Galaxy Le Corbusier: New book tells fascinating story of Czech architect František Sammer

Czech architect František Sammer has been mostly associated in his country with the construction of one of the first housing estates in the style of Socialist Realism. It is less known that Sammer worked for the greatest modern architect Le Corbusier and had friends among the most important figures of interwar architecture.

Martina Hrabová | Photo:  Radio Prague International

His fascinating life story is the subject of a new book, called Galaxy Le Corbusier, written by art historian Martina Hrabová. She borrowed the title from the famous designer Charlotte Perriand, who used it to describe Le Corbusier’s studio in the interwar period.

“It was apparently a really charismatic world of people that were connected by the same ideals, the same vision of the future and the same vision of art. I imagine it as a force that was impossible to resist. It was a world of its own, an autonomous universe.

“So I borrowed this term to go a bit further and call the group of the people from the studio a network. And it is something I prove in my book. The people in the studio remained connected throughout their whole lives. It was not just a short-term period related to their studies or practice. They established really strong bonds.”

František Sammer | Photo: © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives

One of the members of the Galaxy of Le Corbusier was the Czechoslovak architect František Sammer. How did you first come across him and what triggered your interest in him?

“It is actually a very interesting story. For many years, I was researching Czech architects who worked with Le Corbusier in Paris. When I first visited the Fondation Le Corbusier, where the whole archive of the Swiss-French architect is stored, I had a list of names I knew from Czech literature.

“It was mainly based on the memoirs of the architects, what they were saying about themselves or writing about themselves. But when I entered the records of the French archives I was really surprised that these people were in fact not that significant within the functioning of Le Corbusier’s office.

“But there was a name I had never heard of before, František Sammer, who was massively present in the records of the atelier. Compared to the others, he elaborated dozens of sketches. So I started to be curious about who he was!”

Source: Fondation Le Corbusier

How many Czechoslovak architects went through the studio at some point of their lives?

“As far as my evidence shows, it was around fifteen people. It was of course mainly during the interwar period. After the Second World War, there were two of them and after 1948, with the beginning of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia, I don’t have any evidence of a Czech architect in the studio.”

What distinguished František Sammer from the rest?

Le Corbusier | Photo: Joop van Bilsen,  ANEFO,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0

“František Sammer was significantly different because he became really important for Le Corbusier himself. Also, when he returned to Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, he did not promote himself as being a student of Le Corbusier, which the others did, although some never really worked for him. So that was something really striking about him.

“One of the really strange signs of František Sammer was that he didn’t succeed to elaborate or finish many of his own projects. So it’s difficult to study him with the help of a formal analysis of his works or through the aesthetics of his art.

František Sammer | Source:  © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives

“I think his value is in revealing the importance of people that have remained hidden to us until now. He points not only to himself as a sort of “connecting element” in the studio, but also to his colleagues who were turning Le Corbusier’s projects into reality. But until now, nobody knew what they looked like, because they were really heavily marginalised.”

You say the impulse for writing the book was the discovery of Sammer’s photographic collection in an Indian ashram in Pondicherry. How did the materials get there in the first place?

“That is a really long and adventurous story. František Sammer started his international career in the early 1930s. He went from Czechoslovakia directly to Le Corbusier’s office. After two years of practice, he really wanted to find a job and he didn’t really care where it would be.

“On the recommendation of Le Corbusier and other friends, he moved to the Soviet Union, to Moscow, where he worked on big constructions and co-supervised the construction of Le Corbusier’s Centrosoyuz building.

Antonín Raymond | Source:  public domain

“From there, he was forced to leave in 1937 because of the purges, and he found another job in Japan. He worked for Antonín Raymond, a Czech and later American architect.

“With Raymond, he left Japan for Pondicherry in India because Raymond had a big commission there for a dormitory for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It was a long journey, but Sammer was apparently taking his things with him throughout the whole time.

“And this collection of photographs, along with other archival documentation stayed there when Sammer joined the British Army in India in 1942.

“According to evidence from the archives, he was really convinced that he would return to the spiritual community and continue with his architectural job.

Sammer’s photographic collection | Photo: Martina Hrabová

“But he had no idea what awaited him on the battlefield. He was seriously injured in Burma and from there he was transported to London and to sanatoriums in Great Britain and never got the chance to return to India. So the box with his things remained there for more than 70 years.”

