky. Down the slope of the hill, steps leading to the Parthenon are cut out of the rock itself, offsetting a first barrier. But huge marble steps hang over them, a real obstacle to the approach of man. Priests came out of the cella, sensing the bosom of mountains behind them and sideways, and, under the portico, they would cast a horizontal glance above the propylea at the sea and at the distant mountains it washes.

In the middle of the estuary at the bottom of which stands a temple, the sun charts its course until dusk, and in the sultry heat of the evening its disc touches the ground on the very axis of the temple. The crown of stone that marks the bounds of the plateau has that ability to dispel any inkling of life. . . .

Physically, the impression is that of a most profound inspiration that expands your chest. It is like an ecstasy that pushes you onto the bare rock devoid of its old slab paving and, out of joy and admiration, throws you from the Temple of Minerva to the Temple of Erechtheum, and from there to the Propylea. From beneath this portico, the Parthenon can be seen on its domineering block, casting in the distance its horizontal architrave and facing this concerted landscape with its front like a shield. The friezes still remaining above the cella show agile horsemen racing. I see them with my myopic eyes, way up there, as clearly as if I were touching them, because the depth of their reliefs is so well proportioned to the wall that supports them.

The eight columns obey a unanimous law, soaring from the ground, not at all appearing to have been placed section by section by man, but instead giving the impression that they rise from the innermost depths of the earth; and the violent upsurge of their fluted surface brings to a height which the eye cannot estimate the smooth band of the architrave that rests on its abacus. The austere aggregate of metopes and triglyphs under the riveting of guttae carries the eye to the left corner of the temple, up to the farthest column of the opposite side, enabling the beholder to seize at a glance a single block, a gigantic prism of marble cut from bottom to top with the rectitude of clear mathematics and the precision that a machinist brings to his labor. Yet the western front with its peak projecting in the middle of the space—in harmony with the mountains, the sea, and the sky—strengthens the facade and its immutable orientation.

I had thought it possible to compare this marble to new bronze, hoping that, in addition to the color so described, this word would suggest the pronounced luster of this substantial mass fixed in place with the inexorability of an oracle. In the face of the unexplainable intensity of this ruin, increasingly an abyss separates the soul which feels from the mind which measures. . . .

Get down flat on your stomach in front of a shaft of the Propylea and examine its foundation. First of all, you are upon paved ground whose horizontality is as absolute as a theory. Made of huge slabs, the alabasterlike mass is set also upon an artificial ground, a deep substructure or, better, a daring hoist. The base of the shaft, carved with twenty-four flutes, is as untarnished as the admiration you derive from it. The slab, chiseled all around like a bowl, reveals a difference in level of two or maybe three millimeters. This subtle detail executed two thousand years ago—a halo marking the base—is still perceptible, and as fresh and flawless as if the sculptor had only yesterday carried away the hammer and chisel that shaped this marble.