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Name   Notre Dame du Haut
     
Architects   LE CORBUSIER
     
Date   1954
     
Address   Ronchamp, Haute-Saône, France
     
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Description  

Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut (1956) stands on a hill overlooking the village of Ronchamp, France, just miles from the Swiss border. A pilgrimage site since the 13th century, the building now receives as many students of architecture as worshipers of the Virgin Mary, to whom it is dedicated. Although it is now considered one of the masterpieces of modern architecture and a landmark work in Le Corbusier’s formidable oeuvre, the building’s peaceful hilltop setting belies a controversial history.

The courting of Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887) began in early 1950, when the task of rebuilding what remained of a war-wrecked chapel on Bourlémont hill was designated to La Société Immoblière (development corporation) de Notre-Damedu-Haut. The corporation’s original intention was to restore what remained of the existing chapel, which had been destroyed by German bombing in 1944. After reviewing the costs of restoration, however, it became clear to members of the corporation that complete reconstruction was a more sound decision. In need of an architect, the group turned to the Commission d’Art Sacré, the body of the French Church that made such recommendations, and specifically to two local members of the commission—Canon Ledeur of Besançon (the commission’s secretary) and François Mathey—for suggestions on whom best to solicit for the new design. There was little doubt that they would nominate Le Corbusier.

Skeptical about a project for the Catholic Church, Le Corbusier, who was raised a Protestant, initially refused the offer to submit drawings for the chapel. Just a few months earlier, his design for a subterranean basilica at Sainte-Baume had been rejected, and it was no secret that the architect remained bitter about what he perceived as the Church’s lack of vision. However, his interest was piqued on learning more about Ronchamp. The hilltop had been home to a third-century B.C. pagan temple and a number of different structures dating as far back as the 14th century A.D., when church records reveal worshipers first flocking to the site. Informed of the sanctity of the spot, Le Corbusier made his first visit to Ronchamp in June 1950. After many hours spent walking and sketching the hillside, the concept of building on the significant site became more appealing, and the architect began to reconsider.

It was undoubtedly the support and friendship of Ledeur, Mathey, and their colleague clergyman Pierre Marie Alain Couturier that led Le Corbusier to accept the commission and allowed him to carry out the controversial design. All three were leaders of a movement that aimed to revive the French Church through the application of contemporary art and architecture. Together, the trio offered Le Corbusier free rein, and, not surprisingly, Le Corbusier found it impossible to refuse.

The commission left him with a singular opportunity to manifest his belief in the integral relationship between architecture and nature and between nature and religious experience. His career and reputation established, the decision to accept the job was also in keeping with a resolution to take on only work with a personal resonance. The project at Ronchamp satisfied the architect on all counts.

The construction of Notre-Dame-du-Haut began in 1953, after the Besançon Commission d’Art Sacré approved a refined scheme for the building. The building was constructed of walls of sprayed untreated concrete (béton brut or gunnite) and whitewashed with a coat of plaster to leave a rough surface. In fact, the use of concrete was as much a pragmatic decision as an aesthetic one: Le Corbusier recognized the difficulty of transporting bulky materials up the hillside and the consequent fact that he would “have to put up with sand and cement.”

The chapel’s sweeping, earthen-colored roof—composed of a pair of parallel six-centimeter concrete shells—contrasts in both color and texture with the coarse, bright-white walls. Likened to everything from a nun’s habit to a ship’s prow, the form of the roof was consciously designed by the architect with a crab’s shell in mind. The load is not carried by the walls themselves, as it appears to be, but by 16 pillars embedded in the north and south walls. The building’s two principal facades orient toward the south and the east and are separated by a pinched wall that swiftly rises as it moves toward the corner. The south facade, with its gently sloping wall punctured by a series of openings for stained glass, holds the chapel’s main entrance. Ranging in shape from small slots to deep recesses, the windows reflect the depth of the wall and create a mosaic of light on the interior. Le Corbusier’s determination to employ this design element is apparent in his earliest conceptual sketches, but the final design became far more restrained. Adjacent to the wall, a two-ton enameled steel door bears the abstracted image of a giant open hand, a welcoming to those entering the chapel.

Although the architect claimed that the “requirements of religion have had little effect on the design,” the eastern facade was specifically created to accommodate an outdoor chapel for 10,000 worshipers, the focal point of the annual pilgrimage masses at the hilltop.

The west facade, the only blind facade on the building, features a double-barrel gutter that runs rainwater into a receiving pool at ground level (rain collection was part of the program given to the architect by the parish). The rain pool contains three pyramids and a cylinder, all in béton brut—a sculptural composition vaguely reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s roof garden for the Marseilles Unite d’Habitation (1947–53). These geometric elements provide textural and formal contrast to the gentle bulge of the outside wall of the chapel’s confessional. The west facade curves around to the north, where a pair of towers are separated by the visitors’ entrance.

On entering the chapel, light pierces through the south wall into the darkened space. Punched through the wall’s thick membrane, clear windows offer a blurred view of the landscape beyond, painted panes pay tribute to the Virgin Mary, and colored glass filters light throughout the central space. Le Corbusier relieved the weight of the roof on the interior by separating the south and east walls from the ceiling with a narrow strip of light. The floor follows the natural slope of the hillside leading down toward the altar, which is situated beneath the highest point in the chapel. Three interior side chapels offer additional spaces for private services. All are placed in the bases of the chapel’s periscope-like towers and benefit from the dramatically filtered light that pours down the towers’ shafts.

Le Corbusier conceived of Ronchamp as a three-dimensional work of sculpture to be viewed from all sides and intended visitors to follow what he described as a “promenade architecturale” in order to capture a series of "événements plastiques” (plastic events) when approaching the building and entering its spaces. Le Corbusier’s concept of architectural procession was clearly influenced by the architecture of the ancient Greeks and particularly by the staging of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis—the prototypical sanctuary atop a hill and the architect’s interpretive model for Ronchamp.

Even before it opened, the building and the architect were mercilessly attacked by critics, the Church, and the citizens of Ronchamp. The chapel was many things to its critics: a highly irrational building, a step backward for the Modern movement, and a nod to archaic technology dressed in modern appliqué. However, supporters saw it as an example of plastic poetry modified by the architect’s rationalism, a logical progression in the development of the modernist idiom, and a place of intense beauty and feeling—a bold return to the architect’s spiritual roots.

EUGENIA BELL

 

Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.

 

Further Reading

Gans, Deborah, The Le Corbusier Guide, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Architectural Press, and London: Architectural Press, 1987; revised edition, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000

Pauly, Daniele, Le Corbusier: La Chapelle de Ronchamp; The Chapel at Ronchamp (bilingual French-English edition), Basel and Boston: Birkhäuser, and Paris: Fondation le Le Corbusier, 1997

     
     
     
     
     
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