What do these materials reveal about Sammer?

“For me, the main discovery were the photographs, because they were lacking in all of the archives I went through before. I was studying Sammer’s papers in Paris, in the Czech Republic and all over the world, where he was corresponding with friends, and there were no pictures. And all of a sudden there was a box with 500 pictures!

František Sammer  (right) | Photo:  © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives

“The biggest finding is that these photos, despite being a bit strange, because they are rather snapshots than beautiful artistic pictures, prove that the people from le Corbusier’s circle were connected and there was an immense vitality in their connections even after they all left Paris.

“They moved to their countries of origin or to some other countries where they got jobs, to the US, Japan, Soviet Union or Spain, but they still kept in touch via letters and they were sharing these strange photographs.

Photograph from Granada | Source:  © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives

“Very often is very hard to see what is there, because it is blurred and in very bad technical quality. But they were sharing this visual documentation to remind themselves of important moments in their lives.”

It must have been quite a challenge to identify all the people and places in the photographs.

“Absolutely. It was crazy. It was an endless and difficult job and it would not be possible to identify it without knowledge of the massive correspondence.

“That’s why I think it remained untouched there until now because for someone who is not aware of the context it is just a mess of blurred pictures. There is nothing really striking at the first sight.”

František Sammer  (third from the left) | Source:  City of Plzeň

Sammer was involved in many significant projects in the history of modern architecture. What do we know about his own architectural work?

“That is a tricky question. There is no doubt he was a talented architect. He had many skills. He was able to improvise on the spot, to develop the necessary technical solutions on the construction site.

“But during the times he had the liberty to work, he was always working for someone, he was always the second one who was making happen projects of other great architects.

“So he stands behind these significant constructions, like Le Corbusier’s Salvation Army, or Pavillon Suisse in Paris or Le Corbusier’s own apartment house in Paris or Antonín Raymond Golconde, which is actually one of the first modern buildings made of concrete in India.

The modernist building of Golconde in Pondicherry  (India) | Photo: Martina Hrabová

“But at the moment he was ready to start his own career there was the outbreak of the Second World War and then he got injured and he ended up totally exhausted in England.

“He made a fatal decision to return to Czechoslovakia, where he was persecuted for his international career, for living in Paris, for working for Le Corbusier, and also for being awarded by the British Army for fighting in Burma.”

“And then he made a fatal decision to return to Czechoslovakia, because he was a leftist and he believed he could contribute to making society and people better in his own country.

“That was really a fatal decision. He was persecuted for his international career, for living in Paris, for working for Le Corbusier, and also for being awarded by the British Army for fighting in Burma. So he entered a really difficult chapter in his life.”

And do we know whether he ever considered leaving Czechoslovakia?

František Sammer in Czechoslovakia  (4th from right) | Photo:  City of Plzeň

“That is a question. He definitely wanted to stay in touch with his foreign colleagues and he definitely wanted to return to India throughout the rest of his life. But it was just not possible.

“He was locked in the country under the totalitarian regime. He founded a family and he was actually also sick. So it is possible that he didn’t have the strength to continue in this intense career.

“But in his mind, he definitely remained a part of this global group of people. He lost the opportunity for cooperation and for meeting them and he definitely missed it.

František Sammer  (right) | Photo:  Czech Television

“It is interesting that his colleagues from the Le Corbusier Circle corresponded about his life path until the 21st century. They just didn’t understand why he returned to Czechoslovakia and why he married a woman who didn’t speak English. So for them, it was a tragedy. But as far as I found out, he was capable of being happy even in very restricted circumstances.”

What role did he play in the history of Czech architecture?

“After his return to Czechoslovakia, a completely different chapter in his life began, because he constructed one of the first buildings in the style of Socialist Realism.

“I would say it was just a regular job for him. He had the skills to do it, but not the conviction. In his heart, he was a constructivist, a modernist architect.

“But he entered the history of Czech architecture with this piece. So, in the history of Czech architecture, until the recent discoveries, he was for decades considered one of the co-founders of Czech Socialist Realism in Czechoslovakia.

The book Galaxy Le Corbusier | Photo: Jakub Hrab

“He also somehow managed to avoid the pressure on the construction of typified panel houses and he focused for the rest of his life on urbanism, which was also very strongly influenced by his experience with Le Corbusier.

