Ted Cullinan revisits Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel and finds that, while its surroundings may have changed, the building’s power remains undiminished
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, the end of a lovely October day. I’m sitting on the stone pyramid at Ronchamp, built with stones from a chapel destroyed in 1944 to commemorate the countless Maquis partisans and paratroopers who died recapturing this southern outcrop of the Vosges mountains in eastern France.
In front of me is the east front of Le Corbusier’s chapel, which replaced a previous chapel destroyed in the second world war. To my left is the grass roof of Corb’s unbelievably sophisticated yet naïve Hotel des Pelerins, which visually supports and finishes the edge of the small smooth grass plateau on which the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, the pyramid, and a set of bells, all sit. Around the other edges of this plateau are trees with a few gaps in them that allow views of rolling hills to the south, and the Vosges to the north and the east.
This is exactly where I sat in October 1955, aged 24, after I had cycled from London along wet pavé, through dirty villages and some dungy countryside with big splashy camions going by closely, and DS19s (for car buffs) going by fast and futuristically. I was dressed in flappy khaki shorts and an ex-army top. I was exhausted, sweaty and filthy of course, having pushed my bike up the kilometre track that led from Ronchamp’s (then) village to the chapel at the top of the hill. But I was also elated by my walk around the outside of Corb’s masterwork and my exploration of the unbelievably moving interior. And I was a Catholic in those days! So I might have been a bit stoned then by this combination of circumstances.
Today’s repeat sit, so many years later, is a good test and here is the answer to that test. Yes, Le Corbusier’s chapel in its setting towards the southern end of the Vosges is still the most profoundly moving and consummate work of architectural art of the 20th century — a century that includes Picasso, Stravinsky and so many others to love.
So here I am again at the eastern end of the chapel, the backdrop to outside masses on feast days. This is in full shadow, but the composition of altar, cross, pulpit and revolving Virgin and child (who else could possibly pull that off?), all together under the giant porch formed by the dipping concrete roof, is so perfect that even in shadow it contributes greatly to this utterly lovely, historically profound hilltop. I return a day later to the little stone pyramid to look at the now strongly sunlit, and therefore powerfully modelled, east end of the chapel and I am still thrilled.
The profound and calming joy I feel as I sit here is so fulfilling that it supersedes the many jarring notes that accompanied my approach to the chapel on this revisit.
To get to Saint Notre Dame du Haut, you now travel up a neat paved road that rises and falls and gently curves up along the line of the historic dirt track I walked up in 1955, till you abruptly arrive at a white concrete car park, which here crosses at right angles Corb’s original Ronchamp approach path, shut off now by a belligerent, sliding galvanised gate.
Straight ahead is the whitish concrete path to the new visitor centre with a crass whitish concrete wall to the right so that you have to do what most visitor centres make you do, pay up before being allowed to the other side of the wall and back onto the master’s approach path. Nearby are more crass whitish concrete walls, one of which is covered in the names of the people who participated in this visitor centre exercise. In the distance, above all this jagged whitish concrete, Le Corbusier’s chapel sits powerful and serene in its perfectly well-balanced way, of raw concrete and white-painted sprayed-on render. So what can all these white walls and roads do but look utterly jagged and trivial with the chapel so close?
Now let me say that the new buildings by Renzo Piano Building Workshop are most beautifully detailed, with smooth concrete, power-floated shiny floors and a two-layered glass front on the south faces to allow solar-protective plants to grow in the gap. The convent for the sisters of Poor Clare also uses lightweight corrugated metal roofs to protect the nuns’ cells on the lower level, contrastingly and beautifully. And its position around the corner and further down the hill than in Piano’s first proposal is surely not bad where it is.
But the visitor centre, similarly but slightly less subtly composed, is, in as much as it is part of the jagged entrance to the site, much less satisfactory. But why are they both here? Surely a simple cable railway could bring you up through the woods from a car park and visitor centre in (the now town of) Ronchamp and drop you on Le Corbusier’s diagonal approach, while the top third of the present roadway could be grassed over to make a lovely walk up (lots of careful people walk up even today). Then the convent containing the delightful and very helpful sisters could stay or not. Maybe our gentler descendants might consider some such solution.
Having negotiated the obstacle course required by mammon, one finds oneself back on Corb’s approach path, which goes on up onto the plateau, past the Hotel des Pelerins, towards the greatest of the three towers, which stands to the left of the painted processional door, and then round the west end of the chapel and in.
