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Built to replace a chapel destroyed in the Second World War, Notre Dame du Haut is representative of Le Corbusier's late style in which he divested himself of the classical Modernist obsession with clean lines and machine-finishes and embraced a more primitivizing aesthetic coupled with clearly hand-touched materials. Jean-Louis Cohen observes that, "light and shadow now became instruments for sculpting space" and what is true at Ronchamp that isn't true of most Modernist attempts at designing after the manner of Le Corbusier is that the sense of space and the quiet respectfulness of the design reflects true sensitivity to the needs of the structure- liturgical considerations as well as devotional ones. Ronchamp shows the ability of a true master architect to capture the spirit of a place and concretize it. It is a building that may favorably compare to other ecclesiastical masterworks from other eras and not suffer by that comparison.
The Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut, a shrine for the Catholic Church at Ronchamp was built for the reformist Church looking to continue its relevancy yet uphold its legacy. Warning against decadence, reformers within the Church looked to renew its spirit by embracing modern art and architecture as representative concepts. Father Couturier, who would also sponsor Le Corbusier for the La Tourette commission, steered the unorthodox project to completion in 1954.
This work, like several others in Le Corbusier’s late oeuvre, departs from his principles of standardization and the machine aesthetic outlined in Vers une architecture. It is interesting to note though, that even in this project, the structural design of the roof was inspired by the engineering of airfoils.
The chapel is clearly a site-specific response. By Le Corbusier’s own admission, it was the site that provided an irresistible genius locifor the response, with the horizon visible on all four sides of the hill and its historical legacy for centuries as a place of worship.
This historical legacy woven in different layers into the terrain, from the Romans and sun-worshippers before them, to a cult of the Virgin in the Middle Ages, right through to the modern church and the fight against the German occupation. Le Corbusier also sensed a sacral relationship of the hill with its surroundings, the Jura mountains in the distance and the hill itself, dominating the landscape.
The nature of the site would result in an architectural ensemble that has many similitudes with the Acropolis, starting from the ascent at the bottom of the hill to architectural and landscape events along the way, before finally terminating at the sanctum sanctorum itself, the chapel.
The building itself is a comparatively small structure enclosed by thick walls, with the upturned roof supported on columns embedded within the walls. In the interior, the spaces left between the wall and roof, as well as asymmetric light from the wall openings serve to further reinforce the sacral nature of the space and buttress the relationship of the building with its surroundings.
In the final analysis, this project was almost the anti-basilica. The roof vaults upwards to the heavens, yet the walls are as dense as a fortress. The perforations become holy portals of light - that in contrast to the light and airy feeling of a churches stained glass windows - these gun turret style windows allow huge beams of light to penetrate deep into the space unadulterated as it were. The spires read as silos while the play of light in the interior is absolutely stunning. As if by divine energy the contrast of shadows vs the light portals begins to read as if a special message or code is being sent in need of deciphering. The true pastor is Le Corbusier for we know he is close to his own god in his own way...he has a message to spread - that of divine inspiration and ultimate creativity. This minimalist approach is perhaps austere in color and warmth yet utterly powerful in spreading the message of the beauty of the simplicity of the meditative state free of obsession with acquiring things. That the sense of place and community the church could provide was more important than how lavishly it was adorned with decorative ornament and gold. In fact, for Corbusier and Couturier - the power of the church lay not in the religious leader himself but rather in the gathering of people who intended to better themselves and their fellow man through charity, mindfulness, forgiveness and compassion. Unlike the traditional space of worship - symmetry is broken at every turn. No window is the repeated, no portal is replicated. The structure itself says accept me in my impefections, in my raw and natural beauty, in my emptiness, in my simplicity, in my unpretentious ways. Le Corbusier truly interpreted the wishes of Couturier to create a special place with a narrative of the essence of man and his basic need to reflect on his existence and to think of from whence he has come and where he is going. - Inson Wood of Inson Dubois Wood LLC www.insonwood.com