This paper examines an aspect of Carola Giedion-Welcker’s legacy as it pertains to her profound interest in prehistoric arts and her search for what she termed ‘a greater cosmic unity’, an understanding that recognized a connection between the artifacts of prehistory and the emerging modernity of the early 20th century as expressed through sculpture and architecture. She shared this interest in the origins of the plastic arts with her husband Siegfried Giedion. Together, throughout their scholarly careers, they encountered a variety of artists who also shared their life-long search for the intrinsic nature of art: one of whom was the Swiss architect Le Corbusier.
On the 29th of July 1933, a cruise sponsored by the Congr‘s Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM founded on 28 June 1928) left Marseilles on an adventure through the Mediterranean, its destination the formal congress site at Athens, visiting en-route a variety of ancient sites including several Neolithic ruins at Gozo, Khirokitia, and the Cycladic Islands. The architect Le Corbusier recounts some of these excursions away from the confines of their shipboard meetings,
‘The respite granted to its members gives them an opportunity for personal contacts presided over by a thrilling architecture and nature, on the Acropolis in Athens, at Delphi or at Delos, at Olympia or in the Cyclades.’
The largest national group aboard the SS P?tris II, a converted English collier (a coal-mining ship), was the Swiss delegation, which included Le Corbusier and Siegfried Giedion, C.I.A.M.’s first secretary-general. On board were many of the leading figures of the Modern Movement such as Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Alvar Aalto, Christian Zervos, Ferdinand Léger, as well as a few scientists and some art historians that included Carola Giedion-Welcker. While the P?tris II may have been short on space, the close contact between the C.I.A.M.’s participants made for an engaging meeting environment. Later, these conditions were recalled by Le Corbusier,
‘That cruise ship was turned into meeting rooms, committee rooms, and secretarial offices. Yet, there was only one sound: the hissing and splashing of water along the hull; there was only one atmosphere: youthfulness, trust, modesty, and professional conscience. After those two weeks of fervent work, a precious result: The Athens Charter.’
Fifteen years later, in 1948, the start of this historic voyage would be recounted in Paris by Le Corbusier to one of his office colleagues, Jerzy Soltan. Soltan remembered Le Corbusier saying to him,
‘In the heat of the summer of 1933 we launched ourselves into the ancient waters of the Mediterranean, like Ulysses on his odyssey.’