On my return visit the chapel interior is as moving as ever — a wondrously calm place within white walls beneath the great curved sagging concrete roof and lit four ways: by a crack where the walls arrive at the roof; by the astonishing varied light entering through the south wall; by the light that descends down the three towers; and by other cracks and dots in the west wall.
There are no windows, just various light sources making atmosphere.
But I do have some quibbles.
If the three top-lit side chapels are ever to be as sublime again as they originally were, the glass needs cleaning at the top of the three towers and the now grubby interior walls need painting white again. Also, the choir should again sing from the inside/outside balcony Corb provided instead of huddled along a wall on naff bits of temporary furniture with a transportable electronic organ as they did at the mass I attended. And the priest or others should preach from the original pulpit rather than from a temporary one erected for each service.
And they might consider, too, repainting the white interior of the chapel itself and providing a little lift inside the two-storey sacristry to reactivate the interior pulpit and the lovely inside/outside choir balconies.
I know from my own work that architects who are under 60 are inclined to make stairs that old people cannot get up. Corb was no exception, even in later life.
They might also tone down the excessive floodlighting of the chapel at night, which makes it look like a cruise liner on the hill. Surely just the tower with a hint of something beside it would do. And then we might recover the whole of this little paradise in the Vosges.
Fifty-seven years ago I cycled home by a longer route to get a feel for the Vosges and I encountered a dusting of snow. Today, I came and will go by TGV and it’s a blissfully sunny Indian summer morning. But Ronchamp is just the same.
Cullinan draws Ronchamp
Ted Cullinan explores the chapel in drawings and words
It is an abstract, asymmetrically balanced, partly hollow-sided object from the outside and an abstract, symmetrically balanced, lit space within.
If one starts with the great processional, occasionally used, enamelled pivoting door on the south side, one finds to the west a high tower, and on the eastern side the low, stable, wide end of the south wall which narrows its base and gains height as it moves eastwards. This is the means through which strong, joyful south light enters the interior, controlled in quality and colour by many glazed openings. This wall ends high, exactly vertical and thin. It is further enhanced by a slit between it and the east wall, which has statue, altar, choir lofts and pulpits on both its sides — inside and out — for small and large gatherings.
In turn, the east wall diminishes in height towards its right-angled corner junctions with the north wall, which is planar until it turns 180 degrees into the building, and over itself, to create a towered lighting device for a chapel within the curve.
This stops to start again with another, mirrored device of tower and chapel so that the outer sides of the two curves, towers, lighting devices and chapels, create the main or unusual entrance to the place within.
From the second tower, the enclosing wall follows a continuous tense curve from north through west to south. It drops to a low point where the roof water spouts off then rises again to end by again bending through 180 degrees above and over itself.
This creates not only the largest of the three towers, but the largest side chapel within, and a west flank to which is the low, wide part of the south wall, which is where this description began.
All these walls exist between the detached canopy of the roof and the floor, which is level and sloping in parts, in palpable counterpoint to roof and walls. The roof overrides the vital south and east walls but is held within the other walls and the three towers. The floor is all contained within.
All the graceful details and pieces are scaled and ordered to create the most controlled finite, abstract, multivalent, inventive, and calming lit space that I know as a masterwork, created towards the end of a life in architecture.
Text and drawings by kind permission of the RSA, London
Chapel at the centre of controversy
Le Corbusier’s Pilgrimage Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp marked a radical departure in his oeuvre. It was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church, and overseen by father Marie-Alain Couturier, who was also involved in Le Corbusier’s later commission to design La Tourette monastery.
The chapel, which replaced a church bombed in the second world war, responded to the hilltop site with its dramatic views of the Vosges mountains.
Its distinctive oversailing concrete roof is supported on thick columns embedded within the thick walls. The interior is dominated by the drama of the south wall, with its mass of windows filled with different coloured glass. There is more decoration in the enamelled sheet steel main door, which pivots to open.
As well as the main chapel, Ronchamp contains three smaller top-lit chapels — including the well-known red chapel, named after the intense colour of its walls.
The chapel confused and shocked the architectural great and good who flocked to see it when completed, according to critic William Curtis. In his book Modern Architecture since 1900, he reports that Pevsner complained of its “irrationality” while James Stirling was upset by its “mannerism” and questioned whether it should influence the course of modern architecture.
More than half a century later, it was again at the centre of controversy after a visitor centre and convent for the dwindling population of Poor Clare nuns were completed last year by Renzo Piano Building Workshop further down the hill from the chapel.
This has been widely criticised for destroying the original approach route to the chapel, amid unease at a perceived growing commercialisation of the visitor experience.
Interview by Pamela Buxton. Pictures by Edward Tyler