During my architecture studies I did not fully understand or appreciate this building. There were few books or photos available at the time, which made it even more difficult. It wasn’t until I visited and physically experienced it for myself that I understood the power and the sensitivity of this architectural work.
It was 1991 and earlier in the day I had already been to the Vitra Design Museum by Frank Gehry less than 2 hours away in Weil-am-Rhein. (Gehry credits Le Corbusier’s building as a direct influence on his first European project.)
The entire visit to Notre Dame du Haut a Ronchamp is a journey – from the carpark, past the ticket entry, up the hill, around the building, then inside, and back out and around again. Each step reveals more – more of the composition, the shape, the reflected light, the materiality, the openings, the many ways that light is filtered, the space, the volume, and the experience – all combining to create one of the most special architectural experiences you are ever likely to encounter.
I stayed for 5 hours, walking, sitting, observing, photographing, learning and experiencing the totality of what was there. I knew I might never have the opportunity to return, so I needed to learn as much as possible from that one opportunity.
In his book Le Corbusier: Architect of the Twentieth Century, Kenneth Frampton writes: ‘When Le Corbusier was first approached to design the Chapel of Notre Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp, his impulse was to decline… Undeterred, two religious leaders, Canon Lucien Ledeur and Père Alain Couturier, urged him to accept the challenge. “We do not have much to offer you,” Ledeur told him, “but we have this: a wonderful setting and the possibility to go all the way. I do not know whether you are committed to building churches, but if you should build one, then the conditions offered by Ronchamp are ideal. This is not a lost cause: you will be given free rein to create what you will.”‘
Fortunately for all of us, Le Corbusier did accept, and create he did.
The open-air altar faces the hill on which pilgrim’s gather at certain times of the year.
A stepped ziggurat off to the side of the new chapel was constructed from the rubble of the previous church that was destroyed during World War II. It is a memorial to the soldiers who fought on this site in 1944.
A visit here is not about being religious. It is about how architectural expression can create such a powerful experience through space, form, materiality, composition and light.
I picked up a small guide book about the building while I was there.
And there is a great Le Corbusier Guide by Deborah Gans first published in 1987 that provides excellent information on finding Corbusier buildings. It now appears to be out of print, but if you hunt around it you may find a second-hand or electronic copy.
Architect: Le Corbusier
Photographer: Stephen Varady (scans from slides)
Review: Fondation Le Corbusier
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