“He was one of the authors, with his long-life friend Jindřich Krise, of the modernisation of the urban plan of the city of Plzeň, which was his birth town, and many other urban plans which were unfortunately never turned into reality.”

Your book is the result of more than ten years of research all over the world. What was the biggest challenge you encountered during the process? Because your research seems as adventurous as František Sammer’s life….

“You describe it very well. When I look back, I feel I sort of joined the novel of František Sammer with all its romanticism and sense of freedom.

Martina Hrabová | Photo: Czech Television

“And just like him, I also met many interesting and nice people. And when I had crises, and I had several serious ones, they remained with me. It was something unexpected for me, because they were professional relationships.

“So somehow I experienced something similar to Sammer. That once you are bonded with someone by spirit, or conviction or your understanding of world, it is stronger than some superficial signs of career or power or performance.

“I had some periods when I was unable to work very effectively and I was quite moved that all the supervisors and professors who were consulting my work remained with me despite this fact. So there were many really strong moments.”

Pondicherry,  India | Photo: Bryce Edwards,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

One of the moments that came to my mind was when you caught the Dengue fever in India and you had to leave the country.

“Yes, India was too strong for me. It’s a really intense country. I am really grateful that I survived it, but also that I could be there. I had some health issues which also had an impact on my immune system after I returned.

“That is what I referred to when I said I had a period of time when I was really sick. But despite this disability, I didn’t lose my close colleagues who supported me during the most difficult times. So I think it is thanks to them that the book was published.”

“So she let me drive 3,000 miles to her place just to tell me that she had changed her mind and she would never show me the letters.

This is the beauty of research and history, that the story is never finished!”

Are there still some blank spaces to be filled in your research?

“There are definitely so many blank spaces, because history is always a matter of interpretation. It is a lottery. I was once told by a woman I was in touch with for two years that she had letters for me from the times when Sammer was in Paris.

“So she let me drive 3,000 miles to her place just to tell me that she had changed her mind and she would never show me the letters. And I thought: OK, this is the lottery of history. I have no chance, I can’t force anyone.

“So I am positive that there are so many letters which are just not meant to be discovered now. This is the beauty of research and history, that the story is never finished!”

The book Galaxy Le Corbusier | Photo:  Czech Television

Your book was published just a few months ago, but it has already been sold out. Will there be a reprint any time soon? And are you planning to publish the book in English or in other languages?

“Absolutely. I think it is necessary to publish this book in English because it speaks to an international audience and it is based on research I did all over the world. I am now searching for a foreign publisher. And concerning the book being sold out, I very much hope that there will be a reprint.

“I was recently awarded the Josef Krása Award for this book, which is a great honour for me, because it is one of the biggest prizes in art history in this country.

Photo: Jakub Hrab

“So I just very much hope that all these signs that the book was well received will convince the current publisher to make a reprint, because at the moment you can only get the book in libraries.”

Why do you think Czech readers have found the book so interesting? What is it that resonated with them?

“I don’t know! For me it was a great and lovely surprise. I am very happy for it, but I have no idea why it is so. Maybe it is the adventure, or the discovery of an unknown Czech with his flaws.

“He is not perfect, he is not a genius, but he was close to many geniuses. And he enables us to get close us to the big scene of international avant-garde, of great projects, but in a human or even intimate way.”

“I think that he shows us that even in case of the big masters like Le Corbusier, about whose greatness and authorship there is no doubt, we need to keep in mind that he was working in a team.”

For you, what is the biggest legacy of František Sammer?

“I think that he shows us that even in case of the big masters like Le Corbusier, about whose greatness and authorship there is no doubt, we need to keep in mind that he was working in a team. He had a team of very talented people who were making his ideas happen. That is, I think, the main message.

“František Sammer sort of points out to this fact and he also shows us that the human element is important, that it’s all about people and that you are important even if you are not Le Corbusier.

Photos from Moscow | Photo:  © Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives

“Because the history of these great men is written and now we are gaining the space for understanding the greater context. And here I really need to point out the active presence of women, because František Sammer was in fact a feminist.

“He was interested in women in the sense of cooperation and he understood himself as an equal to them. I think this is also an important part of his legacy.”