Return of the saint
It has taken half a century and much compromise but Le Corbusier’s St Pierre church is a triumph.
In 1956, the Architectural Review published an analysis of Le Corbusier’s recently completed Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, penned by the young James Stirling. Entitled “Le Corbusier’s chapel and the crisis of rationalism”, the piece represented one devotee’s attempt to come to terms with the provocative change of direction that the master’s work had recently taken.
Strongly influenced by the surrealist movement of his adopted city, Paris, Le Corbusier in the twenties and thirties was far from the bean-counting technocrat of caricature. Nonetheless, the figure that emerged from the professional caesura of the war years was one shockingly at odds with the rationalist bent of mainstream modernism. Ronchamp spoke a cryptic, quasi-primitive language that its author had rehearsed in his paintings and sculptures of the preceding years.
Stirling described how “the immediate impression is of a sudden encounter with an unnatural configuration of natural elements such as the granite rings at Stonehenge or the dolmens at Brittany.” This was a very long way from Vers Une Architecture’s advocacy of the successive refinement of the motor car as a model that contemporary architecture could follow. Rational progression had been usurped by artistry of an avowedly subjective kind. Coming in the immediate wake of the second world war it was a potent shift — one that Stirling saw as symptomatic of “our derisive attitude towards the myth of progress, the recent belief that true progress lies in charity, welfare and personal happiness, having replaced the Victorian idea of progress as the invention and perfection of man’s tools and equipment”.
Both Ronchamp and its architect’s subsequent church at La Tourette are physically isolated buildings, unencumbered by signs of contemporary life. That detachment undoubtedly served Le Corbusier well in his attempts to imbue the buildings with mythic weight. However, in 1960 he began work on a third church, every bit as singular as these, but this time sited in an environment that was unequivocally of the 20th century. Indeed, the post-war expansion of Firminy, a mining and textiles town south of St Etienne, was modelled on an urban ideal that Le Corbusier had promoted throughout his professional life: a perforate distribution of high residential blocks set within green space. The construction of the parish church of St Pierre at the heart of Firminy-Vert therefore promised to test the occult stylings of his late architecture against the kind of rational, systematised city that, as a younger man, he had done so much to envisage.
It has taken almost half a century for that promise to be delivered. The delay was largely the product of financial difficulties that have dogged the project from its inception. Between 1960 and its architect’s death in 1965, the scheme went through at least six iterations as Le Corbusier struggled to bring it within budget. The building that has now been built corresponds pretty faithfully to his final scheme, but that design was resolved only to a scale of 1:100.
Twin skylights suggest eyes, an overscaled downpipe a nose and mouth, the ramp an arm
Honouring Le Corbusier’s intentions has therefore required a good deal of conjecture on the part of José Oubrerie, his one-time assistant for whom the construction of St Pierre has proved a life’s work. Other changes have been imposed by the far from ideal circumstances of the building’s construction. Work actually began in 1973 in accordance with documentation drawn up by Oubrerie, but lack of funds forced a halt in 1978. At that point, the building was two-thirds complete but it would be another 25 years before work resumed, after its designation as a national monument unlocked state funding. As welcome as this public investment was, it came with a proviso: the completed St Pierre would be a museum piece rather than a functioning church.
The building remains unconsecrated and its two-storey base, which was originally intended to house a parish centre and priest’s accommodation, has been assigned a new use. These floors now serve as an outpost of St Etienne’s Museum of Modern Art, hosting a permanent exhibition devoted to Le Corbusier and temporary shows of modern religious art. The switch has required the introduction of air conditioning, the upgrading of glazing to provide a sufficiently secure enclosure and adjustments to the plan to accommodate disabled access. As magisterial as I believe the completed building is, its authorship is unquestionably mixed.
The new town sits immediately above 19th century Firminy on ground that has something of the character of a natural amphitheatre. St Pierre is one of four commissions that Le Corbusier secured here through the patronage of the town’s progressive mayor, Eugène Claudius-Petit. For a site on the rim of the bowl he designed a unité while the church joins a stadium and youth club as the final part of the ensemble he composed for its centre.
These buildings are configured on two terraces which have been cut into the sloping ground. The upper terrace is occupied by a football pitch and is addressed on its downslope end by the stadium and by the bar-like youth club on the other. The lower terrace provides the setting for St Pierre. Taking the form of a 33m- high tower, it offers a vertical counterpoint to its low-lying neighbours and a focal point to the wider development. Square in footprint and oriented to the cardinal points, the base storeys provide the precisely defined foundation of a roof form so contorted as to defy ready description. It begins as an asymmetrical pyramid — the west wall is vertical, the others canted — but immediately begins to morph into something more cone-like. However, rather than allowing the mass to resolve into a point, Le Corbusier slices the top off at an angle. This truncation lends the building a pronounced orientation to the south so that it appears to turn its back on the old town and address the new.
It is worth noting that Le Corbusier’s original design, which was abandoned for reasons of expense, was considerably taller. The change lessens the building’s command over its setting, but the squatter proportions open up a number of new readings. A greater equivalence between the tower and the embanked ground from which the entrance ramp emerges is one. Indeed, standing on the high ground above the church, an even more explicitly geological reading is suggested. From here, the extraordinary landscape of the southern Auvergne is presented as a backdrop — its volcanoes offering a palpable echo of the profile of the church. There is also a distinctly physiognomic character to the principal elevation. The critic Daniel Naegele has argued that the east elevation of Ronchamp can be read as an abstracted face, the whole building as a gigantic head or skull. That association is even more powerfully communicated here: twin skylights suggest eyes, an overscaled downpipe and gutter essay a nose and mouth, the curving ramp becomes an arm held out to visitors in a gesture of welcome. As compelling as these analogies are, they are worn lightly and are far from the only ones that can be inferred. Le Corbusier has conjured a world akin to that of a cubist painting in which the profile of a guitar might elide with that of a mountain range, or a scrap of newspaper might be invested with new significance. The relationship between the church and the neighbouring stadium and youth club proves a particularly potent source of these kind of visual rhymes. Walking around the site, the youth centre’s trough-like roof, the crescent-form of the stadium and the parabolic moulding applied to the east front of the church repeatedly converge within our field of view to painterly effect. The reciprocity of things that are far away and those that are near is asserted. However, the fundamentally fugitive quality of these images is clearly important to Le Corbusier. His interest is less in an architecture of explicit symbolism than in one caught in a state of continual metamorphosis.
Stepping back into the tidy-minded vacuity of Firminy-Vert, the disjunction is almost comically immense
The principal approach from the south delivers us to the eastern end of the site where we are presented with a choice: either to access the gallery (née parish centre) through the east elevation or to climb the curving ramp that leads us to the entrance of the elevated church on the west. Taking the first option, we discover a foyer dominated by a heavily modelled column of symbolic function: it establishes a physical link between the altar above and the ground below. Reading like a theatre in the round that has been partitioned up, the plan of this level is weird in the extreme. Rooms are accessed either by tracking around the perimeter wall or by way of the internal street that bisects the building. Their aspect and dimensions differ but all are characterised to a quite tyrannical degree by their stepped section. It is however an arrangement with undeniable spatial force. The director is planning a performance of whirling dervishes here — an inspired match for the unrelenting mania of the setting.
A stair in the south-east corner connects to the priest’s accommodation — now offices and further exhibition space — before emerging beside the altar. This route, however, was intended for the clergy’s exclusive use — all worshippers were to enter the church by the external ramp. The languorously curving ramp of the Carpenter Centre — a building that was conceived over the same period as St Pierre — perhaps offers the closest precedent within Le Corbusier’s built oeuvre for this extraordinary feature. Beginning as embanked ground, the route holds us at a distance from the building’s south face before bringing us to a bridge set perpendicular to it. As we cross, the handrail on our left is exchanged for a high wall that cuts out the view of the town while the cliff-like westerly frontage suddenly looms above us on our right. Ahead, a walled porch blocks the view but provides cover for a bench sited so that beggars can address us as we climb towards them up the still sloping ground. Having negotiated this gauntlet, a hard right brings us to the enamelled doors. Entering, we find ourselves in a space that is icy cold, acoustically radiant and — if the management can be persuaded to turn off the overly intrusive artificial lighting — gloriously dark.
Through the gloom, we can make out the altar, lying on axis but — as the floor continues to slope upwards from west to east — a good metre above us. The few light sources carry a near phantasmagorical intensity. The canting easterly wall is perforated with myriad lenses which correspond to the constellation Orion. The two larger openings in the roof and one piercing the body of the tower are configured to illuminate the altar on the principal religious festivals.
Most ingeniously, the profile of the concrete gutter that wraps around the body of the tower incorporates a band of glazing. Wandering up and down in response to the changing floor level, it tracks our eye-level, establishing a horizon line which, along with the rigorous application of geometry in plan, binds this fragmentary interior into a considered whole.
Nonetheless, this remains an extraordinarily disconcerting space: in the modernist canon perhaps only the late churches of Lewerentz instil a greater sense of sublime unease. Even in the 1960s, the scheme met with resistance from members of the parish who felt that it presented an anachronistic vision of Catholicism.
That fact is still more evident today: the God that St Pierre honours is a figure of Old Testament severity. This surely is an extraordinary work of architecture; but stepping back into the tidy-minded vacuity of Firminy-Vert, the disjunction between the two worlds is almost comically immense.